Diversification provides boost for Color Ink Inc.

Two years ago, Todd Meissner attended a trade conference where he saw a demonstration of a structural paper material called Falconboard that his family’s printing, packaging and communications company, Color Ink Inc., had never used before.

The company president also had four children in college and had moved countless pieces of furniture into their dorm rooms and apartments. Meissner saw the potential to create much lighter basic student furniture.

“I knew that that was something parents would have an interest in if we could execute on the concept,” Meissner said.

The creative team at Sussex-based Color Ink developed the company’s new product line using the honeycomb material, and Color Ink launched a new consumer products division called FunDeco LLC in 2011.

In an industry that has struggled to adjust to the digital age, Meissner has taken a creative approach to generating new revenue streams such as FunDeco.

“In general, our industry has really taken it on the chin because now office copiers and printers have become so sophisticated that some companies are printing their own promotional materials,” he said.

Steve Pflughoeft, press operator, checks the color of a printed product.

Companies are also directing people to their websites instead of investing in printed marketing materials. Color Ink saw a 25-percent drop in sales from 2008 to 2009 and is still working its way back to the $30 million revenue it had in 2007.

“Printing is viewed as kind of a commodity, and when the recession hit…companies made a conscious decision not to print as many materials,” Meissner said.

The way forward

Since Meissner returned to the company in 2010 from a hiatus, he has been focused on the company’s path forward.

“What can we do that’s going to solidify us for the future and separate us from our competitors?” Meissner said he asked then.

And with that, Color Ink entered the consumer products and packaging spaces, growing markets it could rely on.

Targeted to college students, the FunDeco products include desks, chairs, side tables, coffee tables, storage, white boards, wall decals and step stools, as well as serving centers and bean bag toss for tailgating. The décor comes in a variety of school colors and logos, including seven University of Wisconsin campuses and Marquette University.

FunDeco also can customize the serving centers with alternative designs like tiki bars and makes children’s-themed versions of some items.

“We can be very competitive in producing those and we’re staffed very well to produce these products,” Meissner said. “It’s been a learning curve for us because we’ve never produced any good that were actually sold to a consumer.”

Today, the division has more than 90 NCAA licenses and several Major League Baseball licenses. Its products are sold in more than 30 college bookstores across the country.

Several big box retailers are also interested in selling FunDeco products, Meissner said.

“We’re not making money at it, but what’s interesting is the residential sales that we’ve gotten from our retail clients,” he said.

The honeycomb material used to make FunDeco products is also useful for Color Ink’s dimensional retail displays. Meissner hopes FunDeco can be self-sufficient in a couple of years.

Among the displays that Color Ink has designed: icicles in a Boston Store holiday display, full-sized bobsled models for the Winter Olympics and a 26-foot tall Macy’s shopping bag, said Randy Klibowitz, creative director.

“We come up with a lot of ideas and some of them get used and some of them go in the memory bank,” Meissner said.

Three shifts

Color Ink has 100 full-time employees and between 25 and 50 part-time and temporary employees on a given day. Unlike many printers, the company still runs three shifts five days a week.

It offers both lithographic and digital printing, as well as specialized custom products, like the dimensional retail displays.

The company’s largest business segment, retail signage, is seasonally weighted toward the second half of the year. Color Ink works with some of the country’s largest retailers – Kohl’s, Macy’s and Shopko among them – on in-store signage, which is most popular during the holiday season.

“Having the ability to kind of flex without having to lay people off is really important to us,” Meissner said.

Many of the printed products that Color Ink makes are for retail direct mail campaigns. The company has the ability to address the mail and directly send it for customers. It can also fold parts of the mailing and glue things like lotion samples and coupon cards to the material.

The company’s massive digital printers can run upward of 6,000 sheets of paper per hour. Ultraviolet curing technology on some machines allows the ink to dry quickly without soaking into the paper, producing a higher quality image and a more efficient bundling process.

Color Ink was founded by Meissner’s father, Jim, as a commercial printer in 1985. It printed sales literature, direct mail, corporate brochures and other materials for manufacturing and service companies. The company also served as an outsource provider for other local printers when they didn’t have the equipment to complete a job.

Eventually, Color Ink established direct relationships with those customers, which led it to the major retailers it works with today, Meissner said. The company’s customers are located all over the country.

“Nowadays, it’s so much easier to do business with people further away because of FedEx, email and Skype,” he said.

For a one-day sale, the company can get the files in the morning, print the job and be prepared to ship the completed sign kits the next day. For a more sophisticated sale, like Black Friday, there may be 200 signs to print for each store, so it takes longer.

“What’s really allowing us to thrive is that we respond quickly to our customers’ needs,” Meissner said. “By running three shifts, it gives us that edge over companies that only run one or two shifts.”

Color Ink has two buildings totaling 105,000 square feet at its production facility. It will open a FunDeco retail store on site in mid-January.

“How many printers out there can say they’re opening their own retail store to sell products?” he asked.

Meissner is optimistic about the future of the company, which he expects will continue to adapt to market trends.

“We want to stay a family-owned business. My children have an interest in being involved in the business at some point,” he said. “I don’t have aspirations to have massive growth with our company, but I do have aspirations to be well-respected in our industry for our quality, and for our creativity.”

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