Fit to print

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm

To survive, Mandel Co. has reinvented itself with every generation to keep pace with advancements in technology and other business factors. Emanuel Mandel founded the downtown Milwaukee company in 1892 as a wood engraving firm. His sons, Miles and Charles Mandel, reinvented the company as a photoengraver.
Their sons, Robert and Donald Mandel, along with David Meltzer, a son-in-law, came next in line. Under their leadership, Mandel Co. became the only firm in the Midwest to offer four-color Vanderook wet-proofing for publication work. They also ushered in the onset of offset printing.
The company flourished at the peak of Milwaukee’s brewing industry, as Pabst, Miller, Blatz and Schlitz became the firm’s largest customers.
Now, it’s Richard Mandel’s turn as president of the company. Richard and Michael Mandel, who is executive vice president, face a completely different set of challenges as they try to position Mandel Co. to survive against large competitors in a digital age.
With the emergence of desktop publishing, Mandel Co.’s "customers became our competitors," Richard says.
Richard initially was trained as a pharmacist and had no interest in taking over the family business.
"The business wasn’t something we talked about as an option. But then I figured out being a pharmacist wasn’t a business, and we started talking about it," Richard said.
As Robert has passed the company’s torch to Richard, the firm has invested about $5 million in equipment over the last 15 years.
Buying new technology is a cutthroat proposition for small print shops such as Mandel Co. One bad investment in new equipment could sink the company.
"As you put in something new, what they put out is already obsolete by the time you get it, so you better make the right choices," Richard said.
One such choice was the purchase of an Israeli Seitex press seven years ago for $500,000. Although it has served Mandel Co. well, that press already needs to be replaced with a newer model to help the company keep pace with the digital age.
"We’ve tried to be one step ahead with change. When scanning first came in, we were one of the first in the nation to do that," Robert said.
Today, Mandel Co.’s largest customers include Miller Brewing, Jockey International, advertising agencies and point-of-purchase display designers.
Mandel Co. creates custom printed displays, including: banners; promotional flags; fleet and billboard signage; wall hangings; murals; trade show displays and backdrops; window and floor graphics; and point-of-purchase products such as posters, table tents, display cards and cooler decals.
The firm also is launching an e-business development service that provides Web-based administration, such as pricing, ordering and shipping confirmation, for businesses.
Potential growth areas for the firm include providing signage for special events, such as Milwaukee’s festivals, and creating promotional materials for the ever-growing pharmaceutical industry.
"Event-oriented production is a nice market for us. But our main client is someone who is selling retail products. It needs to be very high-tend color imagery," Richard said.
The company is expanding its capabilities to print directly to substrates such as plastic and vinyl, rather than printing on paper and attaching the printed material to the substrates.
Mandel Co. is surviving by being
a one-stop shop for its customers, Richard said.
In addition to the dizzying pace of technological advancements, Richard is facing another type of business challenge. He sold
the company’s 94,000-square-foot building at 1301 N. Martin Luther King Drive to James Wiechmann and New Land Investments No. 5 LLC for $2.15 million in 2002.
Mandel Co. has been leasing two stories of the building, but the clock is ticking. The building is at the heart of the future redevelopment of the Park East corridor. The site is destined for condominiums, offices or retail uses.
Eventually, Richard knows he’ll need to move his print shop to 20,000 square feet of space somewhere else.
He’d like to keep Mandel Co. in downtown Milwaukee, where it has operated for more than a century.
"Eventually, down the road, we’ll be looking to move. Hopefully, we’ll stay in this neighborhood. It’s nice for clients who come in from out of town. We are definitely interested in staying down here. And being a 112-year-old company, I would think the city would want to keep us here," Richard said.
Throughout the challenges of new technologies, the company has remained family-owned, and the Mandels have no intentions of selling out.
"There have been discussions to be acquired, but being a family business, we’ve always been interested in continuity," said Robert, who is watching with pride as his son again reinvents the company.
"I’m proud that so much change is taking place and the next generation wants to accept the challenge," said Robert, who remains as senior vice president.
"Business is business. It’s all about product and cash flow and serving the customer," Richard said.
Not bad for a guy who first set out to be a pharmacist.
September 17, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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