Five women changing the face of large-format printing.
For years, sociologists as well as talkshow hosts and comedians have debated endlessly about the differences between the female and the male mindsets. Whether the topic at hand is obtaining directions, giving instruction, commandeering the TV remote, or enduring pain, there are certain typical images everyone has in their head when it comes to the feminine versus the masculine.
The same can be said when it comes to owning and running a business – particularly a company that produces wide-format printwork. The typical owner’s image that immediately comes to mind is almost always male (and older, too, but that’s another article). Move beyond the stereotype, however, and you’ll find that it’s not just men you’ll encounter in the print shop’s “corner office,” as women make their presence felt more and more in the wide-format marketplace.
On the pages that follow, you’ll be introduced to five women who are spearheading successful businesses in the world of wide-format digital printing. Their leadership has enabled their respective companies to build solid client lists and impressive portfolios, pushing their shops forward in difficult times to achieve some uncommon results.
Manufacturing ideas: CR&A Custom
Carmen Rad is the quintessential entrepreneur. Armed with a degree in fashion marketing and design, she began a successful business out of her home 18 years ago creating custom costumes, props, and various promotional items for the film industry. When the laws affecting duties on Chinese imports were changed, she says, an influx of cheap items introduced from overseas put the squeeze on Rad’s business, sending her in search of a different field that would capitalize on her creative finesse, while still allowing her to market to those same clients.
At the time, she was dabbling in dye-sublimation for printing on fabric, so the evolution to wide-format printer was a natural one. Today, her company, CRA Custom, Inc. (cracustom.com), is the only dually woman- and minority-owned large-format digital printing operation in the US. But don’t pigeon-hole her as a printer.
“We are more of a design company that owns the equipment to print, so in that sense we’re able to take your creative idea and manufacture it,” Rad explains. “Now we’re all digital. We have the newest, greenest equipment in the industry. We have a water-based printer, and we’re getting the largest flatbed printer in the industry.”
Today, CRA Custom operates out of a 25,000-square-foot facility in downtown Los Angeles, where its 29 employees output everything from banners and billboards to building wraps, car wraps, signage, and window and wall graphics. Part of her success, Rad says, is her diverse client base, which has expanded since the early days of focusing on the film industry.
“We work with clients that are clothing companies, liquor companies, and many others,” Rad explains. “We started to tap into different markets instead of just concentrating on one.”
Her decision to focus on many small clients, rather than three or four large clients, is one philosophy Rad says sets her apart from her competitors.
“I’ve found that men seem to like the big clients, but I love to handle lots of little accounts,” she says. “They’re constant; they bring in business every day. Sure, they do require more TLC and there’s a little more work involved, but I see it as a safe option. When you have just three major accounts that are everything and that determines your day-to-day operations, and one goes out of business, you’re done. I don’t have to worry about that as much if I have 500 small clients.”
If hers is a uniquely female philosophy, then it is surely uncommon in the printing industry, which Rad has found to be male-centric.
“I was at an event and someone told me once, ‘You don’t look like a printer,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and he said, ‘Well, you’re not 50 and bald.’ He also said ‘white,’ which kind of threw me off, but it is male-dominated and it is Anglo-dominated.”
For Rad, being a woman in a male-dominated industry has its challenges.
“Yes, I hit barriers all the time, and I think women in general do as well,” she explains. “But, to be honest with you, I think that’s my best asset. I come from somewhere different than a man, and for that reason, I bring a different perspective to a client’s job, which helps me add credibility and value to the fact that we’re not just a printer, we’re a unique company that has a lot to offer.”
She is quick to clarify, however, that being a woman hasn’t hindered her ability to attract and retain clients.
“We try to invite our clients to our facility and, once they see our team and the equipment, they recognize what we are capable of,” she says. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman on so many of these jobs – it depends on either the relationship or on your pricing.”
The future is bright for women who choose a career in printing, Rad says, and she has seen more of them expressing an interest, especially on the graphic-design side of the business.
“The printing industry itself has gone through some major transitions because of the technology, and as a result, it is a lot friendlier,” she says. “It is no longer about huge, filthy buckets of inks, and I think that shift will continue to attract more women to this sector.”
Numbers driven: Great Big Color
If someone had told her 10 years ago she would be owner and president of a successful wide-format print operation, Tina McLaughlin might not have believed them. At the time, she was established in a successful high-tech sales and marketing career, selling data-warehousing services to businesses. Then she met Sean McLaughlin, who convinced her to take a chance on his company, a digital print provider in the wide-format graphics industry. He also convinced her to become his wife.
“When I met Sean, he asked me to come run sales for Great Big Color,” McLaughlin explains. “The transition to a new industry was not a problem for me, because sales and marketing were my forté, and that’s what I did here for 10 years. I didn’t focus on the production end of this business at all – my job was to drive the dollars.”
She parlayed her years of sales experience into building a portfolio of clients for Great Big Color (greatbigcolor.com), whose out-of-home and point-of-purchase projects include billboards, wallscapes, murals, and window and stadium graphics. Then, when Sean was ready to turn his attention to a new venture, he sold his portion of the company, along with a stake owned by his parents, to Tina. Today, she is majority owner of the business and is in charge of day-to-day operations.
“It was an attraction for us to become a woman-owned business in an industry that is male-dominated,” she says. “I’ve been running Great Big Color by myself for over a year now, and it has been an exciting challenge.”
Among McLaughlin’s first agenda items was to file for certification as a woman-owned business with the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). She received the designation last November, and is using it to differentiate her company from competitors.
“Being a woman-owned business has definitely opened doors,” McLaughlin says. “It takes a while to build momentum and it’s a process, but we try to use it to our advantage.”
The women-owned business status has put her company on the map with some large prospective clients she might not otherwise be able to reach.
“A lot of the big companies, such as the AT&Ts of the world, have minority and women business programs in place, but it’s really hard for me as Great Big Color to go to AT&T and say, ‘Hey I want to be your printer,’” she says. “It is easier for me to add value as a Tier II provider for a company like AT&T, who will hold their agencies to also have a quota of using minority and women vendors. So, I can go to their agency BBDO and I can say, ‘I fulfill your quota to AT&T, so let me be your printer.’”
Tina has made some changes to the business operations since taking the reins, but she is reluctant to attribute those changes to the fact that she is a woman. Sometimes, she says, it just boils down to personal style.
“I’m really numbers-driven, and I run the business a lot differently from how we’ve run it in the past,” she says. “When it comes to manufacturing, a lot of times it just comes down to brute force to get a job done. But for me, I’ll get out a stopwatch and time a print, then I’ll get an exact time and I’ll put together a schedule down to the minute for how long a job is going to run. I tend to be a lot more analytical, and I hold the production staff to those metrics.”
One of the biggest challenges she has faced in her new role is finding time to nurture the client relationships she has built over the years. She says this has less to do with being a woman and more to do with being a human being, confined by the finite number of hours in each day. Ultimately, though, her transition to leadership has been a smooth one, thanks in part to the support of her team of more than 50 employees.
“I have found that, because relationships and driving the business from a sales standpoint are my forté, I have to make sure I have a savvy production staff, which I do, and it hasn’t been a problem,” McLaughlin explains. She also takes pride in hiring women in jobs that are traditionally viewed as ‘man’s work.’ “I have women on the floor in the production area and, even though I don’t have a woman printer yet, I have women in the finishing area.”
Despite her best efforts to employ women, McLaughlin admits there is a shortage of interested female candidates across the board.
“I don’t know that this is an industry that women are drawn to, and therefore I think it’s a huge opportunity,” she says. “I would tell women thinking about working for a print provider, don’t think of it as ‘Oh, I’m a woman, so I belong in the art department,’ or ‘I belong in customer service.’ I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s an industry where women can be powerful and can succeed – I know this because I haven’t found any roadblocks myself.”
Finding a niche: Solar Imaging
For most students of fashion design, a job with industry giants like Banana Republic, Gymboree, Express, and The Gap mark the pinnacle of success, and for Sandra Burt, they did just that – for a while. But, in 1994 she was looking for a new challenge when she left her stable corporate job to join forces with her husband to open a commercial photography studio in their garage.
“I stumbled into the digital printing industry as a part of re-inventing and growing our business,” Burt explains, and she has learned a lot along the way.
The original photo studio has grown over the years to now include two sister companies: Solar Imaging, a Columbus, Ohio-based wide-format custom digital printing facility, and PageOne Productions, a high-end retouching and digital pre-press studio – both under the umbrella of EclipseCorp. Today, Solar Imaging (solarimaging.com) produces everything from wall murals, tradeshow graphics, banners and backlit signage to point-of-purchase, window graphics, directional signage, and vehicle wraps for a wide range of corporate and retail clients. One thing that sets the company apart, says Burt, is the range of production options it offers its clients – from aqueous and solvent to UV-curable.
Burt attributes her success in the industry less to being a woman and more to hard work and dedication.
“I don't think that being a woman is necessarily an asset or a hindrance in this industry, even though it is definitely a male-dominated industry,” she says. “Regardless of whether you’re male or female, you still need to know the same things to succeed.”
Staying on top of technologies and industry trends is part of the education process that Burt says has helped her build a reputation for herself and her company.
“This industry is constantly changing, with new materials and new products always becoming available. I think that the key to being successful is continually learning and finding a niche,” explains Burt. “Our niche is that we have three separate companies under one roof, making us a unique source of creative minds, experience, talent, and technical knowledge.”
Identifying what makes your company unique from its competitors is only half the battle. To get ahead in the business, Burt also suggests women arm themselves with information and know the industry, as well as their own company’s processes, backwards and forwards.
“Ask questions, start working hands-on, make sure you understand and know the complete process, from quoting a job to printing and finishing,” she says. “Learn what materials are used for what applications and know alternatives, know the business and educate yourself – don't stop learning.”
She also sees the value of building strong relationships, not only with your clients and suppliers, but with other women working in the industry, as well.
“My advice to a woman just getting into this business would be to find a mentor and try to learn as much as you can from your mentor,” she says. “And, here's my fashion advice for a woman in the industry, because I did have 10 years experience in that industry first: Wear great shoes! Men can't do that, and it will set you apart.”
Taking risks: Iconography
After the birth of her youngest child, Sarah Naccarato was ready to trade in her frequent-flier miles for something a little closer to home. During her career in the executive-search industry, she was used to racking up more than 300,000 miles of annual travel, while juggling a growing family at home, in California. She and her husband researched a variety of business and franchise opportunities before settling on wide-format digital printing and, in early 2008, Iconography Studios (iconographystudios.net) was born in Los Alamitos, California.
“My husband is an artist by background and had previously researched a lot of the equipment that is used in our industry as he was having prints made of his artwork,” she explains. “He’s also really into technology, so the more we looked into it, the more it made sense for both of us. We set up the business so I would do the primary sales and marketing, and all the administrative stuff to get it going, and he would take over the production and everything on the back-end as far as manufacturing the products and getting them out the door.”
From its earliest days, Iconography focused heavily on vehicle wraps, a sector that was still relatively untapped on the West Coast at the time.
“It’s continued to grow since then, and we’ve at least doubled the business every year since we started,” notes Naccarato. “The economy was tanking while we were trying to grow a new business, and some people thought we were just nuts. But it’s not like it was tanking by 50 percent, there was still a lot of business out there to be had, so we just took a chance and went for it.”
Such a bold move is par for the course for Naccarato. She credits her grandmother for instilling in her a strong work ethic and for “pounding into [my] head, ‘Girls can do anything boys can do.’”
Coaching from her grandmother has paid off for Naccarato: “Early on, being a woman had an advantage because when I would go to Chamber of Commerce meetings or other networking group meetings, I was certainly the only woman signshop owner that had ever shown up, so I kind of stood out,” she says. “Other than that, I’ve never really thought about being a woman or not. I was raised by very strong women who firmly believed – and taught me to believe – that women can do anything that men can do, so it’s just never been part of my thinking.”
Of course, Naccarato realizes it takes more than bravado to grow a company, and she attributes a lot of Iconography’s success to its emphasis on building strong relationships with its customers.
“We view our customers as our partners in whatever we’re trying to achieve for them, and for that reason, we’ve enjoyed a really high percentage of repeat business,” she says. “In fact, all of our new business today comes from two places – it either comes from our website, which does a good job for us, or it comes from referrals from our existing clients. We definitely have focused on delivering quality and building those strong relationships, because that’s the easiest way to grow and retain your business.”
Knowledge is key: Stella Color
When Lynn Krinsky first opened up shop 24 years ago providing LetraSet rub-down transfers for commercial clients, digital wide-format printers were not yet a blip on the radar. She’s seen a lot of changes since those early days.
“About two years after I started my business, we had the opportunity to go digital,” Krinsky recalls. “At the time, there was a company called Iris out of Massachusetts, and they had a salesperson in town. I think he knocked on the wrong door, and it was my door. I ended up buying the printer, it was the first really nice digital printer, and I have been fascinated ever since.”
Today, Stella Color (stellacolor.com) – her Seattle-based company – works primarily with commercial accounts, offering a wide range of digital services including aqueous, solvent, continuous tone, latex printing, direct-to-substrate UV, and even dye-sublimation fabric printing. She long ago retired the old rub-down transfers, but Krinsky says her creative approach to running her business is as keen as ever.
“You can’t just put out a sign that says ‘Posters’ and take orders,” she says. “You need to be creative, and you have to know your substrates, know your products, know what works indoors or outdoors, and under certain conditions. It has become much more complicated. It used to be very simple, because the substrates available to us and the printing technology was simple; there weren’t many options.”
While the technology has become more complex, it has also become more affordable, and that is a cause for concern for Krinsky.
“The price points on some of the printers are so low now, that you can have people working out of their garage,” she says. “They lower the cost of the prints, they compete against you, and even though they don’t have all the other equipment necessary to finish it up, they can still wreck your day. It has become much more of a commodity than it used to be.”
The lower price of entry has shaken up the industry, she says, but it doesn’t seem to have opened up doors for women to enter the wide-format digital world.
“I don’t know why there aren’t more women in the industry, except there aren’t enough women in business anyway. I think women tend to take on less debt, and you really have to put yourself out there and invest some money in equipment,” says Krinsky. “You also can’t think of yourself as a woman, you have to think of yourself as a business person. To me, it’s kind of a creative job, so I’m kind of surprised that more women who are into the arts or who want to run their own business might not think this is interesting.”
Paula Yoho is a Columbus, Ohio-based freelancer and a frequent contributor to The Big Picture.