Kevin Spall didn’t rise to the top of Thomson-Shore under the best of circumstances. When he became president of the company lovingly started by Ned Thomson and Harry Shore in 1972, the American economy had just cratered and beloved Vice President Chuck Schiller who worked at the company from day one alongside the founders passed away.
Luckily Thomson-Shore’s greatest asset is its employees, who collectively own 100 percent of the company. Spall went to those employees with a comprehensive re-imagining of the business that went far beyond the standard offset printing that had reliably been the bread and butter of Ned and Harry’s operation for decades.
“It’s not been an easy road, but at the same time our employees have really embraced change here,” said Spall, who hops a flight to New York, Los Angeles and lots of other places in between to keep pace with the business at conferences and other events.
Employees approved the purchase of a Heidelberg Speedmaster SM 102 press that replaced an old 4-color Speedmaster SM 102 unit as part of the initial phases of a $10 million capital equipment update in 2009. The new presses required fewer man-hours, but at the same time Thomson-Shore was breaking into the digital press business and in 2011 dove head-first into the e-books market.
Prior to these moves the company shed 10 percent of its workforce just based on market decline for its core business of one-color soft and hard case books.
The company could have just kept cutting while waiting out the decline of their core business, but Spall wanted to evolve the company in such a way as to thrive in the new market environment in a way that allowed the company to continue to focus on being a leader in product quality.
“One of the things we really strive for is quality — so many printers have gone low quality-low price, so we’ve made it a point to stay on the higher end,” Spall said from behind his desk in an office that contains several auction-bought book shelves from recently closed Foggy Bottom Coffee, a card catalog cabinet acquired from the Detroit Public Library, and piles of books ranging from weathered classics to newly printed high gloss titles filled with sharp photos that almost jump off of the page into thin air.
Collectively a lot of attention is paid to minute details, such as the depth of blacks and half-tones and the clarity of type. Keeping color saturation and contrast at just the right mark is a tricky balancing act that is important to preserving the core book side of the business, which is still the majority of Thomson-Shore’s business volume.
While improving the core book business and adding e-books to the mix has been key to the company’s resurgence, the addition of a digital press and a full range of services targeted at authors and small publishers is key to the company’s continued growth.
Volume dropped from 32 million to 26 million units by 2008 and has only recently returned to 29 million with 20 percent of that business being attributable to e-books, the digital press and publishing services in general.
Prior to the recession the core book business was 100 percent of Thomson-Shore’s overall business, compared to just 55 percent today. Diversifying the company didn’t only make it possible to regain the lost volume that the core book business wouldn’t have been able to gain back on its own, but the number of employees has resurged from a low of 140 in 2008 to 175 right now. At the time those numbers were provided the company was hiring for additional shifts earlier this year.
In addition to those aforementioned $10 million in capital equipment additions and upgrades to the business, $5 million in additional software and system upgrades were put in place to handle order fulfillment, distribution cues, author/publisher compensation and many other steps between and within those broad categories of what happens between an order coming in from an online retailer and said book arriving at the customer’s mailbox from Thomson-Shore’s facility.
“Since we were worried about the future of this kind of product, we said strategically we want to be in a position to take a manuscript and deliver a book all the way to the reader,” Spall said. “We wanted to be able to do that for an author or small publisher, so we went out and bought a publishing company and we bought a distribution company.”
With Amazon.com sellers moving more than 2 billion pieces of inventory each year in both 2014 and 2015 and other online marketplaces for most things including books continuing to grow, having a way to serve both authors and small publishers who rely on those online marketplaces to get books in the hands of readers is an important move to remain relevant as a book printing and publishing player into the future.
In a matter of days, someone placing an order online results in a fulfillment request being submitted by the marketplace to Thomson-Shore’s digital press, which can print as few as one to 100 copies at a time. The book is printed and automated software processes perform the financial transaction in a multi-step process that retains the production costs and fees for Thomson-Shore and remits the profit to the publisher and/or author in short order.
That abridged description leaves out quite a few steps and things to be considered along the way, as Spall explains it, “How do you take one book like this that’s going to be ordered from six different retailers all of which have different terms and contracts and SLA’s (service-level agreements) for how fast you’re going to deliver it, deal with a different discount for each one, and also make sure you link it up with our cost and then bring that back together to make sure you pay the author and the publisher their profit at the end of the month?”
Thankfully the slogan, “There’s an app for that,” is well-founded.
Convenient systems like the digital press and the publishing services offered by Thomson-Shore resulted in the company publishing for 100 authors last year and this year the company is averaging a couple per week, partially due to the great service offered but also because of the focus on quality that’s coupled with it.
The post-recession Thomson-Shore is a company that attracts high-end books from incredibly talented photographers and artists that probably wouldn’t have given the company a second look pre-2008, according to Spall. Many top talents out of California and New York are relying on Dexter’s book printer to put their work on coffee tables across the country and world.
“The industry has changed so much, I don’t know how difficult it would be for our company had we not put this technology in place,” Spall said.
In handling its own future and ensuring its success so well, Thomson-Shore has become a company that others trust with their business, which in many cases isn’t just someone’s livelihood but also someone’s passion. When an author has something to say or show, it’s important that the means of conveyance provided by the printer be up to the task.
“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what our publishers need to be successful, what our authors need to be successful and how best to get their books to the readers,” Spall said. “Our job is to make it as easy on everyone as possible while providing the best product available, particularly in digital print where we can produce a single copy in 10 minutes.
“I believe that the digital printer is the incubator for the future of our business.”
It’s a long way from the six people who worked for Thomson-Shore in 1972, including Ned and Harry, which was a dozen by the end of that year. At the time customers submitted camera-ready copy, which means how it sounds. The copy was ready to be photographed and transferred to plates for production. In the early 2000’s the switch to customers submitted PDF files was considered a seismic shift.
The changes between PDF submission to what’s happening at Thomson-Shore and the industry in general in the present is almost an immeasurably larger leap despite that time period being only a little more than half of the amount of elapsed time between 1972 and 2000.
Whatever the future holds for the company that he now leads, Spall believes that the spirit and attitude infused in it by the founders and carried forward by the dedicated employees who own it will continue to guide the business to wherever technology and the marketplace need it to be.