National Print Group makes big imprint

National Print Group makes big imprint

November 6th, 2011 by Carey O'Neil in Business Around the Region

It looked as though Jim O'Rourke had been hit by a shrink ray.

The printer he stood next to had the familiar shape, coloring -- even made similar noises -- of a typical Hewlett-Packard desktop printer. But this printer was about 6 feet tall.

"Essentially it's your desktop on steroids," he said as the machine spun a soon-to-be banner inside it, injecting ink with every pass.

The HP isn't even the biggest printer. They have one press half the size of a football field.

O'Rourke is general manager for the digital and screen printing division of National Print Group, a Chattanooga-based company that's one of the top five billboard and point of purchase advertising printers in the country.

The $75 million-annual-revenue company prints tens of millions of square feet of menus, banners, posters, vinyl billboard coverings and whatever else customers need each year.

"In our industry, flexibility is key," O'Rourke said.

Rapid technological development since the turn of the century has made that flexibility easier and easier. National Print Group has scaled its operation along with the technology, helping fuel double-digit revenue growth this year over last.

The 150-employee company -- soon to be 170, if O'Rourke can find people to fill his empty posts -- adds a new printer about once a year. Printers cost from $500,000 to $1.5 million, so the company runs much like a factory, operating 24/7 to capitalize on the huge equipment investments.

"Competition took the price point down so dramatically, if you didn't change you'd be eaten alive," O'Rourke said.

But technology isn't making everything easier. Though expensive, digital printers have removed a lot of barriers to the industry.

"It went from an art to where it's all machine-driven," O'Rourke said. "Our business has changed dramatically."

Advances in technology are making printing obsolete in some areas. Digital billboards are slowly gaining ground, but O'Rourke isn't worried about the competition. Normal billboards vastly outnumber digital, digital is far more expensive, and billboards are a much smaller proportion of the company's business now, anyway.

Before digitization, about 80 percent of National Print Group's business came from billboard printing, the rest from point of purchase signs. Today, those percentages have flipped.

But not everyone was happy to see the change. Cleve Armstrong has worked in the business for decades. He said computers have certainly made his life easier, but they've taken a lot of the art, and the pride, out of his job.

"It doesn't really frustrate me," he said. "Technology moves so rapidly, you have to be in a place you can keep up with it. If you don't, you're obsolete."

Colors are still more vibrant with the older ways of printing. National Print Group still does screen and lithograph printing, something O'Rourke said gives them an edge over competition.