Paper, ink and miles to go
For Maine’s largest sheet-fed printer, transportation drives its latest business acquisitions
By Kathryn Buxton
Place a pin on a map showing J.S. McCarthy’s Augusta headquarters on Darin Drive in Augusta and draw ever-larger concentric circles around it, and you will see the logic in the company’s decade-plus of growth. To Rick Tardiff, president of one of Maine’s largest volume printers, that logic is grounded in the availability of good, efficient transportation to markets throughout New England.
“Transportation is absolutely the first thing we consider when we expand,” said Tardiff. “We have to know that if we ship a job tonight, it will be in New York City tomorrow morning. It’s very basic.”
J.S. McCarthy’s formula for success is actually much more complicated. It begins with a quality product – high end sheet fed printing produced at the company’s 110,000-square-foot facility in Augusta – a highly trained core staff and a commitment to investing in the latest technology. It also includes an acquisition spree that has seen the company acquire printers in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
That has given the company a solid footing in key eastern markets, including Boston, Hartford and New York and won the company high-end clients in the cosmetics and fashion industries. It also has earned it the respect of its peers, and in January the printer was honored as the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year.
‘Stronger with time’
J.S. McCarthy was founded in 1947 by husband and wife Joseph and Lucienne McCarthy. The printing industry couldn’t have been more different than it is today. Poised for the post-World War II boom, printing was ranked fourth among all U.S. industries. Charlie McCarthy ran the business with his brothers Joe and Don for decades, steadily building a reputation for quality, service and value.
Fast-forward to the 2000s, a time when the printing industry began to confront challenges of changing market forces. Businesses are printing less and printers are competing for advertising dollars with online advertising and marketing. J.S. McCarthy is one of several companies acquired by Letter Systems of Hallowell. Letter Systems also acquired Knowlton & McCleary in Farmington; Graphic Color, based in Fairfield, and Spectrum Printing, in Portland, soon followed.
Under the Tardiffs, the expanded printer remains very much a family operation. Rick Tardiff shares business decisions with his partner Patty Tardiff, whom Rick calls “my wife and company mom.” Three of the couple’s four children work for the business, as well: Jonathan is plant manager; Michael heads up marketing; and Matthew is controller. Daughter Amy has held several positions at the company in the past. She currently practices law in Pittsburgh and sits on the board of directors of J.S. McCarthy.
Tardiff said that the move to expand came from a decision he and Patty made early in their married life: “We wanted to make sure that if our kids wanted to stay and work in Maine, there was opportunity for them,” said Tardiff.
Under the Tardiffs’ reign, the company consolidated operations under the McCarthy name because it has a higher market profile and better brand recognition than Letter Systems. The company moved its operations to McCarthy’s Darin Drive plant, largely because there was plenty of room for the business to grow.
And grow it did. The company expanded its operations outside of Maine in 2010, buying Sawyer Printers in Boston and Wolf Colorprint in Connecticut. The Tardiffs’ strategy was to close the production portion of those operations, but retain the sales and customer service staffs there. McCarthy brought home all of the print production to Maine, but first the company needed to expand its production facility and switch to a 24/7 production schedule.
In 2011, the company was able to fast-track a 22,000-square-foot expansion of the Augusta plant to make room for a new printing press and expanded finishing operations. This was the second major expansion for the company in less than a decade; the first was in 2007.
The company has achieved all this, at a time when other printers are struggling, faced with a shift of advertising dollars to the internet and a stagnant economy. The industry has been hit hard, contracting by 30 percent over the past decade. Still, J.S. McCarthy has grown by branching out to new markets and investing in new technology to squeeze out every efficiency it can. Print Impressions, a trade publication that has chronicled McCarthy’s rise, hailed the company’s strategy of acquisition and modernization, calling the company “a conglomeration of merged entities honed into a taut, well-oiled machine that is only getting stronger with time.”
Ink in his veins
Tardiff grew up in with ink in his veins. He worked for a small printer during high school, learning the basics of the business on an old A.B. Dick printing press after school. He learned about printing in earnest from 1974 to 1976, earning a two-year associates degree in graphic communications from Central Maine Technical College in Auburn (now known as Central Maine Community College). He went to work for Letter Systems in 1976. Editor’s note: It was during the 1980s that Tardiff began a long association with Maine Better Transportation Association, becoming a member of the organization and printing the association’s magazine, Maine Trails.
While at Letter Systems, Tardiff helped build the company into a $4 million business. He and his wife Patty bought out 50 percent of the business in 1978 and the other 50 percent in 1980. By the late 1990s, the Tardiffs began to look for expansion opportunities.
For his part, Tardiff is visibly proud of his achievement at the helm. The company did $31 million in sales last year and currently employs 175 permanent employees (145 at the Augusta location, including eight new hires during the past year). He said that currently approximately 65 percent of the company’s work comes from clients outside of Maine.
In all, Tardiff estimates, McCarthy has invested $14 million since 2000 to modernize and streamline its operations.
On a recent tour of the print production facility, Tardiff strides purposely past the three giant, multi-million dollar Komori sheet-fed eight-color presses that perform the lion’s share of the company’s printing. The company also operates a digital press for lower volume, fast-turnaround jobs.
In the football-field-sized room where projects are folded, bound, trimmed, finished and boxed for shipping or prepared for mailing, he stops to point out the floor plan. The space has been laid out like a small city with stacks of printed material looking like miniature high rise buildings and signs at every corner indicating the destination of each job currently in progress.
He speaks of the company’s latest major acquisition, a new folding machine purchased from Europe that will be the first of its kind in North America. Due to arrive in May, the new machine performs functions in just 10 minutes that used to take an hour-and-a-half.
And as he leads the way through the on-site warehouse, he stops to extol the virtues of just-in-time manufacturing that has enabled McCarthy to save thousands of dollars every year in inventory costs on the materials – ink, paper and printing plates –essential to his business.
“We practice lean manufacturing,” said Tardiff. “We don’t keep anything that we don’t need,” he said, noting that sometimes, it doesn’t even take a phone call. He described how one supplier – the company that provides printing plates – monitors their stock remotely, and every time it falls below a predetermined level, it sends a truck to replenish McCarthy’s shelves.The company also hires temporary labor for jobs that ebb and flow with the volume of printing at the plant. There’s not much of what could be called idle time for people and machines, and nothing goes to waste, not even warehouse space.
On the subject of waste, Tardiff is eager to discuss the company’s extensive recycling program that reclaims nearly 160 tons of paper and cardboard every month. The printer supports clean, renewable energy by purchasing wind power credits for 100 percent of the company’s energy consumption. The firm also follows other green manufacturing practices – from using energy efficient lighting and purchasing paper coatings in bulk, to reducing waste and following “green” practices established by the Forest Stewardship Council, including the use of recycled papers and elimination of hazardous chemicals in the printing process. For Tardiff and his executive staff, the green revolution at J.S. McCarthy is as much a business necessity as it is an altruistic commitment to the community and the future. “It’s just good business,” said Tardiff, who noted that the businesses his company prints for require their suppliers to adhere to strict environmentally friendly manufacturing practices because they, in turn, are meeting consumer market demand for green products.
“When you sit down to meet with a Fortune 500 company, you have to be prepared for the question, ‘What is your environmental policy?’” said Tardiff.
For all of the company’s recent successes, Tardiff believes there is still more the company can do to solidify its future. While company revenues have grown from $22 million to $31 million within the past three years, he estimates the company has capacity to grow by another 22 percent to $40 million with its current plant configuration.
He said he believes that growth will come from out-of-state clients, but the problem will be convincing them they can get a superior product for a competitive price from a company in Maine. That brings it all down to quality, efficiency – and transportation.
“Distance is our biggest barrier, so we need to give clients a reason to go with us,” said Tardiff. “We’ve got the quality and the craftsmanship. We are on the leading edge of the technology. We give them good service and a good price. That’s why transportation is so important.”