Voice of the Modern Manufacturing Economy Since 2013

Circle Graphics

by Eric Peterson on May 7, 2015, 03:09 pm MDT

www.circlegraphicsonline.com

Longmont, Colorado

Founded: 2000

Privately owned:

Employees: 750 (480 in Colorado)

CEO Andrew Cousin has helped the company capture two-thirds of the U.S. billboard market -- and now he's eying another massive opportunity.

Hank Ridless brought billboard printers an idea for a tech upgrade in the late 1990s: go digital. None of them bit.

Like any innovative entrepreneur, Ridless saw the rejection as an opportunity to do it himself.

Spanning about a half-million signs on the American roadside, the billboard industry hadn't seen much change since it moved from hand-painted to mechanically printed.

When Ridless' digitally printed billboards hit the market in the early 2000s, they were half the price of their analog counterparts.

Circle Graphics further cut costs by employing ink technologists and manufacturing all of its ink in-house -- it can be 90 percent less expensive -- and generally spearheading efficiency in a stagnant industry.

"It entered the market extremely disruptively," says Cousin, who led an investor group to buy the company in 2012. "Wind the clock forward 15 years: We estimate we print about 65 percent of the billboards in the U.S."

Circle Graphics' commanding market share in billboards has plateaued, but Cousin sees plenty of runway in custom canvas wraps and other consumer products. "What we saw was a very exciting product line that was similarly disruptive to the billboard," says Cousin. "I'm more bullish than when we bought the company."

Cousin says Circle offers "white-label wholesale fulfillment" to photo labs at chain drugstores and other retailers, where customers can get personalized products printed with their own digital photos. "They're really shifted their focus to photo gift products," he says. Photo books are the top seller, followed by canvas wraps.

The company doubled down on consumer goods with the acquisition of the CafePress art division earlier in March 2015. The deal brought a facility in North Carolina to bring the company's total footprint to 340,000 square feet, including 200,000 square feet in Longmont.

A constant through all of the change: Circle Graphics has led the billboard industry's innovation since day one. Almost every one of its competitors prints digitally today.

Likewise, the company developed a pulley system for mounting billboards that's much less labor intensive than the old manual methods, and has led the charge to recyclable polyethylene billboards instead of vinyl.

"Vinyl is fundamentally non-recyclable," says Cousin. "It's not a very eco-friendly manufacturing process, either."

Because the industry has followed its lead at every turn, Circle Graphics no longer competes on price alone -- quality and service are now at least as critical to maintaining its sizable market share. "We don't think it costs any more to provide great quality than poor quality, and it's probably the opposite," says Cousin.

Challenges: "Managing growth is the area I spend most of my time," says Cousin, noting that the company has added 280 employees since the beginning of 2015 (180 of them came by the CafePress acquisition). "I'm making sure we don't stub our toe in terms of not having enough capacity."

Opportunities: Consumer goods. "We like to say our target market is anyone with a wall," says Cousin.

"We work pretty closely with our retail partners," he adds. "Our price point has allowed them to experiment with promotions." To wit, a 16 inch by 20 inch canvas wrap cost about $100 at retail in 2000. Now it's closer to $30. "If you only paid $35 to put something on a wall, you're willing 12 months later to refresh it with a new image," Cousin notes. "The other area is licensed wall decor, which is a huge, multi-billion dollar market. We're planning to onshore that for obvious reasons."

He says that he's also seeing personalized and licensed content "converging" into a hybrid, and Circle Graphics has a library of 1.5 million licensed images to feed the market.

Needs: "We continue to invest in innovation and much of that is on the production process side with custom equipment and automation," says Cousin.

More room is another need. "We're looking at additional space in Boulder County."

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