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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 6 years ago

Pinting Pivot

Ray Sikorski's printing company has evolved from a one-person shop in his dining room to an 18-person company with big-name clients. Now he's looking at his next pivot to keep the company growing in a challenging industry.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

Ray Sikorski wasn't discouraged 19 years ago when the large printing company he was working for denied his idea to start servicing smaller clients with quick turnarounds. He just decided to start his own company creating bar-code labels for other businesses.

He also wasn't fazed a couple years later when labeling businesses started to move to China. He decided to diversify into printing, hoping to turn a $10,000 a year customer into a $30,000 a year customer.

Nine years ago, he made another move to stay ahead of the competition, adding promotional products and corporate apparel to his line of business, aiming to turn the $30,000 customer into a $50,000 customer. Now, with increased competition from online printing companies, he is shifting once again.

This time Sikorski's company, Verified Label, Print and Promotions, is investing in an upgrade to its individualized company store software. The new system will create a promotional product shopping experience that replicates the ease of shopping online through Amazon or L.L. Bean.

The 46-year-old CEO has grown the company from a one-man labeling company in his living room, to an 18-person company in a 12,000-square-foot facility in Tampa with $4.5 million in sales. With an increasingly demanding customer and shrinking profit margins from price wars online, Sikorski is looking for a more customized way to service clients.

Though his company remains equally split among labeling, printing, and promotions, Sikorski is concentrating on the fastest growing segment, promotional products and corporate apparel, which is a $20 billion industry — about the same size as the candy industry. He's not alone chasing the category, for around 22,000 companies act as sellers or distributors within the space.

“The biggest challenge is finding ways to turn orders into clients because everything is so portable and so competitive,” Sikorski says. “Print budgets are being wiped out. All that money is being spent online.”

That's why he set his company apart by providing individual online stores for large companies to order pre-personalized T-shirts, coffee mugs, pens and dozens of other accessories of choice without having to find an individual vendor each time. Verified Label, Print and Promotions deals with the manufacturers, stores the company's inventory, and ships to the office location when needed.

Sikorski is now looking to find a provider to upgrade this software. When he first invested in offering online company stores seven years ago, the software cost $30,000 and 1,000 man-hours for training. This go-around, he says it will be half the cost and a third of the time investment because the cost of new technology has dropped and his employees are familiar with using computers.

Right now Verified's fastest growing client segment is local companies, because they take a traditional team-approach to making the sale. Verified currently provides custom company stores for Tampa-based multi-location companies such as Sykes Enterprises and Holland & Knight. “It takes a certain size company to spend $25,000 through a company store,” Sikorski says.

The company also provides a store for the National Aviation Academy in Pinellas, which has an extensive student uniform program. “You can't just go and call on the 20 largest companies, you have to figure out who uses your products and build your business around theirs.”

Sikorski recently invested $1 million through a traditional bank loan in a new space to double square footage. To continue to grow, Sikorski says he is streamlining the online experience and hiring online marketing specialists to attract business outside the Tampa area. Though the investment is hurting the company's bottom line, Sikorski is confident that profitability will rebound.

“Our biggest competition isn't a company, it's a mindset,” Sikorski says. “Do I want a reliable business partner to support these products and streamline manufacturing...or do I want to buy everything on an individual basis for the absolute cheapest price I can find on the Internet from people I've never worked with before.”

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