Alaska Printing Has a Bold Vision for Local Print Services
Adam Williams has a plan: consolidate Anchorage’s printing industry and expand the services at his commercial print shop. It’s admittedly ambitious, especially considering that when he purchased Alaska Printing three years ago, he had zero experience in the industry.
“I didn’t know anything about printing,” he says with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Isn’t printing dead?’”
He quickly learned that it’s neither dead nor dying. Instead, printing is evolving, and Williams intends to evolve with it. While the industry as a whole is growing, certain segments are driving that growth more than others. The label and packaging services segment, which includes product labels and package design (think boxes emblazoned with company logos), is forecast to grow 3 percent annually. Traditional printing services, by comparison, is projected to grow more slowly, at 1 percent to 2 percent annually.
Williams’ consolidation plan has already begun, as he finalizes the purchase of Northern Printing, which has provided commercial printing services across Alaska since 1967. The merger increases Alaska Printing’s capacity to meet its clients’ needs and expands the scope of services available to Northern Printing’s clients.
Like his purchase of Alaska Printing in 2019, Williams’ acquisition of Northern Printing is the result of an opportunity presenting itself at the right time.
A Deal-breaker Brings a Silver Lining
Williams’ entry into the printing industry was a combination of circumstance and an opportunity that ticked all the right boxes. He’d worked as a materials coordinator and food purchaser on the North Slope for fifteen years when his employer announced an intent to move to a 4/2 schedule. The change was a deal-breaker for Williams.
“I didn’t want to be away from my wife for eight months,” he explains.
Williams’ solution was to go into business for himself. Rather than start from scratch, his wife suggested they purchase an existing business. The couple created a list of criteria that would make the plan feasible: annual revenue of at least $1 million and $150,000 to $200,000 in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization); a manager who could teach Williams and help run day-to-day operations; established clientele with an 80 percent to 90 percent repeat customer base; and room to grow through consolidation.
What checked every box was Alaska Printing, a commercial print shop whose owner was ready to move on after more than forty-five years in the business. Despite his lack of experience in the printing industry, Williams moved quickly.
“From when we started to finalize the deal to when we closed on the business was two months,” he says. “That’s pretty darn fast.”
His training was just as fast, and more “trial by fire” than the in-depth training he’d hoped for.
“When I bought [Alaska Printing], I was supposed to get three weeks of training from the previous owner,” Williams says. “But he ended up hurting his ankle and was getting on a flight out of state to leave for three months. So basically, I ended up getting six days’ worth of training, and he slapped me on the back and said, ‘If you need me, call me!’”
The timing of his decision to leave the North Slope and the swiftness of the deal turned out to be fortuitous.
“We purchased the business, and then three months after, we found out my wife had terminal cancer,” Williams says. “Three months later COVID hit, then three months later she moved to a nursing home.”
Williams’ wife died five months later. If he’d had any uncertainties about his decision to quit his job and go into business for himself, her diagnosis confirmed for him that it had been correct.
“I feel blessed every single day because I was able to see my wife every single day,” Williams says. “I honestly believe everything happens for a reason, and if I had still been working on the North Slope, I wouldn’t have been able to spend time with my wife and do the things that I needed to do. That was a very, very good blessing.”
Right Place, Right Time
Although Williams’ long-term goal is to consolidate Alaska’s printing industry, the acquisition of Northern Printing is, again, more the result of being in the right place at the right time than a calculated move. He unknowingly planted the seed for the merger while cooperating with Northern Printing co-owner Rob Nuss on a job in early 2021.
Most of Alaska’s commercial print shops are small operations that provide similar services across the state. After decades in business, many of those owners are looking to retire, Williams says. Northern Printing co-owners Nuss and David Brown were two of them.
“He’d been wanting to sell for a while, and it was just a conversation that we had kind of in passing, where I mentioned that what I’d like to do is consolidate the industry up here,” Williams says.
Because he wasn’t actively looking for a second business to buy, Williams says he didn’t give much thought to the conversation. But two months later, Nuss called to gauge his interest in purchasing Northern Printing.
“It was the right opportunity and the right circumstances,” Williams says. “Everything kind of just fell into place, and if there’s anything the universe has taught me it’s that if everything falls into place, get the ball and run.”
On paper, Northern Printing is being swallowed whole by Alaska Printing. Williams says he’ll close Northern Printing’s office in Midtown Anchorage and move their equipment about a mile and a half north to Alaska Printing’s Arctic Boulevard location.
“You don’t need to pay for two buildings,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Aside from location, there will be little outward change. He intends to keep the Northern Printing name and all their current employees. Northern Printing’s clients have been informed of the merger, and Williams has already purchased a new printing press to accommodate the additional anticipated workload.
Williams believes that investing in the new equipment and, more importantly, Northern Printing’s staff are key to a successful, seamless transition for both the company and clients.
“The employees are the greatest assets that came with that [purchase], no ifs, ands, or buts,” he says. “Second is the clientele. As long as there’s no interruption with the clients and the employees are happy, then I will consider it a success.”
Printing Anchorage and Beyond
Alaska Printing does commercial print work not just in Anchorage but across Alaska. It even serves some small businesses in the Lower 48. Williams says most services Alaska Printing offers are similar to those available in other local commercial print shops.“We offer a lot of the same products as most every print shop in town; there’s really nothing that one shop does over the other,” he says. “Everybody does color printing, wide-format, envelopes.”
“We offer a lot of the same products as most every print shop in town; there’s really nothing that one shop does over the other,” he says. “Everybody does color printing, wide-format, envelopes.”
The bulk of Alaska Printing’s business is lithography, or offset printing: business cards, letterhead, and annual reports, all of which can be printed in five-color. Alaska Printing also offers thermography printing, color banners, window and car decals, magnetic signs, magazines, and booklets.
One service that sets Alaska Printing apart, Williams says, is the ability to print labels in-house using an advanced, high-tech label machine rather than outsourcing the design to a print shop in the Lower 48.
Williams estimates that custom labels comprise 10 percent of his business—many of the COVID-19 vaccination stickers handed out by the State of Alaska and Southcentral Foundation came from Alaska Printing—and the machine can print labels in any shape or size quickly and cost effectively. Two designers work with clients to either create the artwork and label design or help move their original artwork from concept to final product.
“If we design the labels, that’s design time, and design time is not cheap,” he explains. “What I tell people is, if you’re just getting 500 labels, it’s not worth it at all to have my guys design it for you.”
Williams says a well-designed, high quality label can transform a product and open doors that were previously closed for a business. One client, he says, saw an immediate impact after working with designers to create a new product label.
“The minute they changed their labels, they were able to get into places they’d been trying to get in for five years, including Wal-Mart,” Williams says. “The look on your package has a lot to do with your success.”
The Future of Printing in Alaska
Though he’s a printing neophyte, Williams believes consolidation is the key to keeping the industry competitive with commercial printers in the Lower 48. Outside shops can typically complete large jobs for less than Alaska printers due to the cost of materials, even including the cost of shipping. Consolidation means a larger share of the local market, which means more competitive pricing with the Lower 48.
“If consolidation in the industry up here does not happen, you’re probably going to see a lot [of local printers] go out of business,” Williams says.
Though he’s not actively seeking new print shops to buy, he’s not averse to purchasing another under the right circumstances.
“My intention is to keep consolidating with other businesses, provided it’s the right opportunity at the right time,” he explains. “It’s better than businesses going under and employees getting laid off. It’s good for business, and I don’t want to see a shop shut down.”
A robust local industry is also good for businesses that utilize commercial print services. Being able to collaborate with designers in person, rather than via e-mail, means more control over the final product. That makes consolidation a win/win for everybody.
“If you support a local business, that’s good for the community, it’s good for the state of Alaska, it’s good for Anchorage,” he says. “So, what I’m trying to do is preserve the old businesses and preserve the employees and preserve the talent.”
Those are Williams’ long-term goals. In the short term, his focus is on the Northern Printing merger and expanding the label-making segment, “because it’s a growing market and you go where the money is.” He’d also like to expand into packaging and pouching, an area that continues to grow with the increase of e-commerce.
Though he’s been able to expand in a relatively short period, Williams’ foray into the printing industry wasn’t without its trials. “Having to deal with COVID, get the financing and run a business that I’ve never owned, have my wife go through everything she went through, and still keep our head above water was extremely challenging,” Williams says. “But I have a tenacity to never give up on anything. You find a way to do it regardless of the challenges.”
And he’s having more fun than he imagined he would when he and his wife first decided to buy Alaska Printing three years ago.
“I absolutely love it,” he says. “I never thought I would, but I do.”