Taylor and David Landesmen, Co-Owner and VP of Lawson Screen & Digital Products have been around since 1949. David's Father started the business by building a better press than what was currently available. Listen to Taylor and David talk about where screen printing has come, how to improve your business quickly, dealing with competition and the future of our industry.
Bruce: Hello everybody. This is Bruce from Printavo, simple shop management software. And today we've got two very special guests with us this morning, Taylor and David Landesman, who run Lawson Screen Printing out of St. Louis. Hey guys. Welcome.
Taylor: Hi Bruce.
David: Hi Bruce. It's good to be here.
Bruce: Yeah. Thank you for joining us. So I wanted to bring these guys on. We met back in DAX Chicago, earlier this year and they've got a really interesting family-based business and a really cool story that's been around for a long time, so I figured a lot of others would like to hear this. So give us a little bit of a brief history about Lawson. I know you guys started back in 1949 but, you know, a quick synopsis of how everything started.
David: Sure. I'll be happy to talk about our beginnings, our humble beginnings. My dad, Taylor's grandfather started the company in 1949 as you mentioned, here in St. Louis, Missouri. There was a printing company in Downtown St. Louis called Decalmania of St. Louis, and he was printing decals by hand and he had about 30 operators operating manual machines. And my dad had developed a reputation as being a local inventor in St. Louis.
And so the owner of Decalmania came to my dad and said, "Hey Jean, can you come on down and take a look at our operation? I would like to figure out how to improve my quality and increase production. I have 30 people printing by hand." So my dad said, "Sure. I'll be happy to come down and see if I can help out."
So my dad goes down, takes a look at their shop, sees 30 people printing by hand. And he goes, "I think I can help you out." And my dad went back home, built the first powered squeegee. It's called the Lawson powered squeegee, and the guy bought 10 machines, bought another 10 machines. His business has exploded. And my dad thought it was over, and then he said to my dad, "You know, there are probably other people here in the United States that would like this too. Why don't you go to a trade show, or why don't you advertise?"
Well, my dad was not a natural business guy, he was an inventor. He loved tinkering, he loved building things, he loved inventing. He loved the creative process. So my dad says, "Well, I really don't want to be a salesman." And the guy says, "Well, I'll help you out with that."
So, I think in 1950 was the very first screen print show when SGIA was founded. Initially it was called the Screen Process Printing Association, SPPA. And they had the very first trade show which we exhibited at. And my dad came back with 25 orders for his little powered squeegee. And Lawson was off and running.
Bruce: Wow. That's really, really cool. So, he exhibited it, he essentially was solving a friend's need and kind of his own need, and just got curious and started selling from there. What about your involvement, David? What was your role and how did you help grow the business?
David: So my brother Ben and myself kind of grew up in the business, meaning that we would work at the company on weekends and on our summer breaks from school we would work in the factory. So we kind of grew up in the business as kids. Then we both went off to college and had no designs or intentions, and were not certainly purposeful in terms of buying the company from our dad, we both were certified teachers.
So, we didn't intend on taking over Lawson but that's what ended up happening. And in 1979 my brother and I bought Lawson from our dad.
Bruce: Interesting. What went into that decision, did he say, "Guys, look, you know, I wanna retire, or can you help run this or make this bigger, or...?"
David: Well, my brother who is five years older than myself got a little more pressure than I did because my dad was saying, "Listen Ben, I know you're a teacher, you love it." My brother was also a water polo coach, swimming coach. And my dad says, "I'm getting to the age where I either wanna hire a professional manager or I wanna sell the company, but, you know, this is a wonderful business to be in, I think you would love it." And my brother says, "Well, I love teaching, I love coaching." And my dad says, "Well, why don't you do this? I'll make a deal with you. Why don't you take a year sabbatical, take a year off, come to work here and we'll make a deal. You can't quit and I can't fire you, but after a year if you decide you love what you do here at Lawson you can quit your teaching job, you'll make a lot more money and it's a completely different life than being a schoolteacher." And so my brother in fact did that.
Bruce: Interesting. What year was that again? And what year was that?
David: So that was like 1974, I think. And so my brother did that, took a sabbatical from teaching, came into the business, and instantly made the business more profitable, more engaging with customers, more innovative, better at raw material supply, supply chain management.
Remember, my dad's not a natural business guy, he's an inventor. My dad started Lawson as a means of supporting his family. My dad's not a salesman, my dad's not a business guy, my dad is not motivated by money. Well, to be fair, my brother and I aren't motivated by money either, we're kind of more motivated by the service factor in life. But my brother ended up loving what he did.
Bruce: Interesting. So at that time, what would you say...you talked about a few things that changed the business from, you know, more of an engineer-inventor mindset into an actual business focused on sales, and growth, and customer service. Were there a few different tweaks that you said that really made huge changes?
David: Well, so you know there is a five year gap between when my brother joined the business, then when I joined the business and my brother and I bought my dad out. But I can tell you one of the first things my brother did when he became involved with the company was he took a look at the prices that my dad was selling machinery for and said, "This is crazy low. This is like we're hardly making any money." And remember my dad's motivation, he didn't need to make any money, he just needed to raise his family.
So my brother said, "This is crazy. We can't build the quality in that I know our customers want without raising the price." So the first thing my brother did was raise the price. And then he started on improving quality and other things. And so the company instantly became more profitable because we had a higher gross profit margin.
Bruce: Interesting. Now, did he...do you guys remember if he said okay our competitors are charging way more, or is this completely independent of that? That's what you said, "We need to charge more. We offer much more value than what we're charging for."
David: I would say it's more the latter than the former. I think most business people are aware of what their competition charges but I know in our situation from the manufacturing perspective, we take a look at our bill of materials and our cost, and then we price it from there. We're aware of what our competitors charge but we don't base our pricing on the competitors.
Bruce: Got you. Very cool. Yeah, that's a pretty neat history. And then Taylor, where did you come in?
Taylor: So I came in...I have a similar path to David that I, you know, in the summers would always be working at Lawson in the factory. I think it was 7th, 8th Grade, was my first full time summer here. You know, before I would always sweep the floors on Saturdays, that kind of stuff.
I graduated from university, I went to Law School, I practiced law for about five years, and then kind of...I liked it, I didn't love it, and kind of started exploring other options about coming into Lawson and eventually did maybe about two or so years ago.
Bruce: Got you. Very cool. That's interesting. That actually makes me think, do you guys remember, David, what you guys bought the business for and how much you put in?
David: Well, let's put it this way. My dad felt he sold the company too cheap and at that time I remember saying, "We paid too much."
David: So it was a fair price. So what that means to me is that it was definitely a fair price. So he felt he sold it too cheap, we thought we overpaid, which probably means in essence it was a pretty fair deal.
Bruce: For some of those looking to either buy into a business or find some capital, was that just money that you guys saved up, was it a loan?
David: Oh, our dad made us to take out a loan.
David: Yeah. My dad wanted his money.
Bruce: Yeah. Fair. Fair. That's very cool. So to talk about today, so where are you guys at, how many people are at the company? Maybe some rough revenue numbers of what you guys are on target for this year or last year.
David: Well, I don't want to get too specific but we are classified as a small business, we have about 50 employees. And from a sales perspective, you know, when you take a look at these groupings of categories, we're still far. We're well under $100 million in sales, which some people use as a small business definition.
But we are relatively small but we're probably the...from a manufacturing perspective we're probably the second or third largest manufacturer in North America of screen printing related items. So we're kind of large within our industry, very small compared to the manufacturing industry in general.
Bruce: Have you guys focused on more of the local appeal, you know, more Midwest type of sales or there is still a lot of national, international sales?
David: Well, we do a lot of... Well, we have... Our headquarters of course is in St. Louis, Missouri, we have a large sales and distribution facility in Atlanta and Marietta, Georgia, and we've always had a very strong presence not only in the Midwest but also in the South East Florida and Texas, but we actually sell nationally. We sell all over. We have a strong presence in California from a machinery standpoint. So we're really pretty much all over the United States. Internationally our sales are not that much. Less than 10% of the business is international.
Bruce: Got you. Where do you...where do you guys look at now as far as growth? Is that more international? I've chatted with a few others, I know as one example where they try to work with a lot of more international Asian types of producers and they sell a lot of machinery over there. Is that what you guys are trying to focus on now or for more sales?
David: We're focused currently still on the domestic market. The domestic market here is strong, it's still vibrant, and it's still growing. At the same time we do realize that there's enormous growth potential overseas, especially for us focusing in Latin and South America, and the Middle East actually, not so much Asia. So I'm a little focused differently. But we do realize that there's tremendous growth opportunities in Latin and South America as well as the Middle East, and that is something that we'll be addressing here in the near future.
But growth also is very important, is driven by products, and people, and processes. So I call it the three Ps. We have to have great products with great people with great practices and policies. That's what's going to fuel Lawson's growth as we move the company to the next level.
Bruce: Got you. Okay. Very cool. And talk to me about, Taylor, some challenges that you guys have today. What would you say is number one issue that you guys are working and very focused on?
David: And Taylor you're not allowed to say your number one issue is your uncle, yeah.
Taylor: I wouldn't say necessarily challenges. You know, we're always evaluating the marketplace trying to come out with new products, new exciting products that help move printers forward.
Automation has been, you know, a big drive for us and for...a lot of our customers are talking to us about that, how they wanna automate screen developing and screen reclaiming, things like that.
David: Don't forget direct to garment printing. That's huge, huge, huge.
Taylor: I'll get into that as well. So direct to garment is another industry that we've been actively involved in. You know, we were at one point actually making our own direct to garment printers. Right now we are Epson's largest DTG distributor in the world. So that's been, you know, a significant...we've been involved in that since the infancy of that industry and continue to be involved in that.
We manufacturer pre-treat solution, pre-treat sprayers as well, conveyor dryers for direct to garment. And, you know, are involved in that industry and helping that grow their product innovation.
Bruce: Got it. Very cool. So you guys are very connected with the industry and especially with the customer it sounds too. You know, being at the shows and I saw in your website you've got a good sized customer service team, and working with them.
Taylor: Yeah. Customer service is very important to us. It helps us...I'll say it helps us drive our innovations. We have one product, the Mini-Max. It's the industry's first, if not first one of the first semiautomatic printing presses, that was actually driven by one of our customers. They were tired of screen printing by hand. Their wrists, elbows hurt but they didn't wanna spend a huge amount of money for a big automatic. So we built him a special automatic that was...it did all the printing automatically, so automatic print heads, automatic squeegees, but he had to run the carousel by hand.
And he told us, he said, "Most of my business is one and two colors." So he said, "I don't need a big machine. I want a small footprint and I want it inexpensive." So we built him a two color, four station semiautomatic for under $9000. And it's been a super popular machine since then.
Bruce: Really? So it's kind of a bridge almost from people as they move from the manuals to automatics but aren't fully variant in taking those types of jobs.
Taylor: Exactly. Or...we see a lot of big shops are adding it because they print so much one or two color that, you know, they don't want high up in 8 or 10 color automatic. There is just no need to. So they get this one to fill that niche.
Bruce: That's very cool. And that's neat that you guys took that feedback. How did that work? I mean obviously changing or building a manufacturing process has a lot of cost that you'd have to invest in. Was he hammering you guys all the time and saying, "Hey, we need this," or was it something that you said, "Well, let's just try it, or...?"
Taylor: Yeah. You know, he brought it up. One of the benefits of being a small manufacturer, a small company is that, you know, we can take an idea and immediately run with it. So that's sort of what we did. You know, he was a good customer, we had known him for a while, and so we thought it was a great idea as well so want to see his dream a reality.
Bruce: Very cool. I'm curious about competition. So, you know, printers obviously have their choice of who they wanna go with, their shows are filled with 5 to 10 different manufacturers, there is all kinds of different pieces of equipment that they can use, like this is a really cool example as an option. Is that something you guys think about or worry about, or is it very you're just focused on your mission? You know, talk to me about how you guys approach that and dealing with other players.
Taylor: Absolutely. So first of all with us, I mean, the customer is always first. Everything that we do is focused on how it helps people, you know, print better, work smarter and learn more. To us, you know, that's...honestly that is our mission statement, is that we want people and printers to be better printers and be better business owners and know what to do in and succeed. You know, we like growing with others.
So, you know, to that end, you know, we always try to serve with sincerity and integrity. You know, we always try to work with a sense of purpose. We act with a sense of urgency, which we find a lot of our customers, you know, people call us and say I have a problem or I have, you know, either a supplies or equipment issue and they don't want to sit around, they don't wanna be contacted later. That's why we offer 24/7 support both on print support. So meaning, you know, "My screen's not washing out what do I do?" Or, "Hey, my dryer's not heating up, you know, can I get some help?"
You know, a lot of printers we know work Friday nights, they work Saturdays, you know, to get a job out the next day, and so if you're working we're working.
Bruce: Very cool.
David: Relative to your question Bruce, I don't worry about the competition at all at these trade shows. Some people lead, some people follow, and some people are irrelevant. I don't pay attention to the competition. If we don't have unique and innovative products that the people want at a price that's affordable, then we don't have a business.
Fortunately we have a great business model, we've been around for 68-plus years. I don't worry about the competition. I don't wanna be chasing someone else. I wanna lead the pack, I don't wanna follow the pack.
Bruce: Sure. I like that methodology. That's good. So you guys have been around for a while. Talk about, you know, differences and changes in the economy. I mean, competition is one thing but obviously there is different swings, how does that affect a business like yours over, you know, a 60 year or a 70 year span?
David: Well, let me jump in here. I guess... So for example, we're small enough where I'm not sure we feel the big impact of economic change in the country. We do feel some of it. So for example, in the economic upheaval of October 2008, okay, so our sales were definitely affected then, and the subsequent years because it was difficult for people to get loans for machinery. So there's no doubt there is some impact on a manufacturer such as Lawson.
I don't think we feel the impact as much as somebody who is much larger and who exports more, and where dollar fluctuation and currency changes make a big difference. But, you know, we're also small enough and we're very diverse in our product offerings. So we're not just focused on DTG or garment printing, we also manufacturer graphic flatbed presses, and UV dryers, and industrial dryers.
Taylor: And supplies.
David: And not to mention our whole distribution chain that we have in supplies. So if one segmented industry has slowed down we're diverse in where I don't think we are substantially impacted.
Bruce: Got it. Interesting. And from there too, when did you guys start doing because you guys do like the training and classes too, when did that begin?
David: Well, so that was one of the innovations that I brought to the company. You know, I was working on my Doctorate in Education, so I already had my teaching certificate and I had my Master's and I was working on my Doctorate at UMass Amherst and specializing in educational applications of computers. So this is 1977. So I've always been, you know, hip on the education and believe that we're gonna have the most impact in the world as we have an educated group of people. Well, this is no different than screen printing.
So one of the very first things we did, I even did it before I joined the company full time, is we started training classes where we taught people the basics of screen printing, the fundamentals of screen printing starting in 1978. So if we were not the very first company doing training we certainly were among the early adopters of that.
Bruce: Very neat. And it's sorely focused on, you know, learning screen printing or is it the screen printing business too?
Taylor: Well, we do go over both. We go over actual printing and it's very hands-on. But then, you know, we have several different instructors in the course who have all owned their own shops or worked at different shops, so we do go over the business side of what's going on.
Bruce: Got it. That's very neat. I think, you know, one thing that we see too on our end is a lot of really great printing classes like this and we try to help on the business side too because at least there is a lot of printers that come in that are awesome printers but then they're like, "Well, how do I get to sales, and, you know, manage people and hire people." And that's kind of one thing we tried to cover at the conference at Print Innovation this year, but very cool that you guys cover both as well.
David: Hey Bruce, I saw one thing on your website which I was very impressed by.
David: That your software...you said that people adopt your software because it's simple.
David: So our motto here is we make it simple.
David: So Taylor likes to use the phrase, "Engineered simplicity." So our two companies have a bond in that regard.
Bruce: That's awesome. Yeah. We... You know, it's tough and I'm sure you guys see this too in that when you wanna maintain that simplicity you also have to balance the fact that everybody wants and has their own different needs. So, you know, where do you grow, what do you add, where do you just say no and keep it the same. But of course that's one of the difficulties obviously with creating your guy's vision too.
How do you balance that, right? Because creating that one middle, you know, size press that you talked about, that kind of intro auto type press is an example of you probably diverting from what you thought...where you'd be at in three, six months but you felt it valuable enough. Where do you balance those or how do you do that between customer needs, your vision of the company, people that suggest things internally? Do you guys like whiteboard it all out, or what's the process?
Taylor: Yeah. Some whiteboarding. You know, we believe in the principle of consultation. We absolutely believe in consultation in all things. So if someone comes to us with an idea, you know, we'll kind of either informally or formally kind of have a little meeting, talk about it, see, hey, has anyone ever heard this before, has anyone ever done a DIY before on this product or on this, you know, solution to make this happen. And would this be something that other people are interested in?
You know, so being around for, you know, 68 plus years we know a lot of different screen printers, we can talk to them about their needs, what they want, and what they look for, things that they want to see us do. And then, you know, we like inventing. We like playing around and seeing what new things are available and possible.
David: But in all cases you can engineer simplicity. It has to be thoughtful. And it's sometimes more difficult to think about how can I achieve what I want to achieve in the simplest way. How can we design a machine so you can load the ink without obstruction? How can you make a design intuitive? So these are things we think about when we design a machine. And if it's complicated we don't do it. We figure out a way how to make it simple.
So we take a complicated process, like for example we just started introducing at this year's SGIA show, you're the first Bruce to hear this first public announcement, we're coming out with two new machines called the Ajax In-Line Developer and the Ajax In-Line Reclaimer. So automatically developing screens and automatically reclaiming screens is a complex process. And the machinery here before, which has been offered to the clients have only been installed at the most sophisticated, the larger shops. The machinery is very expensive, the machinery takes up a lot of space, and the machinery is very complicated.
So Taylor and I took a look at this and said, "Wait a second. Your complicated machines and your high price is our opportunity." So we have invented and we're introducing at SGIA this year, this equipment which is small, compact, affordable, and beyond everything else simple.
Bruce: Very neat. Yeah. That's an interesting debate that I think a lot of shop owners and just business in general go by, right, because, you know, you could do everything and try to spread out and try to sell anything possible, but how do you balance that with your long term vision. I mean, more specifically we've seen and talked to shops that very only do and have focused heavily on just printing, and even just one type of printing of shirts or water base or things like that, and have grown immensely like that while others obviously have done multiple, multiple departments and try to tackle that. And obviously everybody is different, every situation is different, but it's always an interesting debate.
David: Well, here is one thing, I think a lot of companies don't understand the why. It's important...people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. I think a lot of people don't understand their own mission, their own philosophy. So we always go back, "What is our mission? Why are we doing this? What is the purpose? Is this simple?" And it has to meet, you know, a list of criteria in order for us to offer it to our client base.
And I think that's an important...if you're talking about business lessons learned, that's one of the lessons that I've learned over my many years in this industry, is stay focused and be true to yourself, and be true to the customer.
So I've learned, I think people can become de-focused and they can run astray, and then all of a sudden they're out of business. I think we have to build on our strengths and do what we know matches our philosophy.
Bruce: Got it. Very interesting. What would you say...off that, what would you say is maybe one tip? I mean, you guys deal with a lot a lot of shops, I'm sure they ask you guys advice questions, "What should I do here, what should I do there," what would you say are a couple of things that you see common shops that could help improve or for them even to think about to help improve where they're at?
Taylor: I mean, honestly the biggest one we see a lot of people just if they have a plan, if they, you know, just having a plan, sitting down thinking through what they wanna offer and how they wanna work is a major step. Maybe David has a specific...
David: Yeah. I have a few. I'd like to chime in here.
David: So for example I'm getting ready to do a podcast ourselves. Lawson has a podcast channel. And I'm gonna get ready to do one on pricing for profits. And here is an example of why I think a lot of companies don't make it. Some companies, I don't know about the percentages, some companies don't make it.
A, they don't have a guiding philosophical philosophy, they don't have a mission statement. Then they don't have core principles, which I think you have to start a business with what is your philosophy, what are your core operating principles? Number one.
Number two, a lot of newbies when they price their garments, if we're talking about the garment sector of the industry, is what they do is they go take a look at the competition and see what they're charging and they'll say, "Oh, I'm 10% less, buy from me." Well, that's a recipe for going out of business. First of all, you have to understand what your costs are. What if your costs are higher than the competition? Because if your costs are higher and you're pricing your products based on the competition, you know, you could be losing money with every t-shirt you sell. That's no way to have a sustainable business model.
So I think there are some core business practices which are true of every single business no matter what industry you're in. You have to understand your costs, you have to understand operating principles, you have to have a guiding philosophy, you have to train your staff and associates. You have to stay on top of technology, you have to continue to innovate, you have to implement the latest software that's available for your core business. You have to do this otherwise you're not gonna make it.
Bruce: I think those are great takeaways especially on the pricing. We personally see that quite a bit. And it's not just a startup shop, I mean, it could be someone that's transitioning to be 5, 10 people, middle to small-sized business. But, you know, we definitely tell them you guys have to research your own costs and competing based on price is more of a race to a bottom than it is, you know, you trying to create a long term business. So that's pretty neat.
What do you think about the future of printing? Where do you think things are going? You guys just talked about direct to garment, you brought that up, being a huge wholesaler of Epson products but what do you think the industry as a whole is going? I know some folks have been chatting about Amazon as they just rip through any type of industry that they like lately or overseas, or anything.
Taylor: I mean, direct to garment definitely is growing. You know, issues with lighting which kind of plagued it in its infancy are going away, people are solving that issue. People have been able to scale up DTG printing so they can, you know, edit. It's not quite the same cost basis per garment as screen printing. It's getting there.
Bruce: Yeah. There is no way [inaudible 00:34:32] Taylor. DTG printing is much more expensive. So I think there is a good... Well, to be fair, DTG printing is already tremendously large.
Taylor: It's dropping, depends on your garment run, your run size and certain factors.
David: Yeah. Yeah. I know. DTG printing is here to stay and it's a tremendous growth market. And at the same time direct screen printing still remains a growth market. I'm not giving up on analogue screen printing because it's tremendous and it also has many different applications than DTG printing.
There is nothing better from a quality perspective if you wanna measure quality by color, vibrancy, by range of color, by depth of color, by longevity, of print washability, there is nothing better than a direct...a properly done direct screen print.
I think that these two technologies will continue to grow together. I don't think one is gonna dominate another and traditional screen printing is not gonna go away, even as DTG printing dramatically increases.
Bruce: Got it. Yeah. I think that's fairly accurate and that's what I see a lot of other companies are thinking about as well. But you're right. I mean, the quality isn't fully there yet but it's definitely increasing and increasing quickly.
Very cool. I think this is great. This is a lot of really good information. If you could, guys, tell me one maybe either book that you're reading or some leader or an inspirational person that you're following lately that some others could check out.
Taylor: Screen print wise, I mean, I like reading the SGIA blogs, I like to kind of see what's new in the industry on screen print side. I mean, I'm a big reader on personal...I'm not sure, you know.
Bruce: Yeah. Even outside printing. I think some of the better ideas even come from outside the industry.
Taylor: I mean, I'm a big fun of nonfiction. I just read...there is a great book called "The Man Without a Face," it's about the Rise of Putin and his time in like West Germany, and how he kind of rose from St. Petersburg on up. It's written by a Russian Journalist and it's a fantastic book. It's very enlightening.
Taylor: I'm sure David has many opinions...
David: Unlike Taylor I don't read...well, I do. I read business books and I read self-improvement books. And one of my favorite classics from a management perspective is called, "Formula 2+2" by Doug and Dwight Allen. I recommend that book as a great management book for everyone; "Formula 2+2."
I'm also reading...I mean, there is a lot of books, "The High Value Manager" is a great book. Another great one that I've read is, "Let's Get Results Not Excuses," "Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service." There are so many valuable business reads out there. The old classic by Ken Blanchard, "The One Minute Manager," it's still relevant today. I mean, if somebody wants to take their businesses to the next level they have to...doing the same thing that you've always done is gonna get you nowhere.
David: You have to read, you have to improve, you have to implement new systems, you have to have the latest software, you have to think innovatively. And this is an ongoing, ever improving process, continuous improvement.
Bruce: Awesome guys. Well, I definitely appreciate the time this morning. If you guys do come back to Chicago let us know, we'll have to grab lunch.
Taylor: Yeah, of course. You know, definitely. I mean, we'll definitely be there for the DAX show. We love the DAX show.
Bruce: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that was great. Well, thank you again. I appreciate the time.
Taylor: Bye Bruce.
Bruce: This is Taylor and David from Lawson Screen Printing.
David: All right, Bye Bruce.
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