Ideal Printers

Two sisters have led this St. Paul company to steady growth during a decade of challenges to the printing industry.
Ideal Printers

When Lana Siewert-Olson and her sister, Joan Siewert-Cardona, took over Ideal Printers from their parents in 2002, there were more than 1,000 printing businesses in Minnesota, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. Today, there are 706.

Navigating a small business through more than a decade of industry consolidation is no easy feat. Add tariffs, an aging workforce, and rapidly changing technology to the mix and the task becomes even tougher. Building on a solid foundation laid by their parents, the Siewert sisters have managed to keep Ideal’s presses rolling and the family business growing.

In 2010, they acquired a digital printing company, followed by a mailing company in 2013. Adding those additional services has provided steady growth for the St. Paul-based commercial printer. Sales grew from $7.5 million in 2009 to nearly $12 million in 2016.

“Acquiring the mailing company helped us weather some of the economic strain that the industry was experiencing,” says Siewert-Cardona, who is CFO. (Siewert-Olson is president of the company.)

The Siewert sisters’ parents, Howard and Rhoda, founded Ideal Printers in 1979—almost by accident. “I wasn’t looking to start my own business,” Howard recalls, “I was looking for a job.”

Howard had recently left his sales job at Brown Printing, one of Minnesota’s largest printers, after differences about the way the company was handling his clients. That’s when he stumbled across a small struggling printer on West Broadway in Minneapolis. Putting to use his 20-plus years of experience in the printing industry, Howard and his wife acquired the company.

Within two years, they were ready to move to a larger location and settled on a building in St. Paul’s Midway. Ideal moved to a third location on Prior Avenue in 1986. In 1999, the Siewerts relocated again, to their current facility near University Avenue by downtown St. Paul.

Three years after moving into the new building, Howard and Rhoda handed the reins to their two daughters and sons-in-law, Andy Olson and Francisco Cardona. As chairman of Ideal’s advisory board, Howard still provides guidance when needed and makes frequent visits to the office when he’s not in Florida or volunteering. But he’s quick to note that “a lot of what you see today is what the second generation built.”

The Siewert sisters and their husbands control a combined 74 percent of the company’s ownership; Howard and Rhoda control the remaining 26 percent. In 2007, Ideal became one of the first certified woman-owned printers in Minnesota.

Today, digital printing makes up 20 percent of Ideal’s sales, and mailing accounts for 15 percent. While conventional print still accounts for more than half of Ideal’s business, digital printing is growing quickly.

Founders Howard and Rhoda Siewert.

“We probably have more digital jobs than conventional print jobs,” says Siewert-Olson. “But digital jobs aren’t as expensive. A digital job may average $150, whereas print may be averaging $3,000.”

Digital is similar to an office printer in that it uses electronic files, dots of color, and toner or ink to produce an image. With conventional print, or offset lithography, ink is applied to metal printing plates to form an image, the image is transferred to a rubber “blanket,” and then it’s rolled onto a sheet of paper. Digital printing is quicker and more cost-effective for smaller print jobs, whereas litho printing tends to produce higher-quality images and is more cost-effective for large print jobs.

In terms of price, “it’s harder today to compete with big printing companies,” says Siewert-Cardona, “but we can definitely compete from a service level. Our ability to say yes almost every time and deliver on our promise is why customers stick with us.”

Best Buy, Ecolab, Treasure Island, and Great Clips are among Ideal’s mostly Minnesota-based clientele. (Ideal also has done work for MSP Communications, Twin Cities Business’ parent company.) “Ideal has had an unbelievable ability to accommodate our growth,” says Rhoda Olsen, vice chair of Great Clips’ board of directors and former CEO. “Their responsiveness, accommodation, improvements, growth, and investment in equipment and people has continued to exceed our expectations.”

Andy Olson brought Great Clips with him when he joined the family business in 1993. Growing from 200 salons in the early ’90s to nearly 4,400 today, the Minneapolis-based hair salon franchise has become one of Ideal’s key customers.

“Andy is always thinking about Great Clips and how he can help us be successful and accommodate our needs,” says Ann Latendresse, director of brand marketing at Great Clips. “Today, Ideal is our bread and butter for most of our print work.”

Like its customers, Ideal has grown, too. When the company moved to downtown St. Paul nearly 20 years ago it had 40 employees; today it has 86. But in the last decade, finding experienced talent has become increasingly difficult.

“People aren’t entering our industry like they used to,” Siewert-Cardona says. What’s more alarming “is there is not a school in Minnesota anymore where you can go to learn how to run a conventional press.”

The company has started hiring temp workers and training them on the equipment. If they find a good fit, they will hire them full time. Ideal also recently enhanced its PTO policy and added 401(k) matching in hopes of attracting more talent. The company has always had a profit-sharing plan where 20 percent of its pre-tax profit is shared with employees, but the 401(k) match seemed to be an important benefit to those seeking a new employer, says Siewert-Cardona.

While finding skilled workers has become harder, Ideal has no problem retaining staff. About a quarter of its employees have been with the company 20 years or more. Unlike many of its competitors, Ideal does not run a third shift and it doesn’t have mandatory overtime. “We’re open about our numbers, too, so there are no surprises,” says Siewert-Olson.

Ideal also has a social committee where employees can help plan annual events, including the company’s charitable giving week, monthly summer cookouts, Cinco de Mayo celebration, and holiday party.

“Owner-employee relationships have always been strong at Ideal, and the next generation has carried that on to an even greater extent,” says Howard.

To give back to the community, Ideal organizes a companywide volunteer event at least once a year and a number of charitable drives throughout the year. The family also donates printing services to many charitable and nonprofit organizations.

“Ideal supports the overall good of the community in a lot of different ways, and we really value that,” says Olsen.

With the second generation in their early 50s and no members of the third generation (ages 18 to 28) showing interest in taking over the business, Ideal’s future as a family business is unknown.

“We’ve had intentional meetings, so they know they are welcome, but so far no one is jumping at the chance,” says Siewert-Cardona. “Ultimately, we want them to be happy.”

The Siewert family is giving it a little more time before they decide how to proceed with succession planning. They have some hope that someone will change their mind, but either way, says Siewert-Cardona, “we are focused on finding ways to grow thoughtfully and making sure we have a high-value company to hand off.”

Ideal Printers’ first building in St. Paul.