How Stewart-Taylor Printing Saved Its 143-Yr.-Old Company

How Stewart-Taylor Printing Saved Its 143-Yr.-Old Company

By following the signs.

1870
Stewart-Taylor Printing opens in downtown Duluth.

1975
Richard Olson buys the company with business partner Rolland Nelson.

1981
Richard Olson’s sons Jim and Tom start JnT Printing.

1994
JnT and Stewart-Taylor merge; four Olson siblings become owners,

June 2012
Duluth Sign, a business unit of Stewart-Taylor, founded.

 

A year can make a big difference—even for a business that’s 143 years old.

Ever since the Olson family bought Stewart-Taylor Printing in 1975, the downtown Duluth printer had been humming along nicely. It was never a big business, but it was steady: By 2006 it was bringing in about $3.2 million a year, with a clientele that included local and state government, St. Luke’s Hospital, and numerous local businesses and nonprofits. It printed envelopes, brochures, and other standard products from its storefront facility on Superior Street.

Then the Great Recession hit. The Olsons had been through downturns before. But this one looked and felt different—as in much worse. Revenue dropped nearly 50 percent. And the company was forced to let go nearly half of its employees, most of whom had been with the company for years, even decades. As Bill Olson, who owns and runs Stewart-Taylor with his brother Jim, notes, “Our generation had never been through that before.”

And layoffs weren’t enough. Stewart-Taylor had overhead costs that $1.8 million in annual revenue wouldn’t cover.

Another bad sign: Organizations were doing more of their own printing on digital printers, and putting more information online. And cut-rate online competitors, notably Vistaprint, could promise much cheaper prices than Stewart-Taylor could offer.

In short, if it were going to stay open for another couple of years, much less another couple of decades, Stewart-Taylor needed an additional line of work.

“A few years ago, when things were bad, I’d wake up at 4 in the morning,” Bill Olson recalls. “I’d get online and I’d just start looking at: What are we going to do, how are we going to diversify?” The company had tried T-shirts and banners, among other possibilities. “None of these were going to take us forward,” he recalls. “They were just quick fixes.”

Then Olson stumbled on an online link describing a sign-franchise opportunity. Could this be the opportunity? After about a year of research, he realized: Who needs to be a franchise? “We had all of the pieces already here except for knowledge,” Olson says. Stewart-Taylor had the equipment, location, and customer base—what it needed was to learn about sign making and where to find sources of supply.

Then in early 2012, Olson was approached by Doug Smith, general manager of the Duluth branch of the Green Mill restaurant chain. Stewart-Taylor had done printing work for Smith; now Smith had a bigger job in mind: Could Stewart-Taylor print and install a vinyl wrap on the Green Mill’s new 22-foot delivery truck? Olson had never done it before—and took the job. In June 2012, the wrap was completed, and Duluth Sign, a business unit of Stewart-Taylor, was born.

Smith was delighted with the truck, which now functions as a rolling billboard. “You get Bill and everyone he works with,” Smith says. “We sit down and brainstorm over lunch. He brings something to the table other than just doing the project. He brings ideas. And he’s easily accessible. I can call him whenever.”

Though Duluth Sign specializes in large-format signage printed on soft materials, it has also has installed digital display boards and other “hard” signs. All told, Duluth Sign brought in about $200,000 in its first year of operation. That, along with a 22 percent increase in printing shop revenue, has Stewart-Taylor breathing much easier. In October, Bill Olson was planning to purchase additional signmaking equipment with the promise of increased sales.

“There are sign companies in Duluth that are trying to sell right now—big companies,” he says. “There are other companies that are so big that they’re too busy to take care of the smaller stuff. That’s our niche—smaller projects.”