Friday December 6, 2013 0 commentsBy Lee Porter
LONGMONT -- Truly disruptive innovation is a beautiful thing to witness.
Circle Graphics (CG) is a Longmont company founded 12 years ago. In an industry composed of big printers serving a largely stagnant outdoor advertising market with environmentally unfriendly products, it has gone through the choking throes of an industry under pressure.
Unlike most industry players, however, CG has changed straw into gold by turning the industry on its ear--now 65 percent of billboards and outdoor advertising signs in the U.S. are produced by the company.
CG founder Hank Ridless was a pioneer in developing recyclable materials to replace and eliminate the environmentally damaging PVC materials of the past. CG spent $8 million developing Eco-Flexx, a light, recyclable material attached on a cable-mounting system that makes it possible for a single installer to put up a new billboard ad.
The result is lower labor costs and a smaller carbon footprint for billboard companies by reducing the gas-guzzling machinery used to transport and install the ads.
Private equity investor Andrew Cousin -- now Circle Graphics' CEO -- saw a great company that had achieved a remarkable position in its industry and led an investor group that acquired the majority of the company in 2012.
"Circle Graphics' market strategy had been to dramatically reduce costs, then share those cost savings by lowering prices," he said.
The result was a complete industry disruption.
In a sector with zero growth, the manufacturing process innovations and technology improvements Ridless implemented have changed everything.
The company set about to cut costs dramatically and did so by identifying areas where input costs were high. New "grand format" 15-foot-wide ink-jet printers were installed in the downtown Longmont facility. Two chemists added to CG's staff developed proprietary inks that were better and faster than OEMs and cost half as much. Automation and process development cut labor and speeded delivery.
Robotic plastic-seam welding machines save time and labor costs--a big advantage in a business that is comprised of thousands of one-off products.
By lowering costs dramatically while improving product durability and environmental friendliness, Circle Graphics has become the vendor of choice for the top three outdoor advertising companies in the US.
Wall décor market brings CG direct to consumers
Upending the outdoor advertising industry was just the beginning.
CG has created a stretched-canvas, photo-imaged product that is helping to revive a challenged photo finishing industry.
Using a MDF (medium density fiberboard) base, ink jet-printed images on canvas are laminated and constructed into a stretched-canvas product that is durable and inexpensive.
This multi-billion dollar market opportunity utilizes multiple market channels: professional photographers, retail partners like CVS, wall décor sold in big retailers, and direct-to-consumer sales. CG recently launched Eazl.com, a consumer-faced sales site devoted to printing customer's photos on stretched canvas.
Cousin said he expects the consumer products division will increase by 130 percent this year.
Local employment provider
Although the CG facility is a modern manufacturing marvel, the company is very IT-centric, according to Cousin. Employing nearly 400 in Longmont and in a Baton Rouge, LA facility, a significant number of workers are in pre-press image management, perfecting the more than 10,000 images per day that are processed by the company.
CG is working with AIMS Community College in Greeley to feed its skilled talent needs. Manufacturing engineers specializing in industrial processes and environmental and health safety are also in high demand.
Cousin says he expects further automation in the highly labor-intensive consumer product and fulfillment areas of his business, where thousands of individual items are UPS-shipped each day.
"We're one of UPS's biggest customers in Colorado," he said.