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Delaware's Oldest Printer 'Resets the Presses' on its Future

Delaware's Oldest Printer 'Resets the Presses' on its Future

Steadily building their Wilmington-based printing business—The Mercantile Press— over a period spanning three centuries, the Bye family weathered its share of business unpredictability.  But, by the 1960’s, The Mercantile Press had proven it was “here to stay,” running two shifts daily and providing its full stable of employees with living wages, full benefits, and steady work in a well-respected trade.  The firm had proven its mettle and reached its all-time growth peak just in time to face the industry-wrenching challenges of the coming decades.

The advent of the internet and increased competition from cut-rate overseas commercial printing operations would bring the American commercial printing industry to its knees, mercilessly thinning its ranks as once-reliable customers all but evaporated, favoring online communication or cheaper foreign labor over stateside traditional print shops.  Surviving commercial printers were competing for an ever-shrinking customer base, and profitability in this harsh new business landscape required new perspectives and new strategies.  For The Mercantile Press, one of the few Delaware-based commercial printers to survive into this new era, that meant forging a new partnership – a partnership with SCORE Delaware.  Together with SCORE – an SBA-backed small business advisement organization – Mercantile Press President Coleman Bye, III, identified new markets prime for his firm’s services and tailored his print shop to land that lucrative business, firmly reclaiming control over the firm’s future.   

From Humble Beginnings

In 1871, Mercantile Press’ founder Harry Bye, broke into the printing business at the age of 12 when he invested $7.00 in a crude printing outfit and began publishing a monthly paper called “Youth’s Banner” with a subscription price of $0.10 per year.  Thirteen years later, in 1884, Harry and his brother, Elmer, purchased some used printing equipment and founded The Mercantile Press in the city of Wilmington, Delaware.

Over the ensuing generations, The Mercantile Press built a strong customer base deeply rooted in the agricultural, chemical and pharmaceutical industries that grew to dominate Delaware’s economy.  The Mercantile Press was thriving, growing into a two-shift operation and employing nearly 50 skilled print tradesmen. 

A Whole New World

But by December 2001, when The Mercantile Press’ current President, Coleman E. Bye, III (“Corky”), took the business’ helm, everything had changed.  Six months before, one of The Mercantile Press’ largest customers had moved its manufacturing overseas, taking with it more than 20% of the firm’s annual sales.  Undaunted, the company re-tooled, adding the political direct mail business to its roster of client industries and stabilizing its bottom line.

Until the Great Recession of 2008 dealt the entire commercial printing industry a devastating blow.

The Eye of the Storm

By the end of 2009, The Mercantile Press’ sales had fallen 29% compared to the previous year. While better than the printing industry average decline of 33%, these sales figures cast a shadow of uncertainty on the company’s future.  Surviving this crisis would take leadership, innovation, and a healthy dose of business savvy.

With SCORE’s help, Coleman and his Mercantile Press team were up to the challenge. 

The Road to Recovery

By 2010, Coleman had his company on the recovery track.  In 2009, he landed a promising federal government purchasing agreement, paving the way for a new and lucrative business stream.  That year, Coleman’s new market growth strategy expanded as he identified the label market as having great potential and approached SCORE Delaware to help him develop a business plan to tap into it.

Together with his SCORE Delaware counselor, Robert O’Brien, Coleman drafted a Strategic Business Plan, along with a Business Case that would guide The Mercantile Press’ way to recovery.  The company’s new plan re-focused its business strategy on new markets innately insulated from the online and overseas outsourcing trends seducing Mercantile’s traditional customer base.  The new plan provided a step-by-step roadmap to sustainable growth, and it wasn’t long before a new trickle of customers had grown into a healthy stream.

Thanks to the vision and perseverance of its President, Coleman Bye, and some strategic perspective from SCORE Delaware, The Mercantile Press had reclaimed its future and was, once again, “here to stay.”

Today, The Mercantile Press is the oldest printing company in the State of Delaware.  The company is a full-service print communications company specializing in product labeling, direct mail printing and packaging.