Entrepreneurship has been called a labor of love, and like any great endeavor it requires a lot of persistence and passion to succeed over time. Marvin Rack, owner of Northwestern Printers, Inc. of Hays (KS) spent a lot of sweat and tears rebuilding the printing business into the largest printer in northwest Kansas.
It all started back in the late 70’s when Marvin Rack, a trained diesel mechanic, was hired to maintain the printing presses at the small print shop owned by Northwestern Office Suppliers in Hays. Marvin also worked outside the shop as a service technician for the company. “Back then, they only had two employees running the printing machines, so it was a fairly small operation,” said Marvin.
After a few years on the job, Marvin was handling both sales and technician work for the company.
Upon arriving to work one day, he discovered the two press employees had both quit with no one available to handle the printing jobs. Since Marvin enjoyed the creativity and complexity of working on the big machines, he started producing print jobs for his own customers. Once the other sales staff heard that Marvin was doing a great job with the printing, they asked him to produce their print jobs too.
“I actually did all of that extra work in the print shop for a few months, and the thing is, I loved doing that hands-on work,” said Marvin. He eventually approached the owner of the company to buy the print shop. In 1981, the sale was made. “I think the owner thought that I wouldn’t be able to make it work, and that he would end-up getting the business back,” Marvin continued. The owner did carry most of the financing for the print shop purchase, and Marvin was determined to turn the corner and make it his own.
Marvin moved out of his house and stayed with his parents a while, so he could rent the house to save more money. Eventually, he moved into a trailer to keep renting his house to keep costs down.
After a couple of years of ownership, Marvin saw things turning around in 1983 and 1984. He continued to boot-strap and used his cash conservatively over time. Marvin met his future wife, Jennifer, and they were married in 1995. Jennifer helped the business become more automated with computers, which paid off by saving both time and labor. “When payroll is 30-40% of your budget, the new technology saved time and provided products and services with a higher margin. It was a smart investment,” said Marvin.
Marvin and Jennifer realized that if you don’t grow with the trends seen in the marketplace, you get left behind. Back in 1981, there were 5 or 6 other print shops in Hays. Today, Northwestern Printers, Inc. has only one competitor in town. Marvin credits his company’s longevity to his talented staff, and making strategic investments in better equipment.
The expensive printing equipment, such as a state of the art ‘plate maker’ for offset printing, a wide-format printer, or a five-color Heidelberg high speed printer, can take many years to pay-off. However, the high quality print jobs the equipment allows you to accomplish commands higher margins and better, faster service to customers.
When asked for advice to give to someone thinking of starting their own business, Marvin said “know that you are going to have to be 100% in it to make it a successful venture. Always be looking and open to new opportunities to grow. A successful entrepreneur should be creative and persistent. Customer tastes keep changing, and if you don’t evolve with the market you get left behind.” He also recommends getting into a business that you really enjoy. “You should wonder why you’re making money when you’re having so much fun,” he continued.
Looking back on his years growing the business, Marvin said that he really benefited from maintaining a good, long-term relationship with his lenders. He also recommended reaching out for advice from other entrepreneurs, or resources like the Kansas Small Business Development Center (KSBDC) and SCORE. Marvin received assistance from the KSBDC at Fort Hays State University, and was recently invited by KSBDC Director, Ron Newman, to participate as a panelist at SBA's 'Summer of Encore Entrepreneurs' roundtable event to share his story of going from 'employee to owner' of a small business, and best practices he learned along the way.
Marvin also commented on how he wished there were local SCORE counselors available in 1981 when he bought the business. “We didn’t have a SCORE chapter in Hays back then. Assistance from SCORE would have taken some of the uncertainty out of some of the decisions I had to make over the years,” concluded Marvin. Thankfully, today there are three SCORE chapters in Kansas, and they are available to help entrepreneurs throughout the state.