Lessons learned during the 2008 recession have helped this Rockford-area printer to go full-steam-ahead, despite several challenges in today’s economy.
Just 20 feet from the curb of 11th Street in Rockford – near the intersection of 11th Street and Harrison Avenue – lies the front door of 11th Street Express Printing.
The company’s name and service are self-explanatory, says president Gary Ehrhardt, and customers agree.
“11th Street Express Printing: that says it all right there – if I need it fast, I get it fast,” says longtime customer Kathy Gasparini, creative services manager for ACM in Beloit.
“It” could refer to a number of printing jobs. In Gasparini’s case, it’s usually catalogs, pamphlets and sell sheets used at ACM, a manufacturer for rainware such as gutter, trim coil, edge metals and accessories for rain control systems.
For others, “it” could mean brochures, postcards, business cards, forms, booklets, raffle tickets, even wide-format printing like banners, large posters and yard signs. Plus, the shop includes a mailing house, so print jobs and mailing jobs can be completed together.
“Our clients have always included a lot of manufacturing businesses, churches, nonprofit organizations, plus the police department, fire department, city government and schools,” says Ehrhardt.
“We work directly with the park district,” he adds. “We printed all of their golf scorecards this year. I’m a golfer, so that was fun for me.”
The fun has been going on for nearly 50 years, as 11th Street Express Printing, 2135 11th St., has managed to evolve and remain a steadfast local printer for the greater Rockford area for two generations.
The company’s success can be boiled down to two major points: speed and customer service.
“We can get things done pretty quickly,” says Ehrhardt. “Turnaround times have always shrunken. What used to take two weeks takes a day or two now, sometimes the same day. That’s probably one of our biggest things we’re known for, is getting an emergency project done quickly.”
Working well with clients is also a top characteristic.
“The people are great there,” Gasparini says. “We’ve had a really good, ongoing working relationship.”
Sarah Axelson, who handles marketing communications and design for the Rockford Art Museum, says her relationship with Ehrhardt and his team is unmatched.
“It’s really important to have a local supplier/provider as much as you can when you’re doing graphic design, so if you need to talk to someone you can go see a proof if you need to,” she says. “And putting money back into our economy is better than sending jobs to internet companies.”
One time, Axelson – who also works as a freelance graphic designer – needed gold foil wedding invitations printed. The intricate technique isn’t something 11th Street Express Printing does in-house, but Ehrhardt was able to find someone who could complete the project. He personally provided a price quote to Axelson and had the printing job back in a timely manner.
“The level of service and the relationship I have with him is why I keep going back,” she says.
The start of 11th Street Express Printing dates back to 1972, when Gary Ehrhardt’s father, Jim, opened the business as part of the Sir Speedy franchise. Jim Ehrhardt managed only two or three employees, and the technology at the time required customers to hand deliver an image so the team could take a picture of it and make a hard plate of the image to run through a press.
“I remember a piece of equipment that had a very small screen and there was green type,” Gary Ehrhardt recalls. “If you wanted a flyer done, we had an archaic computer. There was an art to doing it that way. Things evolved and became easier as we went along.”
After 10 years, the elder Ehrhardt’s contract ended with the franchise and he decided to go it alone, changing the name of the company to reflect the nature of the business.
Gary, who turns 50 this summer, learned the ropes bit by bit, working during the summers to further his skills.
“I’ve done most – if not all – of the different jobs along the way,” he says. “When I bought the company from my father in 2000, I felt like I knew the business pretty well at that point, as far as working equipment and operations. It was a pretty easy transition.”
Today, Ehrhardt manages a team of 10, though he’s had up to 14 employees. Most print jobs are handled in one of two ways: via copiers or digital printing. And while customers can still bring images in by hand, most files come via email. However, the shop still has offset presses, which are reminiscent of the “old-school way” of printing, except that images now are lasered onto a printing plate.
“There are cost efficiencies for doing things that way versus on copiers for longer runs,” Ehrhardt says.
The biggest lesson he learned from his father was how to deal with customers.
“I’d say the main thing he taught me was just treating people fairly – treat them how you’d like to be treated – the Golden Rule,” Ehrhardt says. “You just can’t go wrong with that.”
While small businesses of all stripes have struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic, 11th Street Express Printing has survived, though it hasn’t exactly been easy.
“There are no events happening, so no one needs programs or postcards or mailings for events,” Ehrhardt says. “Especially those first three months, business dropped pretty heavily, but there were still things – a lot of manufacturers were still going, government was still going. We didn’t shut down totally; we still had things to do. It definitely was pretty quiet there for a while, but it’s slowly been coming back. Hopefully, as things seem to be opening up a bit, people will start to host their events. Churches are starting to open up again, and restaurants are, too. It’ll be a little while yet until we’re back at full speed, but it’s starting to inch back now.”
Since last spring, some members of Ehrhardt’s team have learned new tasks – including how to operate different pieces of equipment in other areas of the shop. This has helped the team team adapt to a smaller workload, Ehrhardt says.
However, the biggest lesson in survival was earned during the 2008 recession.
“You have to expect, be ready, for something bad to happen that’s out of your control,” Ehrhardt says. “You’ve just got to be prepared financially. When the pandemic hit, there wasn’t a lot we could do to change anything; we just had to kind of wait it out. There wasn’t really a magic formula for it, unfortunately, other than being ready for when customers were ready to come back.
“I think the big thing was just keeping up with technology – evolving,” Ehrhardt adds. “You can kind of become complacent, and equipment becomes old, and there’s better stuff out there that can get things done quicker and cheaper. We’ve always tried to keep the equipment updated.”
Making sound financial decisions while still investing in the future – finding that balance – nearly sums up Ehrhardt’s advice for other companies hoping to last 50 years.
But he’ll add there’s a bit more to it.
“Be prepared to work long hours when necessary, because that will definitely happen,” he says. “And stick with the Golden Rule. People appreciate that.”