The Art of Business: Confessions of a Print Broker


Paul Dombrowski is the president of Chicago Color Graphics, Inc., where he provides print planning and production services to his customers that are producing magazine ad pages and inserts, collateral print materials, and certain packaging products. Clients include Jolly Rancher, Donruss Sports Cards, Whoppers, "Outside Magazine," Wards, 3M FloorMinders, Motorola StarTac, Navigation Technologies, Dockers, Nike, Dannon, and the University of Notre Dame.

With 15 years of prepress and print manufacturing experience, Paul keeps his eye on the latest manufacturing and workflow trends. Dombrowski graduated from Loyola University of Chicago in 1984 with a Master of Arts Degree in Planning.

Creativepro: Paul, give us the quick definition of a print broker?

Paul Dombrowski: Printing companies employ a middleman to locate and serve the customer. Sales and service reps fill this role. The print broker is another brand of middleman between print manufacturers and customers. Print brokers are independent, as they're not directly employed by the printing companies they represent. However, in some ways the broker is similar to the in-house sales rep. For example, you would expect your rep to add value to your print project through effective planning and management. You rely upon their knowledge of manufacturing materials and processes, workflow issues, and judgment on timing. If you have a custom project with lots of problems to solve, then you appreciate the value of a committed and capable rep that safely navigates your project through the production process. So in this way the function of a print broker and in-house sales rep is similar.

In any event you would expect your sales rep or print broker to help you define your problems and be open about their abilities to deliver the print solutions that you require. You'll find a wide range of expertise levels and specialty areas within the ranks of both the in-house sales reps and print brokers.

CP: When should someone call in a print broker?

PD: If I had to give an arbitrary dollar figure, it would be for a job of above $10,000. But every customer is unique so it's not a hard-and-fast rule. Most print brokers are not in the business of commodity printing, and I see a red flag when a customer comes to me asking to find the best price. That's not to say a print broker can't help you save money, but if you know the three or four steps needed for your print job and you're just looking for the best deal, I would advise to forego a print broker. On the other hand, if you're having difficulty developing specifications and figuring out exactly what you need, that's when you should call in a print broker.

CP: How is a broker different from an in-house sales rep?

PD: The in-house rep is committed to sell solely what their employer manufactures. The broker is independent and not directly employed by the graphic arts companies that they rep. Brokers work as free agents and have the flexibility to rep several companies for you. Moreover, the broker has an incentive to deliver the services of a wide range of companies. Therefore, if you are a print buyer swamped with a variety of projects and overwhelmed with demands to produce, then the right print broker would be a valuable addition to your production team.

CP: Why should I call a print broker when I can purchase direct from the manufacturer?

PD: The procurement professional's responsibility is to find marketplace value. If you're an experienced print buyer then you know the work it takes to identify your production problems, define specifications, and solve production issues. Someone must do this work to deliver your projects. If you possess the expertise, time, and resources needed to define specs, select manufacturers, and manage your projects day-to-day, then you should do so. In your case a print broker probably would not add value to your projects.

On the other hand, if you are short the resources needed to devote to the buying process, then enlisting the services of a print broker would be a good call to save you money, prevent waste, and insure timely delivery of projects.

If an automobile was manufactured the way a complex print job is produced it would take months instead of hours to build the car, and the consumer price would be astronomical. Automobile manufacturing is assembly-line efficient, with one company tightly coordinating resources to build the car. On the other hand, the print industry is made up of thousands of highly specialized companies, each with their unique tool and skill set to produce specific products. It is not unusual for a complex print project to run through four or more manufacturers for completion.

The key to generating efficiency in a fragmented manufacturing process is to plan so that each transition between specialized manufacturers is done with precision. You would expect your print broker to integrate this fragmented manufacturing process. They would coordinate all manufacturing services needed for the project. The print broker that delivers this service offers a huge value for your company. They'll prevent costly waste and delay.

CP: I have a complex print project, but can handle it myself. Why should I use a print broker?

When you have the resources available to handle your work it usually wouldn't make sense to request the services of a print broker.

CP: How exactly are print brokers compensated, and what's the actual cost to the me?

PD: Selling at a price higher than their purchase cost compensates print brokers. For example, when the manufacturing company sells direct to the print broker, they have a lower cost of sale because it doesn't compensate the print broker (no commission, salary, reimbursement, or benefits). In turn, the print broker can resell the job at the price you would pay if you purchased from the company's in-house sales rep.

CP: Is there a print broker association that certifies brokers?

PD: There is no certification for print brokers. Neither is there a certification process for in-house sales reps.

CP: How should a print buyer find the right broker?

PD: Choose a print broker in the same way that you would select a printer rep. Keep in mind the scope and specifications of your project and workflow when asking questions about qualifications and discussing your specific production situation. Referrals from your colleagues and trade sources can be an excellent starting point to help you locate a qualified print broker.

CP: What questions should I ask?

PD: Good questions that probe and uncover your specific production needs are the key to establishing a profitable relationship with your printer, whether you use an in-house rep or print broker.

Once you think you found a broker, take the time to ask a few questions such as:

  • Can you tell me about a recent project that you handled similar to ours?
  • How long have you been in business and what is your expertise?
  • Can you give me both client and manufacturing referrals product samples?
  • How does this relationship work?
  • What responsibilities will you have in the printing process?
  • Can you give me a written proposal?

Beyond that, you should consider creative problem solving skill and the broker's ability to think like a businessperson standing in your shoes.

CP: Like all professions, there are a few unscrupulous print brokers. How can I spot them?

PD: Reputation, reputation, reputation.

CP: What does the deal look like with a print broker and what is negotiable?

PD: Ideally it would begin with a thoughtful interview that carefully examines your situation to determine whether or not there is a match between your needs and the qualifications of the print broker. If there were a match and an agreement to work together, then you would collaborate to develop a written project proposal, which will include specifications, estimates, and schedules.

CP: How important is proximity?

PD: Depending upon your situation, proximity to your print broker might be less important than the broker's proximity to the manufacturing facilities where your work is being produced. With remote proofing, e-mail, overnight and messenger services, proximity is less important than finding a knowledgeable print broker that can answer most of your questions and assess your project critically. A print broker that thinks like a businessperson standing in your shoes can be an invaluable member of your production force.

Though proximity to manufacturers remains a benefit. There's no substitute for physically examining a machine or a work product.

Read more by Eric J. Adams.

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