A Colorful Career: How a TechCreative Inked his Way to the Top
Former 3D Chemical President Chris Dawe discusses how taking a TechCreative approach to his career resulted in success for his company, clients and himself.
Company: 3D Chemical
Since the time of Gutenberg, the Print Industry has had a pretty good run. At least, that’s how Chris Dawe, the former President of 3D Chemical sees it.
History supports him. At one time, one in six Americans worked directly or indirectly in the printing industry. However, since Printing’s peak in 1986 printing technology has changed dramatically. As business and marketing have increasingly moved to a digital world, the print industry transformed both its products and processes to keep up. Today, only those businesses capable of quickly adapting to change and identifying new opportunities have survived.
The ability to adjust your thinking and apply new technical solutions to business needs is the core of what Semper International calls TechCreative thinking. We have spent the past several years investigating how leading companies have found and nurtured the TechCreative staff and skills required to survive this changing economy.
To get the view from a TechCreative at the top, Semper sat down with Chris Dawe to learn how TechCreative strategies helped him navigate his 20-year career. In this case study, you will learn how a tradesman, salesman, TechCreative and consummate hustler leveraged technology throughout his career to track down and win business, as well as critical tips and tricks to grow your craft and get ahead in a disrupted industry.
For Dawe, the need to weave his TechCreative talents throughout his career came as the answer to two questions:
- As a salesman and business owner, how could he best leverage emerging technology and tools to source and serve clients?
- As a leader in the ink production industry, how could he develop innovative solutions to bolster peers and find pockets of sustainability in a changing, and sometimes declining, industry?
The TechCreative Challenge:
There was a time when the 3D Chemical business could make a living by just selling the Boston beltway (a business corridor around Interstate 95). According to Dawe, that all changed with a global economy. Overseas competition pressured the industry to expand sales territories outside of their local arena. For example, Christmas products are no longer made mainly in the U.S. The packaging and wrapping are produced in China and other Pacific Rim countries.
Compounding this increased competition and the onset of the digital era, the rising costs of running a business have skyrocketed. Healthcare costs, higher fuel prices and wages put pressures on operating a business. Other sectors of the printing industry have also been in rapid decline for the past decade or more. Some daily newspapers and many annual reports have been replaced by websites.
To keep up, business owners like Chris needed to start getting on planes and adopting more interactive, digital sales approaches to court these global relationships. Dawe’s philosophy on survival in this industry illustrates his TechCreative flexibility: “You must embrace one word daily: change.”
Most business owners want to do a bit more than survive, and Chris Dawe was no exception. The key to expansion and growth within the industry was not a macro philosophy, but a personalized, technical understanding of their core product and how they solve client's needs. Further, client service at 3D Chemical often required playing detective to determine if the client’s problem was their ink product, or some other issue.
“I manufacture ink, and I have always said, ‘Ink doesn’t think.’ When there’s an issue everyone blames the ink. But that’s not always the case. If something was wrong with the ink, it would be wrong on all the prints. If it’s not… well, then I had to figure out why my product wasn’t doing what it needed to do.
“Truthfully, most of the technical expertise I used (in my career)… didn’t require my MBA. To me, technology wasn’t an app. It was a process. It was a trade: My kit, my ink, my recipe -- That’s my technology. And that’s the key. I loved it. I loved it all, the product and the servicing.”
The TechCreative Solution:
In its heyday, 3D Chemical provided ink to a host of top-tier clients, from the GPO, to Quad Graphics, Hershey Candy and National Geographic. To navigate that territory, the company always stayed true to its roots of innovation and strategic investment.
Considering the TechCreative label, he offers, “The key to what you are calling TechCreative, I think, is recognizing the important moments (in your career) and taking advantage of them.
With twenty years’ experience, he has some interesting observations on how to recognize those critical TechCreative moments:
- Become an expert in your trade
Printing is an industry, but it’s also a trade. Successfully selling into a pressroom, then, meant that you had to know what you were doing, and how to interact with everyone on the floor, from the CEO to the pressmen.
Early in his career, Dawe made the decision to become a tradesman as well as a business owner. He became certified, and learned to operate as a Spectrophotographer. He understood how to get colors to pass a fade in a Fadometer lab, to calculate how much calcium carbonate paper needs to bind it, and when and how that binding material will react with water and change his ink.
Creating a color dye is a dynamic process, and a color can take on different characteristics depending on how it is prepared. Building a sustainable business meant learning the nuances of color preparation to match printers’ corporate colors exactly, as well as understanding how to make a color an exact match instead of a drifting one, and how the pressure and water levels in the mixes will change the press’ output.
This careful attention to detail played out well for him over the years, especially when politics or competition threatened his ability to grow new accounts. He recounts one particular interaction with a large company.
He had delivered ink to a new account, and then thankfully drove out to check on its progress. Walking into the pressroom, he saw that the ink looked odd. Dawe could hear the ink slosh in the presses. Having spent his summers running a press with his father, he knew that the soggy, singing noise he heard meant the press team was running the water too high.
Knowing there was a chance his color was being sabotaged, he asked the CEO to give his color another chance – but only if Dawe could run the presses himself. Surprised at the unique request, the owner asked if he even knew how to run a press. His reply? “Of course I can. This is my trade.”
Later that evening, Chris worked with the night pressman instructing him on how to crank the saturation down to account for the paper caliber. The color came out “beautiful” in that state.
Dawe expanded his contract by 75% that night by being an expert at his craft.
“90% of the time, my ink never did anything wrong. If the customer was unsatisfied with the color, or the press wasn’t running, it wasn’t my product.” 3D Chemical expanded its territory by knowing every level of the procedures and technology that made their products run correctly, and built a reputation for providing value with tips and tricks to alert customers about industry best practices or fixing something before it broke.
- Recognize critical moments of impact
According to Dawe the key to building a long career is actually the ability to string together critical inflection points and being prepared to capitalize on those moments - something that TechCreatives excel at.
One particular example Dawe called his “Nutrageous red” moment. He was working on a new account at the Hershey Factory in Pennsylvania. Again, as he walked into the factory, he could tell there was an issue with the color. They had the right computer match, but no one in the room was happy with the color they had printed out on their wrapper sheets.
While he knew they had all agreed on the color ahead of time, he stepped back and really looked at the color they had produced. “You know what? They were right. The color was just flat. Dead.” Despite knowing that changing the color would mean that Hershey would have to throw out 1000 pounds of dull red candy wrappers, Dawe made a snap decision and ran downstairs into their color lab. There he made a couple tweaks to the color. “I livened it up a bit, primarily making it warmer.” New color in hand, he came back into a room of dissatisfied customers and turned them around. “On those days, you have to trust your gut.”
The color he created? The Nutrageous red that graced Hershey wrappers for the better part of a decade.
- Do your homework
Preparing for those Nutrageous red moments in your career means doing your homework.
What does that looks like? Dawe recounted his experience developing a new color technique for a series of National Geographic covers as an example: The client had a concept of color layering that the team wanted to try, but no one on the Senior team was sure if the process would work in the real world.
Dawe knew he would have one chance to impress the senior management, and he needed to get ready to have concrete solutions to their questions and concerns. Besides, Dawe needed answers himself.
“Before I flew out to close the deal, I needed to figure out - Can we do it? I needed to know [if that color process was possible]. They were going to ask. So, I picked up the phone and I called a friend in the industry. I asked him for some press time to run my color.”
The only time he had open was at 2am. Dawe booked it. “It took a few tries, but I perfected what I needed. My buddy made me a mock up, and I got on the plane.”
Wednesday morning, Dawe walked into the National Geographic offices tube in hand, containing the new magazine cover and a successful demo of the new color process. When the management team asked him if the process could even be done, he pulled out the cover and respond, “Absolutely it can be done, because I did it.” (Another deal closed due to TechCreative thinking.)
- Use new technology in all facets of your business
The best TechCreative thinkers leverage the technology of the day in creative ways. Both smartphones and internet research were invaluable tools to help 3D Chemical find leads and service customers. Mobile technology allowed the team to make appointments, cold call, text and email files without a computer or desk. Dawe frequently walked out of client meetings and sent orders straight to his plant, significantly reducing production times. Similarly, shipping and remote tracking of orders helped ease tensions on late orders. Often, clients would record issues with their presses and send audio or video files to the 3D team, allowing them to solve problems without wasting six (or more) hours in a car.
Finally, they used online research to quickly find the right sales contacts. When deciding to go after the Government Printing Office, he first logged onto their website to hunt down the right person, and then looked them up on LinkedIn and on the Printing Impressions websites to figure out “who’s who and who’s real.” Armed with profile information and insights on a lead, from their hometown and education, to their hobbies and leisure activities, he could call his leads from a position of strength.
- Plan ahead for the next Trend.
Dawe creating green products before they were trendy, allowing his company to jump ahead of their competition by creating entirely new product lines.
3D Chemical developed soy-based printing inks in 1989, long before his competitors even thought of making aggregate inks. As the market turned, the team was already established as a green ink company before the environment was an issue to most. As Dawe recalls, “A decision made in 1989 in an attempt to wean us away from petroleum-based products evolved into an entire marketing strategy of being green and formed new product lines that marketed themselves.” At first, Dawe admits, his green products were more costly due to supply costs. Still, he had the vision, believed in his investment, and had faith that supply costs would not only drop in price, but become the industry standard.
Chris’ ink might not think a lot, but Mr. Dawe himself certainly had to in order to survive the print disruption. Thankfully, he was able to leverage his TechCreative instincts and vision to deliver results that spanned several decades in the print and graphic arts industry.
Over the course of his twenty-year career, Chris Dawe expanded 3D Chemical sales from six states to over 24 states plus an international presence by forming a strategic alliance with the country’s second largest industry leader, Quad Graphics, and placing his product line in their facilities.
Under his leadership, 3D Chemical cultivated business relationships with numerous Fortune 500 companies, launched and marketed new product lines, and sustained a large employee base of sales, technical and service support teams. During that time, he wrote over $15 million in contracts across America including National Geographic and the US Government.
What’s Next For the Print Industry?
A TechCreative at heart, Dawe continues to see the big picture for printing. “I have worked in one industry my entire life. Through the years, both printing and myself have continually changed. But the more things change, the more they come full circle. People still buy Hasbro games, even with the internet.
Despite all the changes in the print, Dawe is confident that the print industry as a whole isn’t going anywhere. The key is to find your niche and pay attention to your product cycle.
Printers have to learn how to think more strategically today,” he says, “You find the cycles… Tailor your marketing. Our problem is trying to be too much. Don’t think about global scales and try to compete on cost. Compete on delivery.” If you want opportunity today,” say the TechCreative, “look at your own town -- Look for the smaller, micro-regional opportunities, where people will still need on-demand printing. Think about opportunities with short runs, and quick demand.”