LISBON — Chris Pierce bought Dingley Press in 1980, just as it was about to lose L.L.Bean, a customer that made up $5.7 million of its $6 million in annual sales.
Pierce grew the company, sold it and bought it back in 2013 after its largest customer walked, again.
Dingley Press quietly weathered both setbacks, retooled operations and focused on a comeback.
Today, it’s Lisbon’s largest employer and one of only five major catalog printers left in the United States. It prefers to do most of its printing in private — 330 million catalogs last year, round-the-clock work for 360 employees.
This week Dingley Press announced a major $17 million expansion that includes $13 million for a new high-speed printing press and up to 20 new jobs to start.
The company is on pace to hit $80 million in sales with 170 customers in 2017.
“We’re not braggers, we’re not self-promoters and (most) of our customers are out of state,” said Pierce, owner and chairman, taking a break from a sales call in California on Tuesday.
“No one knows what we do — that’s OK,” he said. “I think it is noteworthy for central Maine that this company is willing to reinvest in its people. There’s too many stories, the paper industry and all these manufacturing jobs going elsewhere. I thought, you know, I’d like to have people read there’s a lot of good things (happening.)”
The company is adding a fifth high-speed printing press in August, increasing its capacity by 30 percent, and a third co-mailer in January 2018, a $3 million machine that sorts and bundles catalogs for easier delivery, and cheaper rates, for the postal service. Another $1 million is going to robotics to support both.
President and CEO Eric Lane expects to add 15 to 20 jobs in the first 18 months after both are up and running.
Dingley Press doesn’t have to expand the building to fit the newest additions; there’s just the matter of moving a 150-ton press 40 feet over to make room.
“We need capacity,” Lane said. “Our growth plan would put us in excess of 400 million (catalogs) in three years. We have 2.5 percent of the ($3 billion) catalog market; if we made it to 4, we’d be pleased with ourselves.”
Contrary to perceptions about print’s impending death, Dingley Press is experiencing the opposite, he said. It has roughly 10 web-only customers now with no physical storefronts who’ve added catalogs to their marketing strategies in the past few years.
“High-end men’s apparel seems to be where there’s a lot of growth,” Lane said. “A lot of this web-to-catalog movement. Guns and ammo, which was very strong during the Obama administration, has now tapered off. Now that (Donald) Trump’s been elected, people aren’t as worried, so they’re not buying as much product, apparently.”
Part of rebuilding the company after losing the massive L.L.Bean account meant moving Dingley Press from Freeport to Lisbon in 1988. At the time, it bought a new press that separated it from the competition, printing catalogs three-eighths-of-an-inch shorter than everyone else.
“We went to the marketplace with a value proposition: If you print the Dingley size, which we called the ‘right size,’ you would save about 7 percent on your paper and postage,” Lane said.
The past eight years, the company, which has customers in 41 states, has also retooled itself from a long-run to a short-run printer. Average run sizes dropped from a million copies to 300,000.
Lane estimated Dingley Press spends $10 million a year on paper from Maine mills, including in Jay and Rumford. The company has 200 Maine-based vendors and spends another $6 million with them. He estimated payroll at $13 million, for a total of almost $30 million in the state’s economy each year.
Pierce said he started working at Dingley in 1972, right out of college. He was surprised when his boss proposed he buy the company in 1980 — he’d been set to look for another job once the company got word Bean was moving to a larger printer — but he took on the challenge.
Similarly, when he bought it in October 2013, he felt optimistic for its potential. He credited loyal customers and employees for recent growth.
“I’m very pleased I bought it back,” Pierce said.
Dingley’s Lisbon Street headquarters have expanded from the original 60,000 square feet in 1988 to 268,000 today. The company leases another 100,000 square feet in Lewiston for distribution.
The factory floor is wide open with all manner of fast-moving equipment: machines that blow inserts between catalog pages, machines that stitch and bundle and the high-speed presses themselves with paper zipping through at 20 to 25 mph.
Bryan Earle of Lisbon started there 14 years ago when he was 20. A machine operator who oversees a crew of five people, he’s weeks from a promotion to customer service account manager. It’s been a good company to work for, Earle said.
With the rise of the internet, it has been surprising that catalogs have endured, he said, but “there’s a demographic that would rather thumb through a catalog than read everything on a screen.”
Marc Thibault, 39, a press operator from Gardiner, started with Dingley in 1999 as a temporary worker from Bonney Staffing.
“We’ve had plenty of highs and lows throughout the years,” he said. “Every time we get new equipment in here, it’s great. It creates a little stress, but it’s great for the employees, great for the company.”
Thibault said the job has given him an interesting perspective on even doing something as simple as walking down the aisle at a grocery store.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff, magazines, catalogs, even cereal boxes — you pick up a box and it’s blurry, you know why it’s like that,” he said. “I’ve got a friend who still thinks I work at a paper mill. They know where you work, but they don’t know what you do.”
Dingley Press President and CEO Eric Lane, right, talks with first press operator Bill Keating about a recent printing job. Dingley Press in Lisbon is one of five major catalog printers left in the U.S.
Dingley Press President and CEO Eric Lane, right, talks with first press operator Bill Keating about a job they are printing at the Lisbon facility, which is preparing for a $17 million expansion.
Marc Thibault, a press operator at Dingley Press, joined the company in 1999 as a temporary worker through Bonney Staffing. “When I started, the company was really, really growing and then we hit a spot where we didn’t expand — now it’s expanding again,” he said. Dingley announced a $17 million investment this week.
A print job rolls off a press at Dingley Press in Lisbon.
Bryan Earle stands near skids of 24-page printed sections waiting to be bound at Dingley Press. A machine operator in the bindery, he started with the Lisbon company 14 years ago. “It’s a small piece of the pie, but it’s very rewarding to see the process all the way through,” he said.
An automated palletizer prepares a job for shipment at Dingley Press in Lisbon.
One of the specialized pieces of equipment at Dingley Press.