Bliss Communications diversifies business with commercial work
JANESVILLE By no stretch of the imagination is Skip Bliss fluent in Spanish, Russian, Romanian or Arabic.
But his business, Bliss Communications, is becoming more so as it gains favor as the printer of choice for a variety of ethnic newspapers in those and other languages.
Bliss is now printing a growing number of ethnic and other publications at its printing and distribution plant on Janesville’s east side.
The state-of-the-art facility opened in 2007, initially printing just The Janesville Gazette.
But it was never intended to solely print and distribute the Gazette. The plant’s high-tech KBA Comet press—then and now the envy of newspaper printers around the world—always was intended to take on additional commercial printing work.
“When I came on in March of 2008, I think there was a vision but not really a plan for the facility,” said Tony Smithson, the company’s vice president of printing operations. “Having done this type of thing before, I looked at it and said ‘Wow, there is a lot of potential here.’”
The commercial side of the business started slow, as Smithson sought to add several small printing accounts instead of one or two larger ones.
He found a publisher of a Russian newspaper in Chicago, and signed a contract for his print work in Janesville. Other publishers of ethnic papers then started calling Smithson.
“A lot of it was word of mouth,” he said. “These people all know and talk to one another.”
Most of the publications are printed on either a weekly, biweekly or monthly schedule and are distributed in the Chicago area. Most are small runs, ranging in size from 1,000 copies to 10,000.
Smithson and Bliss said the smaller runs are perfect for their press, which is highly automated and designed to reduce waste.
“With our old Metro press downtown, there were many times when the first 1,000 papers off the press were nothing more than waste,” Bliss said. “With the new press, we’ve had saleable papers in the first 75.
“That’s a huge advantage and makes us cost competitive on these smaller runs.”
Bliss admits that building and equipping the $22 million facility was a huge gamble, particularly with his core newspaper and radio business on the brink of recession.
But he’s starting to see the payoff, and he said the plant’s potential is only limited by the number of hours in a day.
Many media publications are struggling to cut costs, and the presses that are printing those publications are aging and outdated in terms of technology.
“They’re increasingly looking to outsource their printing,” Smithson said. “They want to be publishers, but not printers.
“The timing of this plant couldn’t have been better, because nobody else in our area is going to be investing in a facility like this any time soon, so we’re a barrier to entry.”
While the new press is operating at just 30 percent of its capacity, Bliss is confident that will grow soon.
His media company is not alone in facing core business challenges and their financial implications, all in a struggling economy.
“We think there are several weeklies in our area and two or three daily newspapers that could benefit from our press,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to argue with the logic: This press can cut their printing costs, produce a better product and offer revenue opportunities because it can print color on every page.”
Often, he said, the toughest challenge is convincing a fellow publisher to part with his press.
“The press is the anchor of their business, and when you start talking about not printing on it, it just tears their guts out,” Bliss said.
On Monday, Bliss started printing the Watertown Daily Times, a six-day-a-week newspaper that’s been independently owned and operated since 1895.
The Times joins the Gazette and the Monroe Times for a daily press run. The press also prints The Onion for the Madison market, as well as a variety of other alternative and weekly publications.
On any given night, there’s a long line of publications queued up for printing.
Today’s Gazette, for example, came off the press just before the Monroe Times and El Informador. But it was seventh in line, printing after a television guide insert for Monroe, Puro Futbol, the Lake Geneva Regional News, Reklama Weekend, the Chicago Telugu Times and the Romanian Tribune.
Thursday nights are typically the busiest, with as many as 13 publications in line. The record, Smithson said, is 15 different press runs on one 10-hour shift.
About 30 people work in printing and distribution jobs at the plant.
“This is a growth business for us,” Bliss said. “We still have a tremendous amount of excess capacity, but I’m confident that this is a source of revenue that will continue for a long time for us.
“It was definitely a timely investment.”