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Why This Company Bought North Carolina's Oldest Printing Business Entrepreneur stops the presses for a Q&A with Chris Andrews, an AlphaGraphics franchisee.

By Jason Daley

This story appears in the October 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Peter Taylor
Just his type: Chris Andrews of AlphaGraphics.

There's a giant letterpress at Chris Andrews' AlphaGraphics franchise in Raleigh, N.C., along with three or four metric tons of lead type in an array of fonts. The 28-year-old has considered scrapping the stuff, which takes up a lot of space. But then again, he occasionally mulls the idea of getting the old printer working again to capitalize on the letterpress trend.

It's an unusual dilemma for a franchisee, but it's fitting for a business that brought together the oldest and second-oldest printing companies in the Tar Heel State under the AlphaGraphics banner.

Andrews' great-great-grandfather started the Owen G. Dunn Co. in 1902 in New Bern, N.C., printing business cards, ledgers and brochures. About 15 years ago, under the leadership of Andrews' father, Owen, the company began specializing in election supplies (ballots, signs, voting booths) as well as service and maintenance of digital voting equipment and tabulators. But when the younger Andrews and longtime friend Mike Linden joined the business in 2010, the idea was to reinvigorate the printing component; teaming with AlphaGraphics seemed like an ideal way to bring the Dunn company into the 21st century.

After opening two units in New Bern, the Andrews expanded to nearby Raleigh. But instead of starting there from scratch, they bought Commercial Printing, North Carolina's oldest printing company, founded in 1894 by the Moore family.

We stopped the presses long enough to ask Andrews what it's been like bringing two legacy businesses together with an AlphaGraphics twist.

Why buy another company? Why not just start from scratch?

We were looking to acquire someone that had a brand name, location and equipment so we wouldn't have to build things from the ground up. We looked at a couple of places, then my dad said we should talk to Ralph Moore and see what his legacy plans were. Ralph said he wanted to leave the company to someone in his family, but no one was interested. He wanted someone who would keep the name and continue the operation.

We understood, because we felt there were similarities between our companies. A place with so much history—it's got to be hard to shut it down. So we made a deal with Ralph, and AlphaGraphics let us co-brand the name, which is something they don't ordinarily do. We're called Commercial Printing Powered by AlphaGraphics.

Are there advantages to buying such an old company?

If you're coming into the industry from the outside, you don't want to spend money on offset printing equipment and the space for it. Most franchisees want to run lean with digital printing. But since we're a company that has done offset for 100 years, we see it as an advantage. If one of our other units has an overrun, or a project is better suited for offset, we have that capacity. We saw acquiring all that old equipment as an advantage. Someone coming out of the pharmaceuticals industry and into printing wouldn't understand it.

Were customers accepting of the change to a franchise?

Really, it's an advantage to the existing customer base, because we are bringing additional capabilities. They already trust us as a vendor, and now we have added large-format and digital printing and are able to provide them with trade-show materials and promotional products. And we can do shorter runs than we did in the past. We've been open around nine months. I think we're past the point where people would have left if they were scared off by the change.

Do you feel you have an obligation to the Moore family legacy?

It's kind of weird, like I've inherited another father or grandfather that I have to represent. It's not so much the building that carries the legacy but the level of service that Commercial Printing has a reputation for. We want customers to feel the same way as when the Moore family was in charge. And Ralph is still around occasionally. He doesn't have an official role, but he's emotionally invested in this place and has a stake in the game because he wants us to carry on his legacy. He helps us with key accounts. And he can still run a stack of business cards through the printer when he needs to.

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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