It’s long been held as a truism that bigger means better, but for Paul Strack and his Custom XM printing shop, better means “leaner, greener and more efficient.” He developed that principle over his three decades of overseeing the family business – which was founded by his parents in 1966 – and helping it thrive even as the printing industry shifted from massive offset printing machines to a digital focus.
This year has marked the most dramatic change yet for the North Little Rock-based Custom XM, as it moved out of its longtime 10,000 square foot facility on Pike Avenue to a new, 2400 square foot headquarters in the heart of Argenta’s business district. The new space affords Strack and his six-person staff (which includes Michael, one of his sons) the opportunity to show off their ever-growing array of custom-printed goods, which includes everything from calendars to clothing, in a front lobby display that’s already seeing a much larger flow of steady foot traffic.
“One of the reasons for changing was that as our business and industry have changed over time, a lot has been driven by technology and the internet,” said Strack. “We have contracted because of the new technologies not needing giant equipment, so we have a lot less footprint and we don’t have the big offset presses that used to be common in the industry. We’ve gone all digital, which has less footprint, is much cleaner, much greener and more efficient.”
Paul’s parents, Ira and Mary Lee Strack, started Custom XM under the name Custom Printing in 1966, and quickly established it as a major player on the metropolitan business scene. Always seeking innovations to improve both their service and profitability, the shop was one of the first printers in the Little Rock area to embrace new “direct-to-plate” technology in the early 1970s, while adding high-speed copiers by the end of that decade.
The addition of a Kodak 350 high-volume, high-speed copier enabled the Stracks to run short run, black ink, letter and legal size jobs on the copier instead of its press. Paul’s addition to the business in 1990 and promotion to president 1996 coincided with the move from typesetting to desktop publishing and the addition of digital color printing.
As Custom Printing began to reposition itself to welcome “cross-media, interactive marketing solutions,” it changed its name to Custom XM. Strack has since added a Kodak NEXPRESS digital color production press in addition to Kodak Dimensional Printing, which offers digitally printed images that mimic the surface of the items in the image.
Not every innovation has worked out in the long run. In 2012, CustomXM created the state’s first virtual shopping wall at McCain Mall, using a product display with a QR code that took customers to an online purchase point. Customers could thus shop online and on the fly, between stops at the actual brick and mortar stores in the mall itself, but the wall was phased out after just six months.
Thankfully, Strack has a sense of humor about his attempts at digital printing.
“That was our most memorable decision that didn’t work out,” he laughs. “One thing that had set us apart was we were always very nimble, being a smaller company, and looked for ways to adapt and change. We thought 3D printing was going to be the next thing on the horizon that would lead us into the future, but it was a mess. Sometimes it’s good to be on the leading edge of technology, but sometimes that leaves you on the bleeding edge of technology.”
Strack’s resilience has been tested this year by the troubles caused by the COVID-19 economic downturn, during which “our print nearly came to a standstill” in March and early April. Among the clients that disappeared for a time was a regular national job printing membership contracts for health clubs nationwide, and his booming business in event marketing for trade associations. Yet, as always, he had an innovative solution.
“We started designing masks and COVID-related products – social distancing signs, window signs saying ‘We’re closed’ and social distancing signs,” explained Strack, who counts juggling fire batons among his hobbies. “That got us through the summer, and by the time Covid subsided we hoped print would come back. It’s come close.
“Print is not back the way it was, but we are seeing marketing coming back in,” he added. “We’re producing custom boxes that people put the goodies they’d give away at trade shows in and send them to people who would have attended or constituents. Right now, from July on, we’ve been pretty close to where we were last year. Print is not all the way back up, but we have new products filling the void.”