Without fanfare, the North American Graphic Arts Suppliers Association (NAGASA) quietly went out of business in July 2006. Dating back to its founding organization, NGADA, this organization was 25 years old. Many didn’t know that this occurred, or that the association even existed. Personally, we will miss the opportunity that NAGASA represented, as no other organization serves the same purpose.
For dealers who serve the digital print marketplace, NAGASA once served as a unifying and edifying force. That potential was never realized. While some tried hard to get NAGASA’s management to expand into other print dealer communities and even to embrace some of the progressive printers in North America, it never happened.
The companies in the digital dealer community—other than Pitman and Enovation Graphic Systems, and a few strong independents in the graphic arts world that have diversified their offerings—are very different than the ones that used to be part of NAGASA. Yet their needs are very similar. Also, the diverse community of dealers now serving the digital market resemble that of the old graphic arts community of 25 years ago when a potent dealer organization was first launched.
At that time, the printer community was composed of many thousands of small shops. There were also typesetters and color trade shops. The dealers were a diverse and independent lot. And there was a wide array of vendors, domestic and international. Perhaps the signs are aligning for a movement to be launched in today’s digital dealer world as occurred two and a half decades ago among the graphic arts dealers.
In 1999, as consolidation and new technology were shrinking the ranks of printers, dealers, and manufacturers, NAGASA formulated a millennium committee, charged with determining how to move forward. This ended in failure as the board of directors couldn’t agree on both the goals and the need to put resources into expanding the membership. Faced with dwindling membership, and no tradeshow to keep it afloat, no raise in dues could have been suggested that would have kept finances in order.
We should note that Graph Expo profits go to support NPES, the equipment supplier organization for print. SGIA’s expo goes a long way to support the goals of the screen/specialty print organization, and ISA’s expo supports the International Sign Organization. All of these also bring in funding from an educational track that adds to their financial impact. Although the organizations behind these events do provide real benefits for their members, they are sometimes seen by manufacturers and attendees alike more as real estate companies with their interest in selling booth space, rather than as interested parties providing an integrated market service to the community.
NAGASA was a different type of organization and more closely resembles what the digital dealer community would need and fully appreciate today. Its goals were to promote the knowledge and the strength of the selling dealers, so that they could both do a better job representing their manufacturers, and perhaps even more important, by banding together they could get a better deal from the manufacturers that would also help them to do a better job. Without strong dealers, no manufacturer can do well. Without manufacturers that care about their dealers’ health, both sides seem to struggle. The goal of NAGASA was to create an organization where both were encouraged to participate and where open discussions could improve the marketplace’s opportunity for all.
NAGASA’s annual forum, a coming together of members of both communities in a neutral site with little commercialism allowed, worked well for a while. Its reports to the membership, based upon polling the members and providing useful business statistics allowed useful information about the greater market to become available to all, whether large or small. Information was developed that helped all to become profitable members of the community.
Perhaps the biggest overall problem was the deep seated mistrust that had developed between the graphic arts consumable dealers and their supplier manufacturers at the time NGADA was formed. Over the last ten years, we heard that the level of mistrust was so great that there could never be frank conversations, in public, between the groups. As the market narrowed, and the number of competitors dwindled, they seemed more interested in keeping information from becoming public, than in using this public forum to help to manage the coming demise of the graphic arts supply community.
Now, as we roam the halls of ISA, SGIA, Graph Expo, and the like, and see the participation of both the manufacturer community and the dealer community, there is no organization that can help them both to succeed. The good news is that today’s dealers and the emerging digital manufacturers don’t have the history of bad blood that was evident in the analog graphic arts community.
Recent work in talking to and finding manufacturers for various product lines has found the opportunity to have open discussions refreshing. Many of these dealers are just entering the digital equipment fray in recent times. They may have come out of the sale of ink, paper, and other printing materials. They have learned or are learning where they can add equipment that provides solutions to their customer base, rather than just selling supplies as a commodity. If a supply dealer can sell a digital printer, for example, this can tie them together with the customer for many years.
Some of the dealers even come from other industries. Two we’ve met recently are out of the printed circuit industry. This industry, as most production of electronics has moved off shore, has been decimated and left with only prototyping. They are groping for new businesses within which they can provide what they know and begin to prosper once again. In that world, the dealers provided guidance on complete solutions that would include equipment and the ancillary products to move printed circuit boards through the manufacturing process. Similar initiatives are necessary in digital printing. A printer is not enough any more. Board loaders and off-loaders must be added to automate the new digital presses and to provide in line and/or near line, just in time finishing necessary to meet the needs of final printed products that can be sold.
So, the dealers that we’re seeing come from vastly different backgrounds, with vastly different experience bases, with vastly different kinds of manufacturers. Some dealers used to be graphic arts pre-press dealers, some commercial sign equipment dealers, some in the traffic sign business, some selling to commercial photo labs, some were digital reprographics dealers, others may have sold to screen printers, and some, like the printed circuit VAR/dealers, didn’t know anything about print at all. Yet, due to the changes associated with digital print technology, and a changing marketplace, they are all becoming amalgamated into the new world of digital print.
Who is there to help them learn from each other’s successes and failures? Who is there to help sort out the good dealers from the marginal ones, as new products are brought to the market? Who can help bridge the different knowledge bases to get the best possible channels for a growing industry? Who can provide guidance on common legal and employee issues? Who can provide some of the glue that all would find helpful in making business decisions common to this type of business?
Can we hope that the manufacturer-sponsored dealer groups can rise to the challenge? We think not; they are more interested in controlling sales rather than providing business guidance.
We had hoped that NAGASA could have provided that leadership to a changing marketplace. It had not come near to providing this for at least a half dozen years, but it was all that we had. And, now it is gone. At this moment, we don’t see any other organization that is capable of pulling this off. Will anybody come forward and give it a try?