Washington-area commercial printers are reeling from a one-two punch dealt them recently by the economic recession and a nearly $30 million cut in federal printing procurements, which provide nearly a fifth of their half-billion-dollar annual business.
The Government Printing Office paid about $114 million to Washington- and Baltimore-area printers in fiscal 1981, more than 20 percent less than it spent the year before, according to GPO estimates. The reduction was a result of Reagan administration economy moves that ended publication of more than 1,000 federal publications.
So far this fiscal year, government printing awards to commercial firms are about 14 percent below last year's level, but officials say they expect the 1982 total to approximate the $460 million spent nationwide last year.
"In terms of printing here in Washington, the government cutback was a devastating move," said Bill Blackwell, marketing chief of Columbia Planograph Co., Inc., of Beltsville, a firm that has been almost exclusively a government printer since 1910.
Blackwell said that government printing as a percentage of his total workload dropped from 90 percent in 1980 to 50 percent in 1981, causing him to lay off 40 employes for several months. Dollar volume for the company fell from $10 million in 1980 to $8 million in 1981.
"We have had to change our whole direction--to be more of a commercial printer," said Blackwell, who, like several other local printers, is seeking to tap new private-industry markets in Washington and throughout the United States.
Not only have printers felt the sting of government cutbacks, but they also have been hurt by the recession, according to Kenneth A. Kaufman of Washington-based Newsletter Services, Inc., which prints more than 300 newsletters. Kaufman estimated there has been a 20 percent falloff in newsletter renewals and new subscriptions in the past several months.
Last year may have marked the first time that local printers took it on the chin from recession and government cutbacks, says Robert Gold, an analyst at the National Capital Planning Commission in Washington. Gold says that, unlike the present administration, most previous administrations have met recession with increased spending--and presumably with increased printing.
The shrinking of the pool of printing jobs has caused rough-and-tumble competition, which appears to have driven down printing prices.
"In some cases, prices are lower this year than last year," said Barry Heyman, government marketer for Art Litho, Inc., of Baltimore, which gets nearly 20 percent of its business from the federal government. Heyman said that it is now common to see 20 bidders for a job that once attracted fewer than 10. In addition, newsletter publishers say they're being besieged with printers vying for their business, and a GPO spokesman said that competition has caused some bids to drop 2 percent from what they were six months ago.
"I think there are going to be a couple years of slow growth, low growth or no growth in the local printing business," said Ben Cooper, spokesman for the Printing Industries of America, an Arlington-based trade group that represents most of the commercial printers in the United States.
New printers have laid off workers permanently, however, partly because they want to hold on to their hard-to-replace skilled labor, according to Charles E. Cook, a printing industry analyst at the Department of Commerce.
Some printers are fleeing the government printing market to the refuge of what they see as a comparatively secure private market.
"I'm just slowly writing off the federal government," said Lloyd Sample, president of United Litho, Inc., in Falls Church, who saw his $1 million 1980 GPO printing account halved in 1981. Sample hopes his national direct-mail campaign to solicit color-catalog printing will help him reduce government jobs from 10 percent of his total volume to 5 percent.
"What most of these companies are trying to do is limit government work to 10 to 30 percent of their work," said Cooper.
Cook suggested that local firms follow Sample's lead and reach out for commercial jobs.
"I would say the more aggressive printers are out on the street looking to fill their presses and are not restricting their search to the Washington area, but are going to Richmond and Baltimore," he said.
One area printer says he has survived government cutbacks without any problems.
"We really have not suffered, and we can't really agree with those people that are running around moaning," said William Nucci, president of Computer Business Supplies, Inc., in Rockville, the parent firm to Craftsman Press, Inc., a company that depends on the federal government for most of its $20 million business.
Some area printers fear that the consolidation early this year of the regional GPO procurement office with the main GPO office will result in more federal contracts going to national firms, but GPO officials say that since national firms are always free to bid on all government printing jobs, there is no reason why area firms would not have equal access to bid.
Statistics are not yet available on the percentage of government jobs going to local printers since the consolidation has gone into effect, said GPO procurement manager Pat Havey. She said she has begun posting all bids at the agency's Washington headquarters so all printers will have access to government jobs.
Suburban Maryland printers snared about 75 percent of area government printing awards in fiscal 1979, the last year for which GPO breakdowns are available. Maryland printers do more government work than those in any other state. Virginia is the third-largest recipient of government printing awards.
In 1981, commercial printers employed about 8,000 people in the Washington metropolitan area, according to a Commerce Department estimate. The printing industry as a whole, including publishers of periodicals, employs about a third of the entire area work force involved in manufacturing, Commerce figures indicate.