Last month, CEO Wendi Breuer of SeaChange Print Innovations watched as a crew delivered a $2 million HP inkjet press.
It is the latest investment at a Plymouth-based company that sprung from the ashes of a failed printer at the same location five years ago.
The high-speed, flexible-printing machine cuts waste and pollution and is the capstone of a $10 million investment by Breuer and the investors who bought the assets of the former company. They hired Breuer to revive SeaChange in a no-growth industry as an integrated digital marketer as well as provider of printed material.
“We look now more like a collaborative creative agency for our clients,” said Breuer, 50, who started out 30 years ago as a receptionist at the former Litho Printing in St. Paul. “We’re excited to bring this technology to clients as they execute targeted marketing strategies.”
Annual revenue at the company has grown from $9 million in 2014 to $21 million last year, while employment climbed from 65 to 100. A few years ago, people worried about their jobs in a plant where the roof leaked and the air conditioning didn’t extend beyond the former boss’ office. Now they are basking in a comfortable facility that generates positive cash flow.
A wage freeze that lasted years was replaced by annual reviews and raises, profit-based bonuses and a 401(k) retirement match.
The former CEO’s office is now a spacious client-reception area and conference room. The employee lunchroom and bathrooms have been remodeled. A new roof was installed, complete with solar panels. Those investments sent a signal to workers that they mattered.
“The family that bought the assets of the old company, including the building, saw very good people here,” Breuer said. “They had invested with the previous owner and that failed. They either needed to sell the assets or hire a new leader ... I came in and thought, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’ll just get another job.’ The printing industry has struggled. I had a vision for a new company. I just had to find the right talent and make the right investments in the people, the culture and the technology.”
Earlier this year, Breuer was named “Woman Business Owner of the Year” for her company’s success by the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. Not bad for a kid who grew up pumping gas and cleaning windows at her dad’s service station in Hendricks, Minn., about 190 miles southwest of the Twin Cities.
Breuer moved to St. Paul more than 30 years ago to attend Hamline University. She worked three jobs to get through college. One of them was a two-year internship at the former Litho Printing, in Energy Park, near the Hamline campus.
“I did every job from receptionist to hand-kitting, estimating, the pressroom, customer service and sales,” Breuer recalled.
Breuer spent two decades at Litho. She left after the company was acquired by an industry consolidator, for a top sales job at the John Roberts Co. in Coon Rapids.
Meanwhile, Jim Hannon, a business troubleshooter, was trying to assist SeaChange’s predecessor company in a turnaround. The assets of the firm were acquired by the new ownership group, which concluded that new leadership was needed.
“The only person I knew who could get it done was Wendi,” said Hannon, who had become a mentor of Breuer while she was at Litho in the mid-1990s when he worked with the company.
“Wendi was one of the top two salespeople by the time I got to Litho and she was one of the most professional, client-focused salespeople I’d ever seen,” Hannon recalled. “And she had aspirations to be an executive.”
Breuer met with the family that owned the assets of SeaChange and agreed to invest in the future with them.
“There was professional risk for her to leave an established company and walk into a building where the roof leaks and it had old offset-printing equipment and no air conditioning in the plant,” Hannon said. “The company had good people. They just needed good leadership and good equipment geared to the right markets.”
“Wendi knew where the industry is going,” Hannon added. “She is smart. More importantly, she works hard. Constantly. She knows her industry and where she wants to go. She creates a good culture, treats people as equals and with respect. She’s trustworthy.”
Breuer replaced several executives. She hired Arin Brown, a young technologist from a larger printer, who embraced her vision for a technology-driven marketing agency that customizes solutions for customers, from one-off printing jobs of annual reports to a marketing campaign that integrates digital-and-print approaches. That includes data analytics and “live-order tracking” that allows customers to see their product produced and distributed.
Breuer said SeaChange’s double-digit annual sales gains are rooted in effective use of technology — and also in her belief that customers and employees want to be engaged collaboratively in innovative approaches rooted in trust and respect.
“We also give the employees opportunity to learn and grow,” Breuer said. “We try to be a ‘strength finder for people. We want them engaged. That also makes them more productive. We also have regular celebrations. I also walk the floor a lot. And I know everybody’s name.”