A third-generation printer, Ackerman was inspired by his grandfather, a World War II veteran and printer with the U.S. military, the late Martin Joyce, to collaborate with Ackerman’s mother, Barbara Ackerman in growing her own fledgling business from out of her garage into one of San Diego’s most dynamic printing companies.
Catholic Business Journal caught Thomas Ackerman between printing orders and dragged him away from his printing presses long enough to talk with him about his company, the challenges of running a small business, and the ways in which his and his mother’s Catholic faith play a part in keeping the spirit of Spirit in the letters, words, pictures and all other impressions their company produces.
Catholic Business Journal (CBJ): What made you decide to go into printing in the first place?
Thomas Ackerman (TA): I try to keep everything simple and to the point—I’m like my mom in that way, a type-A personality, head strong and a self starter. To be honest, I don’t like to take orders from others (unless they’re printing orders!). At the same time, I’m very people oriented but I always knew I wanted to do something creative and make a difference when trying to build businesses. I also always knew I was going to be going into business for myself.
By my early teens I knew I wanted to go into the printing business because it was part of my DNA. When I was three or four years old, I was in the printing office with my mother, drawing and doing things in the office while she worked. This was back when we didn’t have babysitters or childcare, and so mom took me with her. It was easy to stay occupied while she did her work.
Then, while I was going to school, I studied criminal law and wanted to go into law enforcement. I actually passed the police exam but missed the fire exam by a few points. In Sunnyvale you can be a police officer and a fireman. I really wanted to be a fireman and at the time you can extend fire duties to at least three years. In the meantime while I was studying to retake and pass the fire exams (something which I had never studied for) I was really starting to work more with my mom and business started to snowball into larger accounts.
CBJ: How did you learn about the printing business?
TA: Back in high school, I was already doing simple jobs for my mother’s business and I would come home from school and take on printing jobs for her in the evenings after doing homework. That was a big deal for a high school student—I was making at least $1,500 a month and so for me it was a financial windfall. But besides that, I realized I really enjoyed producing things and got into the printing business because mom had a printing company in her garage while she worked for a larger printing facility for a large banking institution and I could be a part of that business.
During college I started doing other things and grew out and learned what I liked to do and what I didn’t like to do in the printing business. I liked to do printing work, and so hired out to another company and took on all the work that such a job entailed. I started running one-color presses, learning all aspects of the printing industry from stripping and burring to bindery. At that point, my whole goal was to learn the business and come back with a better understanding of the business so I could work with mom and help her grow her business.
I already had tools, and like I said, I learned things backwards. My last job before coming back to help my mom was working in sales for a larger printing business. I took all these tools coupled with my positive attitude and willingness to work hard, and my mother and I grew a pretty nice client base and we have never looked back.
CBJ: How far back does printing go in your family?
AT: Well, it began with my grandfather, Martin Joyce.It was in devoted service to our country that our beloved grandfather found his true calling in life. Grandpa Joyce joined the military in 1936 and became a member of the original Band of Brothers during World War II. While stationed at Governor’s Island he began his printing career, and when he was eventually transferred to Japan his superiors quickly recognized that he was not only highly skilled, but also entirely trustworthy. He was promptly given one of the highest security clearances on the base and began printing maps, top-secret documents, passports, Japanese currency, and daily situation reports.
When I look at my life, I realize that my grandfather and I walked similar paths; we both have many of the same interests, and printing is one of them. But in addition, we both love nature and gardening; we both love Asian culture; we both raised koi; and we both just happen to marry beautiful Asian woman. While my grandfather never owned his own company and worked for the military, he took his impressive printing experience to Palo Alto, CA, where he settled and began a 16-year career in the publishing department at Stanford University.
CBJ: Did you grandfather influence your mother to become a printer?
TA: My mother was always the creative type and that’s what she went into—artwork and that sort of thing. She was creative and so it was easy for her to get involved in printing. She was, as I said, a self-starter and had always been able to do a thousand things at once. She is the master at multi-tasking even to this day—and so when my mother got a job at a printing company, she would naturally rise to the top as a leader and wound up running the printing department. You have to understand, she was in an industry devoted to men and she would end up being their boss. That’s just how she is.
CBJ: How did Spirit get started business—where did your mother get the wherewithal and the capital to start it?
TA: My mother started Spirit out of her garage and with only a couple small tools to start with in there, including a small cutter, a small paper-folder and one small press. When she started, the machinery she had was very entry-level and the printing presses she had were good, but nowadays they’re the ones used to teach someone the basics of printing. She had, at the time, an AB-Dick 360 duplicator press and by the time I came along, we were looking at purchasing a new 9800 AB-Dick press. This was a larger press with better printing capabilities.
When I did get back from college, I helped grow the business and slowly but surely we grew it out of the garage and we eventually got our first commercial space. It was about a 1,500 square-foot space to work in and from which we built up relationships that helped the company grow.
That wasn’t the only time we moved, though; in fact, every time we moved, we met some key individuals and created relationships with them to help the company grow. As our clients grew we too grew out of necessity to keep up with our clients’ printing needs. Now we have grown into one of the most diversified printing businesses in San Diego. And it all began from one small press in the garage.
CBJ: Why is being “green” so important to Spirit?
TA: I began looking at environmentally sound business practices when I realized one day that my children were looking up to me. “That’s my dad, and he owns a business.” But is that enough? I began to wonder how my children would look at me if I didn’t do something to save a bit of the world for their generation. I love nature and I was born and raised around it. I love gardening and I saw my grandfather gardening, and he was proud of the fact that a very large percentage of what he ate is what he grew in his own backyard. He didn’t eat a lot of processed foods. I think this is one of the main reasons he lived a long healthy life to the age of 97 (He passed away last year).
And I also love to be out in nature—I’ve been surfing here in San Diego since I was a child, I love to fish with my sons. In fact, marine biology was something that I really wanted to study, but it was one of those things where I didn’t push myself in that direction. So I decided to make sure that my business practices were to the highest standards when it came to not polluting and having wasteful business practices.
I studied a lot and created a robust green business practice that helped us win many awards including the highest award given by the state of California to businesses that follow strict sustainable practices called the Cool California Award. The award is given in conjunction with the Clean Air Resources Board and the State of California. They are very stringent and even fly a team to your office to make sure that all the claims you make about your business’s clean practices are provable, measured and documented. We were very proud of what we accomplished in this area of business. We still to this day practice this and remain a green leader and first adapter in all things green in the printing industry.
CBJ: How does going green in the printing world compare to simply going “paperless”?
TA: Well, let’s take an example. You can read the newspaper on your computer and you might think you’re green but you’re really not.
Every time I pick up a newspaper, that newspaper I can look at over and over and over again. When I read a newspaper, I don’t have to turn on a switch to turn on power, and when I’m done with it, I can recycle it. Every time you turn on a computer, it pulls resources. That computer was created with a lot of resources, and some of those resources used within the computer are harmful to the environment. Every time you leave a computer on overnight, you waste valuable resources. Reading a newspaper the classic way is still better—and it’s the same story with a magazine or a book. I can pick up a book 150,000 times and still never kill a single tree and I can still recycle it. Every time you turn on a computer you’re killing a tree.
So there’s a lot of hypocrisy and misnomers. We’ve ruined more of everything in the U.S. because we leave all those computers on. There is even a computer here in the office I have to leave on overnight because that computer runs everything else and has to go through its paces. I was mad about that, at first, but to some extent in this day and age such things are unavoidable.
CBJ: Statistically, how does print compare to electronic production?
TA: There are a lot of things in the printing industry people don’t know about. We only use about 11 percent of all the trees felled in the U.S. each year—and that’s for everything—the newspaper industry, magazine industry, everything. The rest of the processed lumber goes to energy and housing.
The bottom line is green is good—and especially at a local level. The city of Chula Vista became a great client because they saw my passion for the environment, and my passion to do something different.
I also save thousands of gallons of water and chemicals and the reason I save money is the printing plates we use are a closed loop. They get used, they get recycled, and then they get turned into another product. There’s not a lot of waste. I can tell you I save between 5,000 and 10,000 gallons of water a week, and then I save about $2,000 in chemicals in a month. Now that the machine is paid off I save about $25,000 in chemicals a year.
There are benefits to going green—not just personally. People say they are green because they want to feel good. So they use it as a marketing tool. That’s fine. But you better be able to back up your boast—and if you can’t, well, as the expression goes, “Put up or shut up.”
CBJ: In addition to your relationship with the environment, how does Spirit see itself as a business making relationships?
TA: There are a lot of choices for printing with various online printing companies. Anyone can do it. Buy the software and create a website, and you send your work to a big printing company. All you have to do is have the jobs come through your website. On the other hand, Spirit is a customhouse. A lot of the online companies are job-specific; they are able to focus on things that would cost me more money, such as business cards, even if I tried to do my own business cards for Spirit here in-house.
So I’m open with my clients; I tell them I’m not going to do certain printing jobs in-house. Instead, I tell them, let’s take them somewhere else. We still make a little money on these outside jobs, but if you try to be everything to everyone online or otherwise, you’re only going to get a small percentage of the printing market. I wanted Spirit to be core to my local environment.
Relationships are huge for all of us here. When someone answers the phone here at Spirit, you have to treat the person on the other end like your best friend because that’s who’s paying your bills. Our clients have a choice where they can go. Because one client was already working with us, he told another individual looking for printing work done at Barona Casino [Lakeside, CA] and now that second person is also a client. I’ve been working with Barona Casino since 1994. They are one of the main reasons my company is successful.
CBJ: What are the other ingredients to success in your printing business?
AT: Four things. First, I treat my clients with respect and love; I understand that I’m a vendor for them. I can’t make their life difficult. My whole job is to make their life easier. Second, when they place an order, they know they’re getting it on time. Third, the price isn’t going to change and, fourth, the product they receive is going to be quality. And if it’s not a quality job, they know we’re going to fix it. Those are the four things we focus on. We continue to do that over and over. That’s what kept us in business.
CBJ: How does Spirit build relationships?
TA: It takes anywhere from a year to three years to build up a great relationship with a client.
I have one gentleman who has been working with this company since Barbara had founded Spirit in the garage in 1983. He was maybe a $200 a month account and now he’s up into a $10,000-$15,000 a month account. He runs a large tour company here in San Diego and we consider him family. When he calls I stop what I’m doing and I get on the phone with him, whether I’m having a good day or not. I do that because I know that all things pass—all things except the client. The bad mood will pass but the client has to feel important. I don’t care if you’re ordering 500 business cards or 50,000 brochures, you’re going to be treated the same way.
CBJ: Your father Thomas Ackerman, Sr., recently passed away. What part did your father play in the company?
TA: Actually, he did very little in terms of the actual company. He was retired military and taught autistic children. He was absolutely there for them—because the way he saw it, he was all they had. He loved the underdog. So my dad understood these children didn’t have people to help them, and they were going to schools where they were being teased. So he was there to protect them. He was intricate part of their lives, and he was outside the class with them, walking with them and making sure they were protected.
CBJ: What did your father teach you that you bring to the business?
TA: My father taught me to never give up. He was so impatient sometimes, but he taught me to be patient. You keep your head down, focus on what you know and be honest. Perseverance was also important. There are going to be good times, he said, and there are going to be bad times in life. But those sorts of things, he would say, are all static, background noise. You have to focus what you’re good at doing, what you’re passionate about, and that’s the key.
CBJ: How does your Catholic faith play a part in your business?
TA: The first logo for the company was the dove, which represents the Holy Spirit. Barbara came up with it as the logo back when the company was called Spirit Graphics and the dove was supposed to be the dove which came down to anoint the Apostles at Pentecost. The logo had a little fire above it with the dove descending. I also emphasize the word “spirit” in our current logo because of the spirit in which we treat the client.
You can see we’re full of spirit; this is what we do. We’re passionate about being a partner with our client. It really coms down to love—loving yourself, loving your clients and loving what you do. So I took the logo and emphasized the word “spirit” in that sense too.
CBJ: Had your Catholic faith ever been challenged in your work?
TA: I had a gentleman sit down with me at one point and he told me that he thought the Christian identity of our logo could be hurting our company. I told him I understand what he’s saying, but Spirit Printing Services is never going to change. That’s how people know us and that’s what we are.
When people ask us, I say we’re Catholic, and that’s part of our family heritage. I can’t mix the two in the sense that we don’t preach to others. Our work is not explicitly Catholic in that sense, unless for instance we’re getting an order for something like memorial cards, which we receive many orders for through the Diocese of San Diego.
The way society is right now, though, it’s very difficult to have a Catholic or Christian connotation to your business model. Not everyone is Catholic and not everyone is Christian. The minute you say you are, there are people who will not want to work with you. It’s difficult some times. That’s why I advertise with Dick Lyles’ radio show—it has a Christian and Catholic base, and that’s why I’m talking to Catholic Business Journal. I really want to connect more with other Christians and other Catholics, other people of faith, because there is a good dimension to this.
On the positive side, I hear from a lot of people who say they really like our logo and they like the fact that Spirit isn’t afraid to say it’s Christian. At one point I almost changed the name of the company and I thought and discerned that, no, this is who we are. I knew I could not change the name of my company.
I have had negative experiences with the name, but the positive far outweigh the negative. There is some ugliness there with the way people approach us; some think that religion and business should not be mixed. I don’t have a problem with that because I don’t preach through my business. Now, if you ask me about my faith, I’ll tell you where we come from, but I don’t preach about faith through business.
I also have a lot of clients who are Catholic and Christian, and we’ve had some amazing conversations, which have helped bolster the relationships.
But either way, we show who we are through our actions more than through words. It’s like St. Francis was thought to have said, “Preach the gospel and sometimes use words.” I shouldn’t have to tell anyone what kind of person I am; clients and potential clients should see it in my performance, in who I am as a person, as a father and business person.
CBJ: What are the rewards of owning a small business?
TA: First of all, it’s a reward being able to provide for the people who work here. I have six other employees and they’re all able to make a living. That’s the biggest part. The second is being able to help clients. My goal is not to make money only, but also to help clients.
One of the biggest benefits to this business is working with other small businesses in creating a good image and good printing. I have, for instance, artists coming in here all the time and I teach them how to also be a small business. They have a lot of passion and talent but they don’t have any business acumen. So I teach them how to sell and reproduce their art; I teach them all aspects of the printing side of the art business and give them the tools to be better artists. If you become a better artist you can eventually support yourself with your art.
The first artist I worked with was Sean Dietrich. I created a situation for him where he gained $40,000 to $80,000 in the first year I met him because I helped him find an investor. Since then, he’s gone ballistic, absolutely successful on his own. I’ve got my business and my passion, and my passion is to help small businesses be successful. For instance when you help someone create a new logo so people like it, you’re creating an opportunity for people to feed themselves. That’s huge.
CBJ: What were the low points in Spirit’s history?
TA: The lowest low point was the 2008 recession, which really hurt a lot of small businesses in San Diego. I watched people lose their houses—this story is in every town in America. It also affected a lot of people in other countries as well. Here in Chula Vista, my business with the city was down by 70 percent. During the recession, I had bought two buildings and a lot of expensive printing machines. There were some months we could barely pay our bills. I went 18 months to two years and took an almost 100 percent pay cut to make sure the employees were paid. I did everything I could to be creative to help diversify the business. Part of that was working with artists.
But as low as things got then, I said as I always say—things are going to be hard. You’re going to go through hard times. But if I didn’t have and nurture these relationships that Spirit has with people, my clients wouldn’t have continued to work with me during the recession. But they did. Everyone had a choice.
Most businesses were told that the first thing to save money on was marketing—printing, in other words. A lot of people think that all of marketing is Instagram and social media. It’s not. You have to go out and shake hands, network and create relationships. Social media is only 20 percent of marketing. For some it is 100 percent. But for many industries you have to have a variety of marketing tools at your fingertips, and one of them is printing.
During the height of the recession, 2008-2009, I made about $10,000 each year. It was just enough to pay bills. I have a wife who is a flight attendant and we were able to survive off her paycheck. I thought about selling the business and selling everything and paying off the bills we had. We were left high and dry; a lot of companies didn’t pay their bills. All client work was down in all industries. But I still had my debt I had to pay for, and so we had to do things to work with banks, companies and loans. That was eight or nine years ago.
CBJ: And what is the high point of Spirit?
TA: The high point is being able to make a living. Through the recession, I realized this too would pass. I think a big part of our faith and our business—and a big part of being a Catholic family—is the fact that we have faith. We knew, no matter what, that God is in control. You have to take a deep breath, focus and do what you have to to survive. Afterwards, we paid off the machinery. We started focusing on debt, and got rid of our leases, and the work slowly started to come back. The recession began to ease a little bit. It’s probably never going to be the way it was, say, back in 1996, but we diversified and started working with artists and artists were still selling work during the recession.
I started a whole other aspect of the business that dealt with art reproduction. It was a real plus coming out the recession. It allowed me to apply my years of small business knowledge and impart that to all these small businesses which were artists. The biggest thing is, you can succeed in hard times, if you’re patient enough and keep your mind and eyes open, and your head clear and focus on the positive things in your life. If you focus on the negative, that’s all you’re going to see. You’re going to continue to see that negative thing in your life. I turned my back on the negative things in my life and focused on the positive and started creating new relationships with other people, such as artists.
CBJ: What other ventures has Spirit taken on since the recession?
TA: After my success working with artists, I stated doing architecture and engineering design as another business in my company.
Then I also started a digital printing business—and another which produced posters and banners in large format.
The recession taught me to stop focusing on just printing and focus on the larger part of the printing industry, which includes different types of printing. But you can do so much more for people now too in different mediums—we print on wood, on glass, on canvases, for art and photography. It’s a whole other business inside my business.
CBJ: What difference does working in a family business make?
TA: That’s another high point—being able to work with my family every day, and coming to work every day in the printing business.
Make an impression?
Does Thomas Ackerman’s story of success despite the odds inspire you to find success amid the challenges of running a business? Have you thought of ways in which your company or business can increase sustainability in practical and feasible ways? Feel free to let us know in the Comments section (you must register first to prevent spam), or on our FaceBook page.
Joseph O’Brien is a correspondent with Catholic Business Journal. He lives in Wisconsin.