Community Printers: A successful worker co-op

Many of the printers that were here 10 years ago are gone today. Why are we still a vibrant business?

Community Printers as a Co-op

In the early days of Community Printers we saw ourselves more like a non-profit than as a for profit corporation. We printed for groups in the community to support their efforts. We were young. None of us saw ourselves with families or mortgages. We weren't concerned about "owning" Community Printers so we aligned our growing business with a non-profit to be part of something bigger than us. This decision changed the way we related to the assets of Community Printers. We saw the assets as a resource held in trust for the community rather than a commodity that we might cash in at some point.

Most of the other co-ops in our community saw each worker as owning a share in the company. Over time though, the co-ops that gave people shares, would have to buy people out as they left. Typically that lead to two tiers of employees ...those that were there from the beginning that had shares and those that came later. It became harder and harder to give the new employees shares because it was not fair to those who had been around for a long time and so those co-ops  morphed first to large partnerships and in some cases to sole proprietorships.  The businesses didn't fail, but they changed to a different form of ownership.

By sheltering the assets of Community Printers as stock held by the non-profit, we allowed the experiment in democratic management to develop into a substantial business.  This was more accidental than planned. Community Printers  matured as a worker run business because the people working in the business matured. We have a very stable workforce.  Initially we attracted young idealists interested in making a difference in the world. The early collective members were self taught in printing. Now we tend to attract experienced printers looking for a healthy and stable work environment. The fact that we are a co-op adds to the appeal but for many is not the main reason they here. There is a long wait list to get a job at CP due to our reputation in the community for quality, integrity and reliability.


The printing industry has seen great technological transformation over  the last 30 years. We have had to completely retrain ourselves at least 4 distinct times learning  new skills along the way. Why has Community Printers survived? Part of the answer is that we did not make any really dumb mistakes. Big decisions need sign off by the larger group. Everyone takes their role on the board of directors very seriously. Many printers invested too heavily during good times or bought the wrong technologies that ultimately put too much of a burden on the business. In hind site equipment lenders were way to quick to make loans without sufficient collateral or a well thought out business plan. Our collective decision-making process is cautious because of  the number of people who give input on the big decisions. To balance that, we have created a culture that embraces change as a necessary part of the business cycle so we continue to push to reinvent. Our business model would not grow a business like eBay or Google, but it turned out to be a good model for a local print shop. We have grown and changed every year taking on new technologies and different types of jobs as we go.

For comparison, the newspaper industry is in turmoil right now - partly because it must learn to adjust to new technologies for communication. But part of the story is never talked about. In the 1980's and 1990's newspapers were bought and sold by ever growing media conglomerates. Each sale generated more debt that the newspaper had to service. It was ok while the newspaper industry was growing but once it started to contract it was too much of a burden to support many of these aquisitions. You don't need to look too far to see  this dynamic at play. The Santa Cruz Sentinel which has been bought and sold several times for for ever growing amounts is struggling today.  By comparison the Good Times, an independently owned newspaper with stable ownership, is doing well. These are very different businesses and of course other issues come to play but it highlights what can happen if a company incurs unproductive debt (debt which does not expand capabilities.) If a company borrows money to buy a printing press then the company has extended their earning potential. If a company borrows money to buy another company then unless they can cut costs or find other synergies as a result of the merger, it will cut into the companies profits.

This is similar to what has happened to Community Printers. The shop has been held under the same ownership for 35 years. During that time we invested in new technology, we bought our building and put aside a reserve. We are still around while our industry has contracted considerably. We are also reinventing ourselves yet again with new technologies.

Our business model is not for everyone. In some ways it evolved accidently. It is difficult to define what makes for success in business. No one is getting rich at Community Printers. The profit that we make is  widely distributed so no one person has anything significant financially to show for the years of work, but at the same time we are doing a pretty good job of taking care of 31 employees and their families. We all get a decent wage and an excellent benefit package. There is a strong sense of satisfaction from having produced a beautiful product at the end of each day and it is very rewarding to be able to do print projects for great organizations for free: a priceless benefit of working here. As a rule the shop has always donated more printing to local causes than we have put away in profit in any given year.

Our assets far exceed our liabilities...we are always current with all our vendors and we have a reserve in the bank that has allowed us to weather some tough times. During hard times we have avoided layoffs through sharing sacrifice sometimes cutting hours, once we even cut wages. Conversely, when times are good we have been able to offer wage increases, bonuses and profit sharing.  By throwing our lot in together we continue to grow as a business. We believe that our true value lies not just in our printing presses but in our people.

Tell us what you think. How do you define success when you look at a business.

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