Printer expands into laser world McGregor company hopes to fill niche with new division

March 16, 1997|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The venerable McGregor Printing Corp. has launched a multimillion-dollar expansion into modern laser technology -- and at its heart is a former soldier and seminarian who always wanted to be a printer.

Robert N. Ludrick, 47, vice president at McGregor and general manager of its new Mail Line division, hopes to fill a niche by taking on creative jobs that are too small or too specialized for bigger companies.

To that end, he has assembled a team of artistic people from inside and outside the company, such as the maintenance man who is also a painter and is painting a history of written communication on the walls of the old warehouse that will house the new division.

From the outside, these walls form just another beige-on-tan-on-brown warehouse beside the main McGregor plant on Route 31 south of Westminster. The company makes most of its money by printing dull state and federal government forms.

The company, which is 50 years old, will spend $10 million to renovate about a third of its 90,000-square-foot warehouse for the new division, Ludrick said. The rest of the space will be leased temporarily to another company.

Mail Line, a personalized- and direct-mail service for nonprofit and commercial accounts, eventually will offer 100 new jobs and do nearly $20 million in business by its fourth year, he predicted.

Ludrick, a Texas native, joined McGregor in August. He said the new division is "just getting started [with] one job in-house, but it'll grow. We're buying equipment, setting up -- and learning how to use it."

Ludrick hopes to wow potential clients in the lobby with a display of Mail Line's creative powers. Replacing the generic suspended ceiling will be a 30-foot gold-and-green marble pyramid, to be echoed by a triangular front window that will throw light onto a sculpture of the Rosetta stone, the key to deciphering ancient writings.

"We want to create an artistic environment here for people," Ludrick said, noting that President Louis M. Byron is an art aficionado with a special interest in things Egyptian.

"Crafts people are naturally creative. You just have to open your eyes, and it's there."

Talented hands

On a ladder in the renovated warehouse, Richard Serrao, 37, was over a doorway painting the winged sun god flanked by standing cobras. On each side of the door, the carpenter and maintenance man had painted trompe l'oeil stone-textured columns that will include Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Future works on the blank walls of the warehouse will take the viewer through Gutenberg into the computer age, said Serrao, who has been painting and exhibiting for 20 years on his own.

"We're all basically craftsmen," he said. "Our talents are with our hands."

Another multitalented employee -- officially a platemaker -- will contribute caricatures of the Mail Line staff and products outside the building.

"This was just raw talent that was just walking around," said Ludrick, who hopes their work will communicate that "here's a place that recognizes people's talent, gives them an opportunity to express themselves."

Much of the warehouse floor is vacant, awaiting the new equipment for personalizing and laser services such as the you-may-already-be-a-winner notices that repeatedly use the recipient's name.

McGregor also gets specialty work, such as creating a three-dimensional box for an advertisement, from larger printing companies.

"Laser imprinters," Ludrick mused, recalling how he began working for his father, Jess Ludrick, at age 5, dumping used metal type and later setting type and running the old "snapper press," a round-plate ink roller.

"He was a master printer in Texas," Ludrick said. "He retired with hot type, when they went to offset."

Jess Ludrick, who died four years ago, worked for the Plainview, Texas, Daily Herald, then opened a printing business. Ludrick's birth announcement showed his father running the old press and rocking the cradle.

"But he wouldn't let me," Ludrick said. "He didn't want me to be a printer."

So the son went to West Point and became a soldier, serving after graduation in the Army information service from 1971 to 1976.

Then he went to a seminary until 1981, earning a master's degree in philosophy and theology, and was a minister in several parishes in Texas.

Finally, he returned to printing, earning a master's degree in industrial engineering along the way.

Perhaps more important, he received a deathbed blessing from his father for his much-detoured career.

"So now, I have a master's degree in computers to work with digital printers -- and my dad would shudder if he could see it. He'd call and say, 'What the heck does a printing company need with an engineer?' "

Walls that move

Life at Mail Line is interesting these days, as workers at the fledgling business dodge the effects of after-hours construction.

"We're cleaning up now a wall that got moved by a builder," Ludrick said cheerfully. "The offices are here, and we come back the next day -- and the walls have been moved."

About $6 million has been spent on the renovation, he said, and about 15 employees have been hired. Part of the equipment is in, and Mail Line has bid for about 15 laser jobs.

Ludrick said he is trying to temper his enthusiasm for the new venture and his team with caution, urging "a little bit more of a realistic view."

"At least not for a while will we be a major mailer like some of the big mail houses," he said.

"We don't want them to think so much that we're in competition as that we're going to do some specialty, artistic, hard-to-do things -- things that these bigger guys don't want to take the time to do."

He said he was hoping to do $5 million in business the first year and trying to do $6 million. "Maybe by year four, we'll be close to $20 million or so," he said.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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