When Ryan Clark and Ryan Brueckner started their print business in their early 20s, they focused printing digitally rather than the traditional offset technology that dominated the industry at the time.
“Old-timers would show us what we were doing wrong,” Clark recalled, adding “They were the ones who went out of business in 2008.”
The pair this year is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Anaheim-based Direct Edge Media Inc. They have built it into a 160-employee printing company with well-known customers such as Vans and Disneyland.
They’re also printing much of the marketing material for the Super Bowl scheduled for February at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
They have three facilities totaling 175,000 square feet and $15 million worth of machinery that can print anywhere from a few hundred business cards to 5,000 restaurant menus in an hour, to 2.3 million postcards for Vans to send to its customers.
“If you walk through malls, we can say that came from our shop,” Clark said. “There is still a need for a printed piece.”
Photo Lab Start
The pair met in high school while working at a photo lab in Yorba Linda where they grew up.
Brueckner bought an inkjet printer to make larger photos.
“He went to our bosses and said, ‘We’ll start selling these at the photo lab and give you a cut.’ They said okay,” Clark recalled.
A few years later, the pair decided to start their own firm, renting a 400-square-foot space. Without support from a bank, Brueckner dove into his savings for $6,000 to buy their initial equipment. They had a couple of photo printers and a color copy machine, handling whatever work that could garner.
“It was just the two of us in one building printing photos and doing copies,” Clark said.
Often working 20-hour days, six days a week, they learned the industry from the ground up. They spent their first two years living at their parents’ homes in Yorba Linda.
“Every year, we’d move to a bigger place, hire a new employee, get new equipment,” Clark said. “We didn’t go to school for this. I had many times people ask, ‘Where’s your dad?’ They’d assume it’s family business.”
The pair started in digital printing before adding offset printing capabilities.
“Twenty years ago, digital was new,” Brueckner said. “As we’ve gotten bigger, we found the need” to buy traditional offset printers.
“Most of the world started in offset 50 years ago and are just now getting into digital, which they previously didn’t trust because the quality wasn’t as good,” he said.
Brueckner, who dropped out of Cal Poly a semester before graduating as an electrical engineer, is the chief executive, managing the company’s finances. Clark, who has a degree in photography and design, is the company’s president, handling the technology.
Direct Edge’s machines range from the “guillotine” that is almost 100 years old, to a modern digital printer that can cut in circles, to a new Keonig & Bauer Rapida 105 that can print on almost anything such as corrugated board, film or paper.
“This is the latest and best technology,” Clark said while giving the Business Journal a tour of its facilities.
They’ve designed and built cardboard boxes such as one that can hold a 12-pack of beer without falling apart after three weeks in a refrigerator. They’ve made a cardboard box with electrical lights for $75 apiece, instead of a typical metal box that might cost $600.
“Our biggest advantage is that we have it all covered,” Clark said. “A lot of people in our industry get into these niches.”
Its key edge is “just-in-time” printing where it can turn projects around on five days or less.
“We are very much in the trenches to understanding what our people want,” Brueckner said. “They want the flexibility of ordering something and have it tomorrow. They don’t want to jump through 30 days of red tape to get an order done.”
The company ships more than 1,000 packages a day to customers, including some in the Fortune 500.
Its biggest customer is Costa Mesa-based Vans.
“In the last 10 years, they’ve gone through the roof and we’ve gone along with them,” Clark said, noting that Vans has more than 500 stores in North America.
“We’ve grown with them significantly.”
Direct Edge has built its own mock store where clients can test banners and other promotional materials.
“When we built this room, we included everything a retail store would have, such as a lighting track,” Brueckner said.
COVID-19 was devastating, as many of its customers, from retail stores to restaurants to arenas, were forced to close.
“Our business got annihilated,” Brueckner said. “The top line dropped 80% in the first four months.”
Direct Edge switched to printing banners for restaurants to tell their customers that its drive-thrus and takeouts were available. It made millions of stickers so companies could place them on their floors to advise customers how far to stand apart.
The pair said their secret to survival was self-funding most of its equipment.
“If you have a business that’s heavily leveraged with bank debt and you take an 80% decline in revenue, that business would shutter,” Brueckner said.
“Don’t spend money you don’t have,” Clark added.
Due to local environmental rules, some of its printing must be done in China. However, the logjam in shipping has pumped the price up for a container from China to Long Beach from $2,700 in 2019 to $26,000 in recent months.
“The disruption in the supply chain is forcing most of our clients to produce domestically,” Brueckner said.
In the past five years, Direct Edge has made three acquisitions, including Denver-based Sign Language XL in 2020.
While the pair weekly get about flyers on four to five possible acquisitions, it’s not actively looking at a roll-up strategy.
In recent months, business has been picking up and the company is back in growth mode, hiring new employees including its first-ever sales reps. The firm wants to grow to more than 200 employees. It’s added 45,000 square feet of adjoining warehouse space to start a side business for storage and logistics.
“We’re financially stable, we’re growing and we’re cutting edge,” Brueckner said. “We’re ramping up.”
The pair continue to live in Yorba Linda where they grew up.
“Ours is the story of learning a trade and the American dream,” Clark said. “We’re very much homegrown.”