Putting it in Print

Mel Clarke has a lifetime of business lessons

Robert Clark

For four decades, Mel Clarke Sr. has been running his family business, Service Printing, the only way he knows how: by being honest with customers and delivering what he promises. Now 84, Mel has seen the business grow and outlast hard times, even as the age of electronics has changed people’s needs from a printer and how his own systems function. What has not changed, as he sees the world of business, is the need to operate honestly and to build loyalty among customers who know they can rely on his company. 

“Honesty and integrity are the biggest things I know that are important to a business,” Mel says. 

He’s proud to note that Service Printing, where he is CEO and chairman, has always done business with integrity and aboveboard deal-making that has been vital to its success, especially for the benefits to the company’s long-term relationships.

“From where I stand, I’m a Christian,” Mel says. “I’m going to do what I know to be the right thing and honor God with my living and try to teach my children to do likewise. I have strong faith in God and what he will do for me.” 

Starting Small

In 1976, Mel decided to run his own business, acting on his experience in sales for print services. He took what money he had and bought the majority share in a small, struggling print shop. At first, he hoped he wouldn’t need to understand all the technical challenges of running the equipment and could focus on sales, but it quickly became clear that wasn’t feasible. If he wanted to make sure work for his customers was done right, he realized, he needed to understand the whole operation thoroughly. 

Building trust in a relationship with customers, understanding their needs and ensuring that the work is done are the keys to the whole enterprise at Service Printing, he says. “It’s attention to the customer, what he wants, when he wants it and how he wants it done,” Mel says.

Mel learned all the ins and outs of the business and began to make it grow, and he bought out the other partners quickly. He invested in better equipment, which enabled more growth, and that cycle has continued. From his perspective, it is vital to invest revenues back into the business to make it possible for that business to grow, he says.

“Everything I had I put it all in the business,” Mel says. “Nothing for the owner,” he adds with a smile. 


Slower Times

After decades of growth and a move to a bigger facility, growth at Service Printing stalled in the past eight years, he says. Mel says that the weaker economy coupled with an unfriendly Washington administration produced sales headwinds for his business like he had not seen before. Even the first couple of years running the company weren’t as tough. “The past eight years have been the hardest years that we’ve had,” he says.

One of Mel’s keys to surviving such a challenging environment is keeping the level of debt under control. When sales declined, the company had just paid off a loan for improved equipment and was able to forego new borrowing. Sales have improved in the past year, and in retrospect, he wonders if the company’s response was too careful and if Service Printing missed opportunities to keep finding ways to grow, even in leaner times. 

“Sometimes you’ll make a mistake, and that is being too cautious,” he says. “I took the position that I could wait this out, and I shouldn’t have.” 

His business has seen technology change radically during his decades, and it’s vital to keep up with the changes in business to keep a company growing. Years ago, pages were put together letter by letter with lead type and photographed, with that photo used to create a printing plate to be placed on the press. Now all that happens on a computer screen, and a publishing job goes onto the press with the push of a button.

 “If you’re going to keep up, you’ve got to invest millions,” he says. 

Technology also has changed how business deals are made. Often he is providing quotes for proposals and even making deals with people he has never met, which is a change from the more local and personal nature of business in decades past. 

Despite the advent of customers seeking rate quotes over the Internet, Mel believes that personal relationships still matter. “It’s still important to show customers that you understand their needs and know how to get the job done reliably.”

He’s learned the importance of having an experienced staff and says it can be a challenge for Service Printing to find new hires who are willing to take the time and to learn the technical skills to operate modern printing equipment. “Our people know what they’re dealing with,” Mel says. 

Experienced hands are invaluable, he says, and it has become a bit more difficult to find employees who are ready to be committed to the time it takes to become better at the work. 

“The people who do the better job for us have been in business 10 or 15 years… and have learned from the ground up,” Mel says. 


A Step Up for Growth

It was a major step for the company to move into its current 45,000-square-foot facility near Williams-Brice Stadium, having outgrown its former home and needing room for more advanced press equipment. They bought the building in 1998 and spent more than a year to up-fit the entire place.

Service Printing has worked hard to keep the building in top shape, in part so that clients know that the company can show attention to detail. “We’re known as probably the cleanest print shop in the Carolinas,” Mel says. “It follows my philosophy: you can’t make real quality work out of a pigsty.”

One of their offices needed no upgrades. The building was previously used by a cabinet maker who even outfitted one office in high-end mahogany to show off their capabilities to clients. That’s hardly a necessity for the building’s current use. “Why would you build a mahogany office for a print shop?” he asks. “Someone had to sit in it, and we bought it, so I figured that could be me.”

The company has to make sure not only that it is operating its systems correctly, but that everything on the ordered project is where it needs to be, even if a mistake was made by the client. There have been many occasions when the client’s submitted work included an error, and Service Printing brought it to their attention to be fixed. “You have to go the extra mile in making sure that their job is right,” he says.

At 84, Mel still seems at home in that elegant office with the mahogany shelves. He doesn’t speak like a man who is counting the days until retirement. “I enjoy the business, otherwise I would not be here,” he says. 

It’s hard to see him leaving the office when he has two sons and a daughter working with him at Service Printing. “If I weren’t working with my children, I wouldn’t want to do it,” he says. “After almost 40 years, I have learned that my children are a whole lot smarter than I thought they were.”

Son, Mel Jr., holds the title of president, while his brother, Mike, is a vice president and plant manager –– and their sister, Melissa, took a role with the company after working elsewhere for years. Mel explains that in practice, titles are secondary, and anyone who sees something that needs doing steps up to make sure it gets done.  

“It becomes enjoyable, especially if you have two sons who don’t mind sitting down face-to-face with Dad and letting you have it… telling you when you’re wrong,” Mel says. “If you can’t handle that, you don’t need to work together.

“Not many people have that opportunity of working with their children,” he says. “If you truly love your children, and they love you, that’s an extreme blessing.”

 Mel has come to agree with a friend’s advice about the proper path to making a business successful, and it includes a lot of hard work. “The only way to be in business is to be so deep in that you can’t get out,” he says. 

Joking aside, Mel says that hard work and perseverance have paid off for him and his family, even when times got tight or the changing world of business surprised him. “If you go into business, never expect it to be what you expect it to be. It’s not going to be that.”