MACON, Ga. -- Entrepreneurs Jim Hardin and Andy Mealor combined their skills to beat the odds. They bought a printing business, restructured it and expanded it while the economy was sinking.
Four years later, Macon-based Partners in Print has established itself as a small business that continues to grow. Hardin and Mealor branched out from wholesaling to retail and diversified its products at a time when many businesses pulled back to regroup.
The two pooled their resources to raise about $1 million to buy Lyon-Marshall Graphics printing company on May 14, 1999, not quite grasping the industry they were about to plunge into, said Hardin. At the time, he was a nursing home administrator who had just finished his MBA at Mercer University.
"Basically, we jumped into a business that was mature and in decline," Hardin said.
From there, the two faced some tough decisions. Should they stick with a narrow industry that was losing ground to the Internet while more people were printing forms online? Or could they move the business in a different direction?
"We talked to a lot of seasoned business people in town. We prayed on it," said Mealor, who in 1999 was a 27-year-old banker.
The pair decided to switch to a more sales-intensive business model rather than sticking with wholesale business.
They bought out a Milledgeville printing company, MarSan Graphics. Now they sell everything from personnel forms to glow-in-the-dark key chains emblazoned with company logos.
Then they formed a holding company, Partners in Print LLC, to operate both Lyon-Marshall and MarSan, the retail arm. MarSan's equipment was moved to the Macon office, and the Milledgeville office was converted to handling sales.
Today, the business is equally divided between wholesale and retail, Hardin said. Before, only about 20 percent was retail. Hardin believes merging with MarSan and moving to a more sales-oriented business model will double their sales volume.
"One of the interesting things about printing - it's an old business and a hard business, but there are a lot of niches to fill. You don't want to be all things to all people," Hardin said.
There's no competition for the company's business-forms division in town, but there are a lot of other businesses that offer promotional materials.
Macon's small size creates some complicated business relationships, Hardin said.
"One day they might be a customer, the next day a vendor and the day after that, a competitor," he said.
In the long term, Hardin and Mealor want to set up Partners in Print sales offices in towns like Savannah and Augusta.
They're also diversifying their business. They run a small business that supplies used car dealers with flashy signs and whirlybirds, and they also dabble in real-estate investment.
"If we were to take what we've learned from our mistakes and apply it in the future ... that's something you just can't teach in school," Hardin said.