Dying printing business now makes millions after Lindner College of Business grad Dru Riess revived it
by Dakota Wright
Six years ago, Dru Riess was sleeping in a steel barn in McKinney, Texas, near Dallas. The 2005 UC business grad had just taken over a company in the printing industry, which he knew next to nothing about. To put every dollar he had toward bringing the company out of debt, he slept where he worked. Armed with a single printing press, housed in a barn with no insulation or air conditioning, Riess began building a brand that would soon make millions.
The summers were hot — 105-degree, middle-of-Texas hot. Winters called for the employees to wear Carhartt coats as they nearly froze in the company’s chilly facility.
Initially, "employees" only consisted of one person, plus Riess and his partner. That left Riess to help operate the sole printing press. As their customer base grew, they hired a handful of people, but the basic ambience remained, meaning Carhatts were still vital.
For Riess, the price of discomfort was worth the promise of breaking into a niche printing industry that is worth $29 billion in the United States alone.
Far from its humble beginnings, the company formerly known as Flex-Pac now operates out of a 24,000-square-foot facility, about six times larger than the former barn. Those few employees have grown to 13, with an expected 15 more on board within the next two years.
Since Riess took the corporate reins, he streamlined production, revamped its philosophy and changed the name to Popular Ink. Riess expects the firm to pull in $8.5 million in revenue this year. While he and co-founder Ray Salinas may be the new kids on the block, they have certainly made an impression in the flexible-graphics printing industry, which primarily prints packaging for a wide range of products.
"We are known as the pompous young kids who have no idea what they're doing," says Riess, a 30-year-old anomaly in an industry run by traditionalists. "I am the youngest and freshest mind putting a spin on an industry that is just dated.
"We want to print popular products. We want you to be proud of what your company looks like on the shelf. We're not just a printing company; we build brands."
Riess makes it his business to understand what provokes someone to pick up a bottle of Ensure or Pedialyte at the grocery store over the generic brands. The answer, he hopes, is Popular Ink, which prints the eye-catching, vibrant art on sports drinks and nutritional supplements manufactured by big-name companies such as Abbott Labs. His high-efficiency printers churn out glossy labels for sports drinks and stick-packs to be filled with flavored powders, all in the process of filling orders for thousands of products seen on shelves around the world.