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It pays to be 'Popular'

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.

Contrary to his competitors’ beliefs, Riess is not selling his products below market value. Rather, his streamlined method of production and meticulous attention to detail allow him to be extremely cost-efficient.

Building the company from the ground up has afforded Riess insights that his disconnected competitors cannot see. He still cleans the presses to this day, and he knows every operating cost firsthand, from the amount of water they’ll use to clean the machines to the number of gloves needed for a job. 

Riess likes having his employees understand the company that well, too — so much so that he carries cash around the factory to give to employees who can recite Popular Ink’s mission statement. "If they can say it off the top of their head, the whole thing, recite it to me ... bam, I'll throw them $20. Or I'll throw $40 if they can tell me our mission statement and seven core values.

"This is something I want to do as we keep growing. I want to be that 50-year-old guy walking around, knowing everyone's name that's in my shop, and doing fun things like that forever."

Driven beginnings

Riess’ rare brand of dedication was largely cultivated during his years at UC. As a high school student, his grades were less than stellar, but Riess excelled with the hands-on nature of the Lindner College of Business. He was the kid sitting in the front row of every class, still showing up while working three part-time jobs. After struggling through high school and early college, Riess made the Dean’s List his senior year.

"I had never made the honor roll in my entire life, all the way through high school, elementary, nothing. But my senior year as I was getting into those kind of crafty classes, I turned my weaknesses into strengths."

A driving force in Riess’ success was his vow to make things better for the next generation in his family. Hailing from middle-class, small-town Troy, Ohio, Riess was determined to put himself through college, working three different jobs while he juggled school.

"I'm not a materialistic guy, but I always aspired to get to the top. I would see my roommates’ parents paying their rent for them. When I had a child, I wanted to be able to provide for them in a way that I didn't get."

After Riess graduated from UC with a business administration degree, he scored an interview with ADP, the world’s largest small-business solutions company. After passing through a few rounds of phone interviews, Riess traveled to the company’s Colorado office to sit down with a manager. 

The company was not looking for recent graduates, but Riess had read about ADP’s world-class training program in New York City. He jumped at the chance to market his ambition. "I said, 'On my resume, it says I have 16 years of education, so that shows I have the ability to learn. If you send me to your world-class training, I bet I'll learn everything there and be able to sell it.' The guy hired me on the spot."

The first year in Colorado was breezy for Riess; he had landed a job that paid him more than most recent graduates, and the climate was perfect for his love of snowboarding. He was an aggressive rider with years of experience, but an accident left him bedridden for two months. As he puts it, “I broke my face.”  

During those two months of apartment-complex isolation, Riess started talking with another young guy living in his building. Ray Salinas was a recent graduate with a biomedical engineering degree, working his first corporate job.

The two became roommates, and Riess cooked up a business idea for software development. "For about a month I worked on this project, then everything got thrown aside.” 

A binder containing the fragments of their fledgling software development company sits 10 feet away from Riess' desk in his Popular Ink office — never to be touched again in the wake of another opportunity. 

New venture signed on a napkin

Through Salinas’ engineering travels, he had become acquainted with a multi-millionaire in Dallas whose friends had embezzled all the money from his sideline business, a struggling printing company. The man was ready to file bankruptcy when Salinas told him, “Don’t do that. I’ve got a really hungry, aggressive guy on my couch in Colorado right now. Let’s get him on the phone and see if this is something he wants to rebuild.” 

Riess came down to McKinney in northern Texas to check out Flex-Pac that very week. The once-lucrative company had been around for 21 years, but was languishing in an old barn at the time. 

Riess told the owner, "I don’t have any money right now, but I will rebuild this thing. You don’t have to pay me, but I want the company if I get this thing out of debt."

A sweat-equity deal signed on a napkin started Riess and Salinas on the make-or-break venture of their careers. They would work to bring the company out of debt, and if they were successful, ownership of Flex-Pac was promised as their reward.  

After moving to McKinney, 30 miles north of Dallas, in 2007, Riess started racking up credit-card debt and sleeping in the company’s facility or on friends’ couches just to survive. When he and Salinas were able to take small paychecks, they moved into a one-bedroom apartment.

Remarkably, Riess quickly attracted new clients despite his utter lack of experience in the field. People gravitated toward Riess’ friendly and honest attitude. Residents and business owners alike demonstrated a willingness to help out a passionate young entrepreneur.

“We are the symbol of integrity,” Riess says. “We would never do wrong by anybody. If you do what you say and stay clear of anything unethical, it seems like everything works out. That’s my No. 1 advice to entrepreneurs: Be transparent and honest. 

“The top reason people buy from you is because they like you. People genuinely want to help other people.

"We’re not the only vendors people work with, but they get a lot more excited when they're working with us on a project. We're friends first, and we do business second. That's our philosophy.” 

Moments of uncertainty and searching

By the end of 2010, Riess had paid off every lender. The second that he and Salinas had worked the company out of debt, the original owner, who had promised them the business, decided to change his mind. Although he had nothing to do with the company’s rebirth, he still legally owned the business, and its newfound success was enticing.  

“That multi-millionaire guy called me into his office, stabbed me in the back, and told me to get lost,” Riess says. The old owner asked a friend versed in business regeneration to take over the company.

“The first time the new guy called a client, the client asked, ‘Where's Dru?’" There was silence. "Well, answer the question. Where is Dru?" the customer demanded. "They knew that unless I was terminally ill, there was no reason why I should have been separated from this brand.

"So the millionaire's friend goes back to him within 24 hours and says, ‘It's not your company anymore. You let those guys build this thing from the ground up since 2007. You had nothing to do with it. Those are their clients.’

"He came to us and had no choice but to sell it. On Aug. 11, 2011, we finally purchased the company from that gentleman." And that is when they rebranded it with a new name. Flex-Pac’s skeleton was gone, and Popular Ink had risen from the ashes. 

Unfortunately, the company’s fast climb to meteoric success hasn’t been without a few setbacks. As recently as 2010, Riess experienced a moment of utter uncertainty.

A wildly popular powder that makes you “live forever” was selling like crazy in Asia, and Popular Ink produced millions upon millions of pouches for the company, hardly able to keep up with the demand. When the company decided to change to a stick-pack container, Riess researched the material and fired out a quote.

The company claimed that they had received another bid for half the price. Riess and Salinas couldn’t see how it could be done at such a low cost, but they stuck to their numbers. 

And just like that, 80 percent of Popular Ink’s revenue disappeared. “I remember telling Ray, ‘ It's over. Let's go grab a beer and go to the driving range. Let's talk about what we want to do next.’

"While we're driving golf balls, I got a phone call and the guy said, ‘Dru, can you do that material for the price you told me?’" The other company did not understand the exact measurements. "Everything in this industry is based on square inches of material.

"Across millions and millions of impressions, one inch adds up to millions of inches. That company quoted the wrong thing, and when they came back with the actual quote, they were twice as high as I was. We earned that business back.” 

Even today, moments of uncertainty come and go, reaffirming Riess’ dedication to his company with each improbable success. Just a few weeks ago, $20,000 worth of defective materials from a supplier were accidently printed for a high-profile client.

Stressed and searching for a sign that he was still doing the right thing, Riess attended church that Sunday with his wife. Just as he was praying for the business, Riess looked up at the church’s photo slideshow and saw the pastor baptizing people in a Popular Ink T-shirt.

“Seeing that was just the eeriest feeling in the world,” Riess says. “When things like that happen — and they’ve happened all these years — we know we're doing something right.

"We know it's meant to be; it's not just coincidence. Even though we've had to overcome and learn the hard way, we know we are in the right place.” 

'Humbled that people bought into the vision'

Popular Ink has grown far beyond Riess and Salinas’ wildest dreams, but they never get too far ahead of themselves. “I don't come from money. So to go back to not having it would be OK,” Riess laughs.

"We have a Money Market account that our business throws profits into. When we see that thing start stacking up, we're humbled. What should we do with it?

"The two of us will look at each other, and we're nervous. We're like, 'I don't know. I've never had money. Let's just leave it there.'

"We put everything back into the company. I'm just humbled that people have bought into the vision.” 

He plans on sharing his vision across many platforms. Riess is currently working on a semi-autobiographical novel, telling the rags-to-riches story of Popular Ink and giving advice to future business owners. In the same vein, he’d like to embark on a public-speaking tour to teach high school kids about entrepreneurship in the real world. 

As Riess and his wife welcome their firstborn child, he looks forward to the possibilities at hand for Popular Ink, whether or not they directly involve him. “My dream, what keeps me motivated, is that I want [my daughter] to know about this brand, whether I sell the company or continue to work here,” he says.

“But I want this brand to be around, because I want her to look at it someday and say, ‘My dad built that company.’ And that's what motivates me every day to come in here and keep going.” 

Dakota Wright is a UC journalism student and writing intern with UC Magazine.

— posted April 2013