Compton Presentation Systems: Linking the Traditions of the Past with the Opportunities of the Future

by: Dianna Brodine

Compton Presentation Systems has been a presence in the Chicago area since the 1930s, but it’s the more recent history that is making news these days. What was a struggling custom bindery has become a feel-good turnaround story for the entire industry.

Rising From the Ashes

“What we know about Compton’s early years is limited to the contents of a box marked ‘Compton Memorabilia’ sitting on top of our company safe.”

Binding is an old trade, with its roots in glue pots, hand-cut papers, and rough spines. Many of the binderies in this industry are old family businesses, passed down from one generation to the next. In the case of Compton, the name and the industry survive but the early connections have faded.

“From some early brochures we have, we know that Clarence H. Compton initially had a storefront on Chicago’s Northside as a dealer of sample cases, loose leaf binders, report covers, index tabs, sheet protectors, and advertising specialties,” explained Adam Sciortino, the current executive manager of Compton Presentation Systems. “This was back in the late 1930s and it appears that the company initially did no manufacturing, except for possibly adding personalization.”

The 1990s were a decade of rapid growth for the company. In 1995, Compton moved into its current 24,000 square foot facility, which was specifically built for the business. By this time, the company had fully transformed from a dealer of pre-fabricated products into a custom manufacturer, producing nearly all of the products it sold. Heavy investments were made in the plant and equipment, as well as in new products that had no proven market. Unfortunately the company over-extended itself and did not have sufficient resources to weather the business downturn of the early 2000s. Many binderies faced similar industry challenges after September 11th. Consequently, the company declared bankruptcy.

But forces were in play that conspired to bring Compton back from financial distress, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. A local businessman named Peter Fritzsche made the decision to pursue Compton, believing it had the potential to turn around. He made a commitment to bring the decades-old business back to what it had been before its overextension. EAC Industries purchased the assets of Compton from the bankruptcy trustee in May of 2002. EAC is a holding company that, under Fritzsche’s leadership as CEO, had bought and sold several businesses in graphics and other industries since the late 1970s. Sciortino, who is Fritzsche’s son-in-law, weighed in with insight into the results of that decision: “He may have underestimated the extent of the effort needed to turn the company around. It was a more challenging time in the industry than anticipated, and the business was more management-intensive than expected.” As a result, the turn around of Compton has been a gradual, steady process. Each year since the bankruptcy, the company has built on its base with organic growth and, in February 2006, the purchase of Midland Communications, based in Louisville, Ky. Fritzsche passed away in July 2006, but his vision for Compton’s revitalization lives on. Sciortino acts as the executive manager of Compton, and is joined by Peter’s son, Bartley Fritzsche, who became president of EAC after Peter’s unexpected passing.

The Outlandish, Unusual, and Interesting

“We have a reputation for the outlandish, unusual, and interesting; but there’s not enough business in the country to make a living out of it.”

Sciortino believes that Compton Presentation Systems is probably best known for high-quality and high-end packaging:  items that use expensive materials, fancy decoration (including screen printing; foil stamping; deboss and emboss; offset printing on vinyl, paper, or poly; vinyl appliqué; vinyl flow mold; and other special techniques), slick design, special closure features, etc.  The creative and unusual projects have paid off in gold… and silvers. “Over the past 15 years, we’ve showcased these capabilities in dozens of industry award competitions,” said Sciortino. “We have walls covered with awards from the PIA, BIA, SGIA, and other industry groups.” Compton is obviously proud of these capabilities and achievements, and the recognition has undoubtedly resulted in new business for the company.

Sciortino acknowledged that the custom side of the business, in addition to bringing the company recognition for its speciality work, is also a chance for its creativity and customer service to shine. “The nature of our custom, make-to-order business is a mixture of creative effort on the pre-order side (when we generate ideas with clients and make samples), a good amount of education with clients to help them achieve their vision with something that can be produced within a budget, and attention to detail on the execution side of production. This all gets blended together on a daily basis.”

As appealing as the awards for specialty work are, the custom jobs are often short-run orders. “Work of this sort is not enough to keep the business humming,” explained Sciortino. “We live off a mixture of things, most of them more common. We are very competitive at short, medium, and long-run lengths of more common bread and butter binders, totes, and specialty boxes.”

The company manufactures turned edge products, heat-sealed vinyl products, paperboard products, rigid poly products, and the occasional acrylic or aluminum item. The items made using these methods include binders, menu and report covers, notepads, tote boxes, sales kits, product sample cases, educational tools, index tabs, and the occasional POP display.

For turned-edge work, Compton employs two automatic casemaking machines. Both casemakers handle typical binder sizes, but one also can handle smaller sizes, down to about 5″x 5″, and the other, which was added in late 2005, can process oversize boards. Compton also has a semi-automatic wrapping machine that is well suited for medium runs and multi-panel items. The handwork portions of jobs are completed by employees that Sciortino called, “an excellent crew of experienced crafts people.”

For vinyl products, Compton utilizes heatsealing turntables and a flow molding machine, which allow for highly unique vinyl designs to be molded into expanded vinyl. Other equipment includes diecutting, foil stamping, screen printing, sheeting, and riveting machines. Compton Presentation Systems currently has twenty-eight regular employees, and supplements the workforce with part time employees as needed.

New Sales Team Member: The Internet

“It’s become a helpful catalyst for conversation, generating more inbound phone calls.”

The services offered by Compton Presentation Systems are not necessarily unique in the industry, but Sciotino believes the company, “makes-to-order a wider range of information packaging and specialty packaging than most other firms that are in the make-to-order binder business. We’ve built up expertise in a fairly broad range of materials and production processes.”

For Compton (and many other companies), the challenge is not to create fine products, but to market those products effectively. The company is moving in new directions, using the Internet to expand its sales team. “We serve the commercial printing market, the graphic design/agency market, and the corporate market, in about equal measure,” explained Sciortino. “We sell throughout the U.S., but there is a concentration in Illinois and, since the acquisition of Midland, Kentucky and the surrounding states.” Compton sells to these markets with three dedicated sales people, and more recently with its Internet presence.

In the last quarter of 2006, Compton began experimenting with Internet advertising. The advertising is placed through various ad networks that target buyers in the company’s three core markets and Sciortino believes it’s paying off by generating phone calls from potential customers. Sciortino also admitted, however, that Internet advertising isn’t an instant sales solution. “There’s a learning curve when dealing with callers who don’t know anything about our company.”

The Internet advertising also is driving more traffic to the company’s web site. An extensive web site makeover has recently been completed. “We redesigned it to bring the look up to date and to make it a selling tool,” explained Sciortino. The “Product Portfolio” page contains extensive photos of samples to help potential customers see what can be possible and how it is accomplished. The “Case Studies” section is intended to showcase an interesting product and to help prospective clients better understand how Compton can help them solve their presentation challenges. More changes may be on the horizon, but the company will evaluate the present successes first. “We will be learning what the existing effort is doing for us and what the deficiencies are before making further changes,” said Sciortino.

Challenges in the Loose Leaf Market

“We need to grow by pursuing new markets and by capturing a larger share of the existing market.”

Compton’s roots may be in the loose leaf industry, but the company is keeping its options open for future growth. According to Sciortino, the loose-leaf industry is in the mature stage of the business life cycle and shrinking. “It’s a combination of things, but principally the computer and the Internet have supplanted the traditional styles of holding information. In addition, there are more economical means of binding so loose-leaf isn’t necessarily the cheaper option these days; binding is more efficient than it was twenty years ago.”

So if the loose leaf market is shrinking, where are the opportunities for Compton? Sciortino thinks the company is already moving in the right direction. “We have a variety of other forms of packaging that we do here – specialty heat-sealed items, turned edge packaging, and specialty rigid box and folding carton items, for example. We produce a fair amount of product that will ultimately be sold at retail, such as for the cosmetic industry and the educational market.”

As Sciortino correctly pointed out, the budget is often the determining factor in deciding which presentation material to use. “Certain industries are better able (and willing) to spend the money for an impressive piece. Medical devices, financial, pharmaceutical – those industries have the marketing budgets to support high-end specialty packaging,” said Sciortino.

Building on Excellence

“We have been on a four-year growth trend. We intend to continue to grow organically and perhaps by additional acquisition.”

Adam Sciortino is continuing the turnaround of Compton Presentation Systems begun by his father-in-law. Organic growth will be supported by exceptional products, skilled staff, and an eye on the prospects for the industry. What is it about this company that promises so much for the future? Sciortino put it simply: “To boil it down to a few words, we offer superior quality, flexibility, and selection. The reason we are often thought of as ‘the place to go’ when a customer is looking for something special, or high-end, or hard for others to produce is that we are pretty good at combining several skills.” Those skills include working with clients in the concept phase to translate initial ideas into something that can realistically be manufactured within the client’s cost expectations; very high quality workmanship; and skill with a broad range of materials, common and uncommon decorating techniques, and a wide array of form factors.

Compton Presentation Systems has been successful in linking the great traditions of binding’s past with the techniques, equipment, and customer service required to take bold steps into the future of loose leaf.