The End Of An Era And An Association

Dear Colleagues,

This past June witnessed the passing of an era as well as an association. No, I'm not referring to the PSDA, whose board opted for a radical new organizational strategy to hopefully structure a more robust future for the Print Services and Distribution Association.

Rather, in my opinion, June's PSDA board action to outsource the daily operation of our association to a Chicago-based professional management firm, terminate virtually all our professional staff, vacate our Alexandria VA offices and put our building up for sale, should be viewed as the final chapter in the nearly seven-decade old story of a vibrantly, dynamic collection of innovative, business printing pioneers who founded the National Business Forms Association.

It was in 1946 that this small band of the first independent print distributors banded together to found a new association dedicated to promoting their collective education and self interest. The business printing industry at that time was totally dominated by Moore Business Forms and the other "majors" - business forms manufacturers with national sales forces.

In those early days of our industry, the main sales objective of an independent distributor was as much to convince prospects of the merit of his profession as the presentation of products and services. "Distributor" was frequently synonymous with "inadequate resources to guarantee performance" in the eyes of many prospects and all "major" competitors.

But, these bold and innovative print pioneers laid the foundation for an Independent Print Distributor Industry that today provides nearly 85% of all business printing. Their periodic meetings were predominately held at various member offices and organized by that year's elected president. They provided their own educational content. This small group grew larger by inviting other distributors to join their ranks - ranks which were filled for the most part by "major" sales representatives electing to leave the majors to become independent business forms distributors.

In 1962, the National Business Forms Association hired its first staff person, Executive Vice President Meredith R. Smith. Meredith, or "R" as he preferred, took a firm grip on the association administrative reins. The following decades saw both the NBFA and the Independent Industry prosper greatly, with the ranks of independent distributors increasing exponentially. Those were the halcyon years for business forms printing.

In 1990, it was my great honor as NBFA president to pay tribute to Meredith upon the occasion of his retirement, and to welcome his worthy successor, Peter L. Colaianni, as only the 2nd Executive Vice President in the then 44 year history of the NBFA.

At that time, the NBFA membership and the business forms printing industry were near their zenith. However, dark clouds of technological revolution were gathering on the horizon for business forms printing.

The introduction of ink jet and laser jet technology, combined with industry specific business software packages, wreaked havoc on the business forms and "quick-print" industries. Now, small quantities of stationery, invoices, statements and marketing pieces could be formatted and printed right on a desktop printer - using blank paper. Larger quantities required more sophisticated imaging equipment, but they still used blank paper rather than pre-printed forms.

The rapid ascendance of electronic communications for all types of business transactions had a comparable negative impact on the business forms industry.

The traditional "quick print" industry soon collapsed. The majors began to crash as industry icons such as Uarco, Wallace, and even Moore disappeared. This opened market opportunities for distributors, but it was a double edged sword for the NBFA, because their traditional breeding ground for new distributors (members) was now endangered.

The decline of traditional business forms printing accompanied by the rise of the electronic world of the Internet in the supply chain was a bad/news good/news challenge for distributors, but only a bad news challenge for the NBFA.

For distributors, it meant a need to replace their lost business forms printing volume with sales of alternative products and services. It also meant an opportunity to offer a "capture the desktop" e-commerce capability to provide ALL office consumable products, not just business printing. Distributors were quick to grab this brass ring.

If you scan the impressive array of products and services distributors offer today, in addition to business printing, there are commercial print, marketing services, promotional products, embroidered apparel, office supplies and furniture, electronic documents, software, logistics and distribution, digital printing, and digital asset management ... to provide just a partial list. This new array of products and services combined with the Internet presents enormous opportunities for creative growth for distributors.

However, for the NBFA it presented more challenge than opportunity. Their traditional source for new members, the majors, was disappearing. And now, their traditional association business print products and services were losing their relevance. Furthermore, many of the new products and services NBFA members were now marketing had their own established national associations offering sophisticated educational and expositional opportunities. Providing relevant educational and networking attractions across multiple industries was a far greater challenge than the prior era when "business forms printing" was THE common denominator for every NBFA distributor and manufacturer.

The Association responded with a "control the desktop" strategy of sorts of its own. The concept was that a "universal" association where distributors could educate and network their way to success in the totality of office consumables - business print, commercial print, office products, promotional products, and related services - would present a formidable lure for new members not presently selling all these product lines.

Unfortunately, our Association didn't possess the critical mass for this strategy. It became a war on too many fronts with too few resources. There has not been much success attracting significant membership gains from the commercial print, promotional or office products industries, all of which possess their own national educational associations and/or trade shows, some of which are magnitudes larger than our own.

Adding to this was the attrition resulting from the contraction of the business print industry (particularly manufacturing) and the severe economic recession of late, causing growth to become an uphill struggle for our national association. This was probably at the heart of the current board's decision to implement this radical change.

But regardless of the degree of success achieved by this transition, the fundamental nature of our current independent distributor model has moved far beyond the world of the original NBFA founders, and it's time to realize we occupy an industry of vastly diverse products and services today. Whether they and their distributors can all fit successfully under the tent of one national association is yet to be demonstrated.

But, the GOOD NEWS in all this, irrespective of the future fortunes of any national association, is that opportunities have never been more abundant, nor the cornucopia of products and services to sell more overflowing, than this present day.

And, our greatest Industry asset, our marvelously creative and industrious distributors and manufacturers, proudly carry this same fine tradition of service and innovation forward. For our Independent Industry, whatever the challenge, our future still lies ahead.


Ross Barker

800-328-7804 |