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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Making its mark

Long-established Lawton Printing remains relevant in digital world

Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

When people discover Laura Lawton-Forsyth runs a printing business, some are surprised – not because she’s the company’s president, but rather that such companies still exist.

“They say, ‘Wow, I thought printing was dead,’ ” Lawton-Forsyth says.

“But print is actually becoming more relevant. Just last week, someone told me they used to do everything online, but now they’re going back to print because stuff gets buried in email inboxes.”

Lawton Printing was started in 1940 by Lawton-Forsyth’s grandfather and great-grandfather. She succeeded her father and uncle as president of Lawton Printing and File-EZ Folder in 2001.

Lawton-Forsyth is this year’s recipient of the Printing Industries of America’s Naomi Berber Memorial Award in recognition of her service to the trade group, including a decade on its board of directors.

During a recent interview, she discussed how Lawton Printing has evolved, what she wishes she’d done differently, and whether the company will be around long enough to employ another generation.

S-R: What was your introduction to the family business?

Lawton-Forsyth: I started working here when I was 15, helping in the screen-printing division.

S-R: Did you assume this was your future?

Lawton-Forsyth: No. In high school I was interested in business, but bounced all over in terms of possible careers. When I was 18, I thought Spokane was really small, and I wanted other experiences and more independence. So after graduating from Mead, I enrolled at the University of Denver to study hotel-restaurant management.

S-R: And then?

Lawton-Forsyth: Gradually I began to realize what an asset it is to live in a place where you have strong connections, and that I had an opportunity here I should at least give a try. So I switched to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, my junior year and earned a degree in graphic communication with a focus on print management.

S-R: How has the business evolved since you joined it?

Lawton-Forsyth: As with most industries, technology has crept into everything we do. We work with Chambers of Commerce across the country, publishing membership directories and maps, and in the mid-1990s we started producing websites for them along with printed material. Print still represents 85 to 90 percent of our business, but everything we do is supported by electronics.

S-R: How much did the recession affect your company?

Lawton-Forsyth: It had a huge impact. I don’t have a master’s in business administration, but I earned what I consider an MBA equivalent dealing with significant losses during the recession. Our workforce is down a third from where we were in 2008.

S-R: Are things getting better?

Lawton-Forsyth: They absolutely are. The past two years were great, and I’m expecting 2015 to be really good.

S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?

Lawton-Forsyth: Typically the third and fourth quarters, especially this year due to elections.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Lawton-Forsyth: Every day is like putting a puzzle together, and we’re always looking for what we can add to the mix. It’s challenging but fun, and I work with great people.

S-R: What do you like least?

Lawton-Forsyth: The difficult choices I had to make during the recession.

S-R: Some of your employees have known you since you were a child, and now you’re the boss. Did that require a change on their part, or yours?

Lawton-Forsyth: Both. When I came back after college, it was a little bit of a dance. I didn’t go straight into management. I worked in customer service, scheduling – I had to prove myself. But even when I was 15, I had to be here on time and work harder than anybody else.

S-R: Besides keeping up with technology, how has Lawton Printing adapted to market changes?

Lawton-Forsyth: When we hit our 70th anniversary five years ago, we realized we’d become a bit complacent. So we went through a process of rebranding, and hired someone to handle marketing. That’s been huge. Not only did it bring us new clients; it also taught us how to help our existing clients market their brands.

S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Lawton-Forsyth: Two things. I would have worked somewhere else in the industry before I came back here. Also, when I was at Cal Poly, my training was in print – how to run a press. But someone in my shoes needs to know a lot more about finance. Print technology can be taught, but you really need a good business head on your shoulders to do this.

S-R: How do you stay ahead of trends?

Lawton-Forsyth: Serving on the national board, I get perspectives from people all over the country. I also belong to a peer group of 12 family-owned printing businesses. There’s one other woman, the rest are guys, and we’re all 50 and under. We share ideas and how we’re running our companies, so we can get better at what we do.

S-R: Tell me about the EWU gameday posters you produced in August.

Lawton-Forsyth: We approached EWU’s athletic department about compressing a normal two-week job into two hours. It required lots of planning and practice. Once we had a photo of the season-opening kickoff, we transmitted it from Roos Field to our headquarters on East Mission, where prepress staff imposed it on a template we’d prepared, and uploaded it here and to a partner’s production facility. By the time the game was over, EWU had 7,500 posters to give fans as they left the stadium.

S-R: Any public misconceptions about your business?

Lawton-Forsyth: Our industry gets a bad rap about not being environmentally friendly – being wasteful, killing trees, etc. – and that’s totally opposite of what our company is about. We’re Forest Stewardship Council certified, we recycle, and we maintain chain-of-custody records on our paper. We’re very environmentally conscious.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead?

Lawton-Forsyth: We’ve spent a lot of years trying to be everything to our clients. But there will come a point when we have to decide what we’re best at and focus on that, so we don’t get stretched too thin.

S-R: What qualities do you look for in potential employees?

Lawton-Forsyth: People who have critical-thinking skills, problem-solving skills. We can teach a lot of what our jobs are, but we need people who can pick up a project and run with it.

S-R: What has surprised you about your career?

Lawton-Forsyth: When I was 18, I didn’t see this as an exciting business. I didn’t realize what technologies were coming down the pike and how many opportunities they would open up for us. Also, back then Spokane felt small. But there are lots of great opportunities here.

S-R: Do you have kids?

Lawton-Forsyth: I do – a 19-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter. My son works here part time.

S-R: Will there be jobs for them in printing 25 years from now?

Lawton-Forsyth: I believe there will be if they so choose, but it may look different, and it certainly won’t be in a building this large.

S-R: Does Spokane feel small to them, like it did to you when you were their age?

Lawton-Forsyth: Both are eager for experiences outside of Spokane. My son went to Minnesota his freshman year of college and is now back. The Northwest is more comfortable for him, and he’s even considering staying in Spokane. My daughter is looking forward to leaving Spokane for a warmer climate. It will be interesting to hear her thoughts about Spokane after she has been gone awhile.

This interview was edited  and  condensed. Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at mguilfoil @comcast.net.
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