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Master Graphics sends letter to customers blaming

Blackwell Lithographers shut down

On July 8, a shock wave rippled through the Mississippi printing industry when Master Graphics closed the doors of Richland-based Blackwell Lithographers.

“As of 3:30 last Thursday afternoon, Master Graphics closed Blackwell Lithographers,” said Tommy Lyles, purchasing agent and estimator for Blackwell, in a phone interview last week. A few employees, who were wrapping up office work, were on hand to field calls.

Blackwell Lithographers was one of the first four companies to comprise Master Graphics, Inc., a Memphis-based provider of general commercial printing services in the U.S., and one of two local entities – Ridgeland-based Hederman Brothers is the other — owned by the company. Blackwell Lithographers, founded in 1969 by Bill Blackwell, who recently retired, was one of the first electric printing companies in the Southeast.

It was only two years ago that Bill Blackwell was recognized by the Printing Industry of America as the recipient of the highly coveted and prestigious “Benny” award.

In a letter sent to clients of Blackwell Lithographers, production volume and management woes were cited as reasons for the closure.

“Since the resignation of Bill and Brenda Blackwell six months ago, the management team at Master Graphics has tried diligently to continue the operations at Blackwell Lithographers,” wrote John P. Miller, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Master Graphics. “These efforts included assigning two different operational managers who were based at Blackwell, investing in and installing a new information management system, feeding Blackwell with work generated from other Master Graphics divisions, and many other efforts focused on maintaining the Blackwell operation. Despite these activities the volume of production has become such that it will be necessary to discontinue operations at Blackwell…”

Master Graphics (NASDAQ: MAGR) went public on June 10, 1998, with an initial public offering. In the first quarter of 1999, net revenue increased from $28 million to $56.4 million as a result of “implementation of acquisition strategy, partially offset by higher debt,” according to Market Guide.

“My first reaction to the news is that it was a shock, but not an unexpected shock,” said Duke Cain, owner of Cain Lithographers in Jackson. “From the very beginning, it was questionable whether Master Graphics could have two companies of that size in this particular market. The duplication of equipment and personnel probably prompted the business decision.”

Even though the affect on other local printers is a positive one, Cain said folks in the printing industry were genuinely saddened to see Blackwell’s doors shut.

“I’ve known Bill Blackwell a long time,” Cain said. “I like him, and it’s a shame that the business closed.”

It’s uncertain how many of the 30 to 32 employees that worked at Blackwell Lithographers will be seeking employment elsewhere and how many will be offered jobs at Hederman Brothers. Calls to Robert J. Diehl, COO of Master Graphics, were not returned for this story.

John Welch, one of the founders and owners of K&W Inc., a Jackson-based printing company, said there was speculation that it was only a matter of time before Master Graphics made the move.

“As part of the Master Graphics companies, it’s something we were really wondering more about when it would happen,” said Welch. “It never seemed to make any sense for them to have two facilities in the same town. Apparently, they’ve evaluated that, and in interest of cutting costs on their side, they’ve decided to close the doors of the Blackwell facility and run everything out of Hederman.”

Primary printing presses for Blackwell Lithographers, a sheet-fed lithographer, include a six-color 20 by 28-inch Mitsubishi, a 20 by 26-inch Komori and a four-color 28 by 26-inch Komori, according to information from Master Graphic’s Web site.

“It will be an opportunity for the remaining players,” Welch said. “It’s a few less presses in town. The really sad part is the folks that were actually working in the plant came to work one day and didn’t have a job the next. That’s a tough one. We might be able to hire one or two, but I don’t know if there are enough job openings in town to absorb everyone.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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