UC Printing Services to end its run after 136 years of business

When UC Printing closes its doors next month, it won’t just mean the end of the line for 40 employees, some of whom have worked at the unit for 20 years. It will also mark the end of a 136-year-old Berkeley institution, one that printed the UN charter in 1945 and has produced many signature publications, among them the campus directory, general catalog, student handbook, and annual calendar.

“I was committed to finding any way possible to save this longstanding institution,” says Ron Coley, associate vice chancellor for business and administrative services. UC Printing Services “can no longer sustain current operations,” wrote Coley in an April 7 CalMessage. During the next six weeks, the campus vendor will phase out its business. Its main facility in the Marchant Building at 1100 67th St., a satellite facility in University Hall, and the Copy Center at UC Office of the President will all close.

Over the past four years, the unit has struggled to streamline its operations, but its efforts were no match for increasing expenses, declining revenues, and the current budget crisis.

UC Printing director Haron Abrahimi

UC Printing director Haron Abrahimi (Wendy Edelstein / NewsCenter photo)

“We did everything possible to prevent this and then some,” says Haron Abrahimi, UC Printing’s director since 2004. Five years ago, the campus’s printing unit implemented so-called lean manufacturing, a production process designed to cut costs by reducing standing inventory and increasing efficiency. Thanks to his staff’s willingness to make changes, UC Printing’s error rate is below 1 percent, the lowest in the industry, says Abrahimi. Most printers, he says, would be happy with an error rate between 2 to 4 percent. “Though it’s been a heroic effort,” he adds, “it’s not enough.”

Part of the problem, says Abrahimi, is that “when the campus goes through a funding crisis, the first thing that gets cut is advertising, communications, and marketing. From inception to delivery, print is expensive.”

Although print is inarguably expensive, the human costs of closing the plant are likely to be incalculable to the unit’s employees. “This place was a huge part of my life for 15 years and the group of people I worked with every bit a part of my family,” says Rob Burgess, a shift lead at UCPS.

The shift away from print

Because Berkeley units could avoid requests for proposals and sales tax on jobs they shopped out to the campus printer, UCPS was “very competitive” and “the vendor of choice,” says Coley, who has received letters of condolence and concern about the printing unit’s closure from many of its campus patrons.

Such an outpouring should come as no surprise. Since it started in 1874, UC Printing Services has helped meet the graphic arts, marketing, and communication needs of the university, affiliated units, and other state-funded California agencies. Its proudest moment came in 1945, when UCPS printed the United Nations Charter in 50 languages. Fifty UN delegates signed the founding document at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.

Coley stated the case for closing UC Printing in a campus document that reflects a shift away from print. In the past year, campus departments have cut their costs by partly forgoing print, instead making 10-15 percent of their documents available online or creating downloadable PDFs. The unit’s bottom line tells the story: In fiscal year 2009 the business earned $7 million; in FY 2010 its projected revenue was $3.5 million.

To compound matters, the university’s sale of the Marchant Building recently became finalized. To remain in the space, the department’s offset-printing division would have needed to start paying rent of $15,000 a month beginning in May.

During its tenure, UC Printing has served hundreds of customers and filled thousands of orders. The unit, however, has faced its share of challenges. Its most recent woes began during the 2001 recession, when a decrease in business necessitated workforce cuts. That year, 117 people were on its payroll. By this year, the number had dwindled to 40, including contract employees.

“When you have an operation pared back to its bare bones, if you cut away more you can’t provide the same level of service,” says Abrahimi. “This is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to go through. Emotionally, it has taken quite a toll on me and the staff.”

“With the economy the way it is, we have a lot of people who are going to be unemployed,” says Abrahimi. All UC Printing staff will receive severance packages, and have met several times with counselors from University Health Services, and staff from central Human Resources’ benefits division and transition services. Employees can take advantage of on-site résumé-writing classes. Computers have also been set up at 1100 67th St. so that staff can search for new positions during work hours.

Some employees have secured new positions on campus while others have received multiple job offers outside the university, reports Coley.

Those were the days

Roger Hefty, UC Printing’s direct-mail manager, looks back to the first part of this decade when the unit was housed at Oxford and Center streets. The department was then producing many campus newsletters and annual appeals brochures. Its proximity to the campus enabled staff to feel “tapped into the university’s mission of teaching, research, and community service,” says Hefty. “I think even our clients felt that sense of community.”

Pressmen Hector Garcia amd John Galloway

Pressman Hector Garcia explains an in-progress print job to John Galloway, the press operator on the next shift. (Jenne Mowry photo, 1998)

For Hefty, the closure “really comes down to the people I work closely with, the ones you see every day, eight hours a day.” The personal connections extend to customers. “Beyond taking an order, you learn about their families, hobbies, interests,” says Hefty. “It lightens up the day and puts a perspective on what’s important.”

Steve Andrews, a former customer-service representative who retired from the print shop in 2007, saw the operation go through a sea change when he started there in 1979. UC Printing was still using a letterpress and lagged behind its competition. The shop modernized its equipment and “came back from the edge,” says Andrews.

“It’s really unusual for a printing business to have this kind of staying power,” continues Andrews, who “loved the place.” Andrews says of his friends at UC Printing, “These are blue-collar workers. It’s going to be very difficult for them to get new jobs.”

Jean Spencer, outreach and publications coordinator for the Center for Latin American Studies, already feels the loss, and worries that printing will become more expensive and time-consuming. CLAS has used the campus vendor for a variety of needs, ranging from printing posters to producing and mailing its magazine, the Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies.

Not only is UC Printing Services “really efficient and helpful,” says Spencer, but it is also “the most customer-service oriented department we deal with on campus.”

“Procurement is going to be overloaded — at least initially,” predicts Shawn Melikian, a project manager for University Relations’ marketing and communications group. Melikian sees a bumpy road ahead for the unit’s campus clientele, who, he says, will need to learn more about printing. Losing the unit’s mailing services will also “add complexity.”

Jenne Mowry, a senior communications manager in new-student services, recalls a job she sent to the campus printer back when Adobe Pagemaker was the cutting-edge layout program. During production, one line of type got pushed to the next column, causing a domino effect in the 136-page document. The error wasn’t found until after the printer had finished the 10,000-copy print run.

Such a mistake could have been a source of contention. Not in this case. UC Printing reprinted the whole book and ate the costs. Says Mowry, “They have always been willing to go above and beyond.”

Mowry, who is now shopping for a new printer, is mourning her favorite vendor’s impending demise by posting photos from its days in its old facility at Oxford and Center on her Facebook page. UC Printing Services “has been there so long,” she says. “You really build up relationships over the years.”