Seacoast firm’s transformation already paying dividends

Within the first few months of 2009, Bill Hurley knew his company was in for a rough ride. Revenues had dropped dramatically at Infinite Imaging, the successful graphics communications firm Hurley started in 1998, and to forestall having to lay workers off, he cut each employee’s schedule by 2-1/2 hours per week and halted matching payments into their 401(k) plans.He was concerned about the long-term morale of his 25 employees, who worked at two locations in Portsmouth and at satellite offices in Dover, Exeter and York, Maine. And, as if he didn’t needed reminding, his bookkeeper said the company needed more revenue streams. It forced Hurley to think long and hard about the future of a company that had topped $2.4 million in sales in 2008.By the end of 2008, though, Infinite Imaging was like most businesses hit by the economic shock wave. “Our margins we’re getting tighter and tighter, but we couldn’t afford to raise prices,” Hurley said.More importantly, he said, he had an existential moment. He began to reconsider his company’s long-term business model and what could be done to come out of the recession stronger than ever.“We didn’t want to simply survive,” Hurley said. “When I looked back, I saw how we ran on autopilot for a long time. During the boom market that we experienced, we were really busy fulfilling orders and just trying to keep up by meeting the needs of our customers.”On the fly, Hurley, his managers and all of the company’s employees collaborated to transform Infinite Imaging by isolating the company’s six core revenue streams and making them semi-independent mini-businesses — and making workers in those divisions responsible for creating everything from greater integration of product services, marketing, customer service and creating new Web pages as part of the company’s revamped Web site.A calculated riskHurley also decided to make a major investment that he believed would showcase his transformed company — $1.2 million to purchase and totally renovate a 10,000-square-foot building on Islington Street in Portsmouth.The need to consolidate two Portsmouth offices, provide a centralized workplace and have ample showroom and conference meeting space for customers had been discussed for a few years among people at the firm. But Hurley had balked at overpaying for real estate during the boom period. By 2009, he decided to take advantage of falling commercial real estate prices.Hurley said that, while some business owners might not have made such a move in shaking up a company’s status quo, he felt it was a calculated risk that would help position the firm strongly when the economy began to pick up.“This was born due to the pressures of the recession,” Hurley said.According to Dr. Susan Schragle-Law, a professor of organizational leadership at Southern New Hampshire University, companies like Infinite Imaging that do not reconsider their pre-recession practices and long-term planning may hamper their ability to compete when the economy turns.“Everybody has less, so it’s important they put more into what they do well and where the bulk of their revenue comes from,” said Schragle-Law. “Companies that emerge from the recession will need to strengthen the core of their businesses and align their processes to their main products and services.”In particular, Schragle-Law said that companies doing little more than saving money with layoffs and cutbacks on investments may find themselves cash-richer and attractive for a buyout or merger — but vulnerable because they didn’t make important research and development investments for their future, for example.“There are a lot of businesses who are just hanging on,” she said. “There are companies who had laid off a lot of workers and saved themselves money. But I don’t think you want to go for a year or two without R&D or taking a first step to look at their processes.”Hurley said he began the transformation of his company by identifying the company’s strengths and deciding to make them even stronger — and to have employees accountable for their success.The company offers graphic and Web site design, promotional products, signage, printing copying and bulk mailing services.“I realized we could take one of those revenue streams and make a separate business that I could make a living at,” Hurley said. “I decided to treat them as six independent buckets, if you will, and focus on the individual buckets.”He said breaking down the company to its components led to the realization that parts of the company didn’t know what other parts did — and that led to lost opportunities to better serve clients.It led to frank evaluations of what the company was doing. “All too often our marketing efforts were cluttered and confusing,” Hurley said.Reorganized and re-energizedThe transformation of Infinite Imaging, which began in earnest six months ago, required a major retraining agenda with managers and workers having responsibilities in sometimes more than one “bucket.”Hurley said not only has the reorganization gone much better than expected, but the collective force of the ideas has changed the company by creating more efficient practices and greater communication. It also has boosted morale at a time when the company’s revenues dropped by more than 20 percent.“There will be thousands and thousands of man-hours involved with this. I’m always impressed with what they come up with, and it shows whenever you give people an opportunity to stand up, they do,” he said. “Each division feels like they ‘own’ the company, and that’s what we want.”At the same time, Hurley said he has been re-energized as well.“It’s actually given me a job with specific requirements. I work with the committee chairs and help develop marketing plans,” he said. “Before, I had worked myself out of a job. I was the front guy that went to the board meetings for nonprofits, which was important, but I didn’t really have a job and I realized it was no fun. Now we have definition and focus and we are busy building a company. It’s given me purpose.”Schragle-Law said companies that succeed in the post-recession environment are going to because their leaders have embraced “the new normal” of uncertain and often unnerving economic cycles — which requires everything from seizing new opportunities and markets quickly to dealing with new regulatory schemes and up and down credit markets.Hurley said he’s aware his old business model is dead and buried.“We are a total work in progress, and we don’t see it ever ending. But this is the new economy and there are too many options and possibilities out there. But you need to focus and not be distracted to see them,” he said.Hurley said the company’s consolidation at the new location will be complete by April 1, and he hopes to return his employees to full schedules as soon as possible.He also expects the company will reach $3 million in revenues in 2011.“There’s a saying that there is ‘nothing a printer likes finer than change.’ Everybody is going to want new products, new marketing, new signage and there will be new companies created,” Hurley said. “Americans believe that times will get better, and I’m one of them.”