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Charlotte’s Classic Graphics joins forces with Minnesota printer

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-based Classic Graphics, one of the largest privately owned commercial printing companies in the Carolinas, announced Monday that it is combining with the much larger Imagine! Print Solutions, based in Minneapolis.

Classic Graphics has 320 employees and expects to do about $80 million in sales this year. Imagine! is about three times its size, with 1,000 employees and about $200 million in revenue, Classic CEO David Pitts said.

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but Pitts said Imagine! acquired 100 percent of Classic Graphics’ stock.

Pitts, who will continue as Classic CEO, said no employees will be cut, and Classic will keep its 240,000-square-foot headquarters in University City’s Innovation Park.

But the scale and scope of its operations will increase.

“This isn’t the ‘sell it off and shut it down’ plan,” Pitts told the Observer. “This is ‘sell it off and grow the crap out of it.’”

Classic Graphics, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year and has a client list of Fortune 500 companies such as Lowe’s and Family Dollar, is currently ranked 95th among the top 400 printing companies in the U.S. and Canada, according to industry magazine Printing Impressions.

The company, with offices in Charlotte and Raleigh, prints and distributes materials for companies, including brochures, mailers and promotional banners. In 2005 the company entered the world of big data, storing companies’ consumer information to assist with their targeted marketing.

Pitts said he’d been looking at ways Classic could grow as a brand and continue to land big clients.

“We’re elephant hunting,” Pitts said. “And in order to bag an elephant, you have to have big guns.”

Imagine! – which comes in at No. 32 on the Printing Impressions list – is the answer to that, he said, and the combined company will be one of the largest privately owned commercial printing companies in the nation.

“They’re incredibly powerful as a manufacturing facility and incredibly powerful as a sales force,” Pitts said.

“Uniting the two companies creates a stronger entity,” Imagine! president and founder Bob Lothenbach said in a statement. “Blending the strengths and location of our company with those of Classic creates an optimal service and distribution model and leverages manufacturing and purchasing power for more competitive offerings to clients.”

Pitts said Classic plans to hire and expand throughout 2014.

Pitts and Bill Gardner, friends and classmates at UNC Charlotte, started Classic Graphics in 1983, when they were 23 years old. They borrowed $15,000 from their families to buy the equipment, and the pair worked out of a cramped apartment. Pitts’ grandmother was their bookkeeper.

Classic Graphics, which unrolled an employee stock ownership program in 2008, was 40 percent employee-owned this year.

Gardner, 54, plans to retire next year and join his wife in Virginia, Pitts said.

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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