"Red Sun Press, a printing and design cooperative based in Jamaica Plain, Mass., disproves the old adage that you can’t do well and do good at the same time.
In operation for almost 30 years, the worker-run company has maintained its original commitment to social justice issues, including emerging as a leader in the use of environmentally-friendly printing practices, while building a business with a quality reputation and roughly $1.5 million in annual sales.
Red Sun Press was started in 1974 by three people armed with $350, a small press and passionate social convictions. Red Sun Business Manager Nancy Nichols described the founding group as “a few people who wanted to have a print shop that could produce quality printing for progressive activities going on in the area,” including the women’s and civil rights movements to name just two.
They incorporated in 1974 as a non-profit, Nichols said, a term which refers to its ownership model, not its tax status. The business doesn’t have shareholders, but rather it owns itself, she said. Red Sun is not tax-exempt. It pays taxes on any profit, she said. Since the very beginning, the company has been a worker cooperative.
All employees get a vote on the board of directors after working there two years and the board makes all significant business decisions. There is, however, a management committee to handle the day-to-day operations, and a number of work and planning subcommittees. Everyone — which includes employee-managers — also gets together once a quarter to go over the cooperative’s financial statement. Even those without a business or finance background have learned to be literate in the company’s economic affairs. It is a business, but one with a mission.
In the beginning
The founders had regular day jobs, Nichols said, but at night they worked a small Multilith press in the basement of a Somerville home. They slowly built up their skills and customer base until they were able to rent space and get a bigger press, Nichols said. They moved first to the Porter Square area of Cambridge, and then to Boston’s South End.
In 1981, the company, which had grown to eight people, learned that the building it now occupies on Green Street in Jamaica Plain, was for sale. The group decided to buy the two-story building, but banks were reluctant to loan the necessary money because of concern over Red Sun’s ownership model.
Unable to get a mortgage, the group raised money from friends and family. In only three weeks, about 15 people loaned the cooperative amounts ranging from $500 to $20,000.
Though they bought the building in 1981, they had recently signed a new lease in the South End and so continued to rent out the new space to others until they could move in two years later. They still lease out one office, but operations have grown over the years so they now occupy the rest of the building. In retrospect, buying the building was a very smart move said Jenny Silverman, sales manager and president of the board of directors; it helped stabilize the company and allow it to grow.
Coinciding with the move in 1983, Red Sun bought its first big press, a single-color rebuilt Heidelberg. “It was a big deal,” said Nichols, who joined Red Sun at that time, as it went from being mostly a small duplicating company to a real printing firm.
Over the past 20 years, Silverman added, “we’ve been able to slowly expand our customer base and buy new equipment.”
Red Sun expands its printing capabilities
The company now has two 2-color, 20-by-26-inch Komori presses — a used Lithrone bought in 2001 and a new Sprint bought in 1996, which Nichols called “an incredible jump for us” in terms of increased capacity and improved quality. They also have 13-by-18-inch 2 color Ryobi, used mostly for flyers, letterhead and the like.
Macintosh computers fill the electronic prepress department allowing technicians to handle files from all major graphics programs. The cooperative still does film stripping and has an imagesetter.
For bindery and finishing Red Sun has two MBO folders, a Duplo collater-stitcher and two Polar cutters. Red Sun also recently purchased a state-of-the-art digital copier to provide more low-cost in-house services to its clients.
Red Sun provides a full range of sheetfed offset printing services, specializing in medium to long run one and two-color jobs. It can, however, handle a variety of four-color and short-run jobs, as well.
The majority of its work is brochures, posters, newsletters, annual reports, some letterhead and booklets. The company also does a lot of bindery work in-house and has an in-house art department to help customers.
“We tend not to be out front with new equipment,” Nichols said, “but we’re watching it.” There are so many changes going on in the industry, Silverman added, that the challenge is knowing which steps to take and which to hold out on. For instance, she said, the cooperative has been watching the move toward direct-to-plate, but with direct-to-press on the horizon, how long will that be around? In the meantime, they invest in new equipment and technology that makes sense for their customers and for the cooperative.
“Our way of growth has been, one, paying attention to what our customers want, and two, watching our budget — where is a lot of our money going?” Nichols said. That approach led to more investment in bindery services and was the impetus behind the new digital copier. Red Sun doesn’t want to get into the bindery or copy shop business, she said, but had been sending out a lot of that work, especially for short-run jobs, and wanted to better serve its existing clients and make the best use of its resources.
Leader in environmentally friendly printing
Red Sun’s environmental focus became an integral part of its business practices early on, not just due to its own interests, but as a result of responding to what its clients wanted.
“In the mid-80s, we started to focus on providing recycled paper to our customers,” Silverman said. “It was a big deal.”
It may sound funny now, she noted, but at the time “there was no printer in Boston printing on recycled paper.” People would get laughed at when they contacted other printers and asked about using recycled materials, she recalled.
Red Sun responded to that need by educating itself and finally found a supplier in California who would ship recycled paper east. “Now,” she said with some satisfaction, “it’s the standard.”
Red Sun has received two awards from the state for its leadership in providing recycled materials to it customers. The company has expanded from recycled paper into vegetable-based inks and changed some of the chemicals it uses in the printing process to less toxic alternatives.
Indeed, that environmental concern carried over to its recently completed building exterior renovation. The group could have gone for vinyl or wood siding on the outside, Silverman said, but both are bad for the environment (one is chemical and the other a virgin resource). Red Sun found a fiber-cement board that resembles wood but is made of recycled content. It is rated environmentally friendly, she said, and looks terrific.
The renovation, which stripped the exterior and restored it closer to its original storefront design, also included some interior upgrades to the heating and cooling system, and new electrical service.
The work took about five months, and was capped with an open house in September that was attended by many of Red Sun’s customers, neighbors, former worker-managers and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, whose “Backstreets” program had contributed a supplemental grant for the work. The project, as well as the capital for some equipment purchases, was largely funded by a loan from Wainwright Bank, a local bank that shares Red Sun’s commitment to the environment and social justice issues.
Red Sun’s clients over the years have expanded in number, but mostly come from the same general areas of state and municipal government, other non-profit organizations and socially responsible businesses.
Around the time of Red Sun’s “big leap forward” in 1996, the cooperative sought to be placed on the state printing bid list and was approved. “Over the past seven years, we’ve been able to do a lot of state work,” Silverman said. “It really opened up a lot of doors for us.”
She noted the contract was renewed this year, and as part of the process a review survey of all companies on the list was conducted, and Red Sun was ranked first on the basis of its environmental and business practices and satisfaction among its state government customers.
Feeling confident about the future
“There’s no doubt the current economic climate has been very tough on printers,” said Silverman, “but we feel confident about the future.”
The cooperative has realized the need to invest in itself, and has done so in a cautious but productive way. They also focus on helping their customers live within their budgets. Something doesn’t have to be fancy and expensive to look great, they noted.
Another factor is the very nature of the cooperative. They feel a cooperative is able to better weather both the bad times and the good. Where a lot of small businesses have been bought out by larger companies and then shut down, the cooperative has an interest not only in being profitable — and it has been for at least the past nine years — but in the well-being of its people and the larger community.
Red Sun has never lost sight of its mission, which is posted on the company Web site, www.redsunpress.com. Red Sun’s mission is to provide high quality printing and graphic design services that communicate the spirit and goals of its clients, support groups that organize around issues of social and economic change, have production practices that reflect a commitment to public health and environmental concerns, and manage itself as “a democratically controlled business founded on principles of worker self-management, fair distribution of profits, and a spirit of teamwork that welcomes diversity and gives each person an opportunity to grow and develop.”
Red Sun’s employee-managers, which have included a large number of women and minorities, have had varying degrees of academic background and skill level when they joined the cooperative, but all have learned new skills, sometimes earned new degrees, and found ways to make valuable contributions to the effort.
Red Sun is a union shop by choice, Nichols noted. Silverman added that it is at times “a little complicated” merging its union protocols with its self-governance, but “we believe in unions” and it also provides them with a model for worker contracts, rights and responsibilities.
While everyone has an equal say in the business, the cooperative does have job descriptions and a differentiated pay scale. Originally, every employee-manager was paid the same regardless of position, and changing that a few years back was a difficult process, both Nichols and Silverman said. But, the cooperative hired a consultant to help it through and members worked it out together.
A cooperative can sometimes slow the decision-making process. “You can’t be impulsive,” Nichols noted. Silverman added, “You have to convince the group it’s the right thing to do.” But, that teamwork has paid off. Red Sun Press increased its sales 300 percent between 1994 and 2001.
None of Red Sun’s original founders are still with the cooperative (and took the secret of the name’s origin with them. Nichols said she thinks they chose it because it “sounded good and hopeful,”) but they left a positive legacy that continues.
“We always see ourselves as connected and want to try to make a better world,” Silverman said. It’s a much different world than when Red Sun started, “yet we found through our customer base, all these people who are plugged in trying to make a difference.”