Gamse Lithographing: New Family Invigorates Old Firm

Keeping an Industry Alive in Baltimore
Keeping an Industry Alive in Baltimore

By Sarah Chazan

It's funny how some things can touch your life in so many ways-even change the way you think about something -- yet you take their existence for granted. Take Gamse Lithographing Co. The Rosedlale, Maryland, printer has, more likely than not, produced at least one label that's drawn your attention to a store shelf or graces a cabinet in your home.

Founded in 1896 by German immigrants, Gamse originally began as a maker of liquor bottle labels. In fact, the company continued to print labels for beer and spirits, even during Prohibition.

Throughout the 20th century, Gamse's business grew as it printed labels for everything from can wrappers to cigarette pack labels. By 1984, Gamse was known throughout Baltimore and had a large client base across the United States.

<b class="credit">Credit: Jack Harris</b>Dan Canzoniero on the production floor of Gamse Lithography.
Credit: Jack HarrisDan Canzoniero on the production floor of Gamse Lithography.

But when the Gamse family member who ran the business was ready to retire and sell the company, it was an Ohio native, Dan Canzoniero, who eventually would take over and make Gamse his own family-run company.

Canzoniero purchased 20 percent of the company in 1984, and bought the rest in 1991 after serving as president for more than 10 years. He thought he was taking over a traditional business that he would sustain just as the Gamse family did for 90 years.

But the Internet brought huge upheaval to the printing industry, forcing him and his team at Gamse to completely rethink how they did business and even the very mechanics of the company's day-to-day operations.

Chapter One: Print Perfect

Early lithographers made their prints by using etched stone. Today, Gamse uses aluminum plates coated with polymer designs to create functional pieces of art that we use in everyday life. It's a complicated process, but simply put, the aluminum plates are sequentially placed into separate machines, then coated with various colors of ink to make a print. The final product, in Gamse's case, can range from sleeves for beverage containers and candy bar wrappers to labels for pharmaceutical products.

In the consumer goods printing business, quality and consistency are what will make or break a company no matter the times or the technology. Acquiring new business is tough, but Canzoniero has kept Gamse solvent by holding onto and nurturing the client base the company has. "It's very difficult because it's like a defensive football game," he says. "Everybody is taking care of the business and the clients that they have." Because of this, Gamse's client list is top secret.

Canzoniero credits the company's location in giving his business a leg-up. "Baltimore is a pretty good place to service the Northeast corridor," he says. "A lot of purchasing is done in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Even though manufacturing is scattered all over the United States and the Americas, a lot of purchasing centers and decision-making is done in the mid-Atlantic."

But even with Gamse's solid client base and convenient location, the company took a hit as the Internet changed the industry fundamentally.

<b class="credit">Credit: Jack Harris</b>
Credit: Jack Harris

"What happened to us is that printing went through a major catharsis," Canzoniero says. "The Internet really hurt mostly commercial, not packaging printing like us, but printing nonetheless. Students, young people, they just didn't go into our industry at all for about 10 to 12 years. That was fine when everybody who worked for us was 35, but now those people are 50 and we're looking for our next generation workforce and having trouble finding them."

So Canzoniero has rethought the way he finds talent. "What we're doing is visiting local colleges and universities starting this February," he says. "We're going to talk to kids who don't necessarily have an engineering background, but rather business. Hey, we need people in sales, customer service, production. All those areas we want to talk to these students about."

Gamse -- a company that has always prided itself on its low employee turnover -- is also becoming more open to shorter tenures for its workforce. "We've had this value on longevity that may have been detrimental," Canzoniero says. "We have to change our way of thinking, which has been come work here and stay here forever to come work here for three to five years and learn [the] business. At least we'll have the benefit of that energy and education for a period of time, and when that person leaves, it will make room for us to hire another one."

But changing his talent acquisition and retention strategies isn't going to be enough. In a world where profits are shrinking even as clients make higher demands, Gamse also is overhauling its entire operation to stay relevant. Luckily for Canzoniero, there was someone waiting in the wings to do just that -- his son, Jimmy.

Chapter Two: Inject the Tech

Jimmy Canzoniero, Gamse's executive vice president, grew up listening to the hum of the massive lithograph printers on the floor of his father's company. After college, he went to work for an Internet startup that specialized in online marketing. Jimmy, who initially did operational analytics for the company, soon became known as a "fixer of problems" at the company and segued into business development and financial analysis.

In the mid-2000s, Jimmy took a break from the startup world to get an MBA at the University of Michigan. He graduated just as the country was entering the Great Recession. Jimmy knew he didn't want to enter the banking sector like so many of his classmates. He also knew he didn't go to school for two years just to return to his old Internet startup job. At the time, Gamse -- and his father -- were trying to weather the drastic economic downturn. The decision seemed clear. Jimmy returned to Maryland to help rejuvenate the family business.

<b class="credit">Credit: Jack Harris</b>
Credit: Jack Harris

With a tech background and a fresh perspective, Jimmy got to work modernizing the company. "The main thing I did was just completely overhaul the technology," he says. "I didn't expect to go as deep as I've gotten, but then again, I didn't realize before I started how far behind we were. The technology around printing has become more important because the prices in the market continue to decline, so we have to make more in the same amount of time."

To help the company run faster and more efficiently, Gamse invested in higher speed lithograph printers. Everything is computerized, and tracked on screens. For longtime employees like pressman Adam Hiner, the influx of technology has completely revolutionized their jobs. "A four-color press you had to have four people working on because everything was manual," Hiner says. "If you had to move something, you actually had to get a wrench to move it. Now we can control the machines every move through the computer. Jobs that use to take an entire day, now can only take 20 minutes."

The updated marriage of man and machine doesn't just have efficiency benefits. Jimmy has worked hard throughout his tenure to improve the image resolution qualities that come off the lithograph machines. "We show people images next to each other from 2010, 2012, 2014 and customers can really see how much better the product looks," Jimmy says. The results are vibrant labels of all shapes and sizes in rich reds, blues and yellows. To look at a sheet of Gamse labels is almost like looking at Warhol pop art exhibit.

<b class="credit">Credit: Jack Harris</b>Jimmy Canzoniero
Credit: Jack HarrisJimmy Canzoniero

Dan and Jimmy also have added two robots to the factory floor. The robots do the manual labor that employees often found monotonous. Now those same employees have been trained on other parts of the printing process, and no longer leave work with sore backs from lifting heavy stacks of paper.

One area of business development that Jimmy has especially fostered is Gamse's foray into digital printing. Unlike lithography, which can churn out huge amounts of product quickly, but takes a significant amount of time to set up, digital printing is better for small batches and generally has the perfect print right out of the gate.

<b class="credit">Credit: Jack Harris</b>
Credit: Jack Harris

"It's our highest growth area of business," Jimmy says. "You can run much smaller quantities and it doesn't cost as much as it would cost clients to do a whole run on litho. What's happened is it helps to make clients more flexible. They don't have to buy a whole year and a half worth of inventory. It's enabled the process to get more efficient."

That flexibility is helping keep old clients and may even help to land new ones. As Dan reveals, some of Gamse's biggest client growth is coming not from mega-manufacturers, but rather smaller brands of ethnic and organic foods.

For now, the two Canzonieros seemed to have figured out just the right working dynamic to usher Gamse into the future. "My dad's trying to focus more on strategic things and developing new business because he's still a salesman at heart," Jimmy says. "I'm obviously excited about some of the new things that we're doing, but I don't spend a whole lot of time thinking more than about three or four years out. Knowing this industry, things will always change!"

For more Made in the U.S.A. stories, go to This Built America.