TPM is the acronym for The Print Machine, but the company has grown far beyond its original scope and footprint.
Jerry Cooper founded TPM in Greenville, S.C., in 1973. For almost 40 years now, the company has been providing printing solutions as well as software service and support for architects, engineers, contractors (AEC) and manufacturers, and has grown to four offices, first expanding to Columbia, S.C., then Charlotte and, most recently, Raleigh.
Today, TPM provides digital solutions through four strategic divisions. The AEC division provides architects, engineers and contractors the full line of Autodesk software solutions including training, support, and implementation. The Manufacturing division focuses on SolidWorks software solutions and technical support, training, and implementation.
The Printing Solutions division brings the latest in print technologies and document management solutions to businesses including copiers, scanners, plotters, and 3D printers, as well as service. The TPM Color Lab is the Carolina’s largest provider of large format graphics specializing in fabric applications, trade show displays and hardware, vehicle graphics, flatbed printing, and indoor/outdoor signage.
Reproducing With Success
Jerry Cooper had always been an entrepreneur and people-person at heart. Daughter Kasey Cooper Fay, now in charge of TPM’s business development, describes him by saying, “My dad can meet you one time and you’ll feel like you’ve known him for 20 years.”
In his early days as a draftsman at Fluor Daniel, Cooper felt he could do bigger things. As a matter of fact, he often thought about starting his own business.
“I was basically sitting in a cubicle drawing everyday, but I knew I needed something more,” says Cooper. “Being in the engineering environment, I was familiar with the reprographic industry and knew that there weren’t a lot of people in the market doing reprographics.”
Cooper saw it as a huge opportunity, so it wasn’t surprising, in 1973, when he struck out on his own as The Print Machine (later in the ’90s shortening it to TPM).
He smiles as he remembers how he started out in a small building “with only $700, his mother’s bread cabinet as a desk, and one blueprint machine.” In the beginning, Cooper focused on providing drafting supplies and blueprints to architects and engineers. As the industry began changing, he made a point of looking for the new and innovative solutions to bring to his customers.
By the late ’80s, TPM was undergoing a shift in business, as computers revolutionized the drafting and design industry. Cooper could see that tasks done by hand were being automated. He had to decide whether or not to take a risk on a CAD (computer-aided design) package and basically put a warehouse full of supplies by the wayside. And so he did, and TPM became an Autodesk Authorized Reseller to the AEC industry.
“Anything that needs a design, pretty much uses CAD software. Software is the core of our business. We sell it, and we have certified engineers on staff that train all of our customers and assist with proper implementation,” Cooper notes.
In the 1990s, TPM branched out further, becoming a SolidWorks Authorized Reseller which brought 3D CAD solutions to the manufacturing and industrial markets. As the manufacturing space continues to automate, TPM is helping companies optimize their designs and workflow by combining the SolidWorks suite of products with 3D printing technologies.
In 2000, TPM opened their color graphics division, known as the Color Lab. “A lot of reprographics shops saw color as the next wave of revenue for them, and we wanted to stay on top of it—trade shows, vehicle wraps, building wraps, or almost anything you can think of—we can print in-house,” Cooper says.
“TPM’s Color Lab is the Carolina’s largest provider of large-format graphics specializing in fabric applications, trade show displays and hardware, vehicle graphics, flatbed printing, and indoor/outdoor signage,” adds Fay.
Some TPM Color Lab examples include the silos off South Boulevard, two large building wraps for Charlotte Area Transit System, as well as multiple fabric and tractor trailer wrap projects in the NASCAR industry.
Enlarging the Original
TPM has always been a family-owned and family-run operation for the Coopers and they believe that has been an important element to its success. So, when they decided to extend their footprint into Charlotte, embracing another family-run business made sense.
Forrest Kenley Sr. had founded A&E Printing and Graphics (originally A&E Reprographics) on South Boulevard in Charlotte in 1982. A&E specialized in reprographics, printer sales and service, color/graphic solutions, and AEC products including OCE, Canon and HP wide format plotters, service and supplies.
Forrest Kenley Jr. had helped out in the family business as a youngster and formally joined ranks with his father in 1989 after graduating college.
“We’d talked with a number of different companies, but before TPM came along, nothing ever seemed to click,” Kenley Sr. remarks.
A healthy regard and professional friendship between Cooper and Kenley Sr. helped speed the process along and in August of 2007, Cooper and Kenley Sr. consummated TPM’s acquisition of A&E, allowing TPM to bring its broad array of solutions to an already strong foothold in the Charlotte marketplace.
Just recently TPM extended its reach even further with the establishment of a new office in Raleigh. TPM is leading with their manufacturing division in this new marketplace.
As Fay describes it, “Our strategy is to identify opportunities in fast-growing new markets with significant growth potential that can benefit from the full array of TPM solutions.”
Cooper adds, “We see Charlotte and Raleigh as hotbeds for technology with significant growth opportunities. That fits right in with TPM’s mission. There are some competitors of course, but none that offer the full array of solutions that we do.”
At present, TPM has approximately 90-plus employees in total; 50 at the main office in Greenville, and 20 at each of their Columbia and Charlotte offices, with it being too early to tally the Raleigh headcount.
As Cooper touts, “We’re small enough that no one’s face is going to be lost in a crowd, but we’re big enough to handle ambitious jobs for clients throughout the region.”
All in the Family
Carrying on the legacies that their parents built, Cooper’s daughter Fay and Kenley Sr.’s son Kenley Jr. work together to keep the ink flowing at TPM of Charlotte.
Fay actively handles business development primarily from the headquarters office and Kenley Jr. manages in the Charlotte office.
“I was raised that God was first, family was second, and TPM was third,” Fay recalls of her early days. “I don’t have any brothers and sisters, but I’ve always joked that TPM is my big brother.”
“I remember my dad giving me my first time card when I was four years old,” she boasts, making a light-hearted joke about child labor laws. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else: I’ve always loved working for my dad since day one.”
Fay never strayed too far from home, attending college at Clemson University where she majored in management and entrepreneurship.
Kenley Jr. has similar fond memories of his father’s legacy at A&E: “I learned a lot every night at the dinner table. My mom worked in the business, so we talked about it all the time. I very much respected how my dad ran the business; I try to follow in his example in managing and working with customers.”
Kenley Jr., a Charlotte native, attended Wingate University, and echoes Fay’s sentiments about working in the family business.
“I always knew I wanted to work with my father; I was very proud of what he accomplished. I miss having him around the office. Like Mr. Cooper, he just ran a great business—he cared about his employees and his customers above all else, and I think that’s why they were both so successful over the years,” says Kenley Jr.
TPM had acquired the Charlotte operations right before the economic crash in the fall of 2008. “We had also started our Canon division around that time, so it was certainly an interesting year,” Fay comments.
Even with the turbulence of the economy, the acquisition was more than beneficial for TPM. With the decline in the reprographics industry, A&E wanted to modernize and expand operations but needed resources to get there; TPM wanted to expand its presence in the marketplace and tap into the Charlotte market.
“We were in a complementary situation to A&E. We were seeking to expand our business footprint, and it seemed like the logical move to come together,” comments Todd Brown, TPM’s vice president. “It was a perfect fit for us to come to Charlotte, to tap into the customer base and bring in new technologies. We also had similar business philosophies.”
“Knowing we had Forrest Jr. running our day-to-day operations gave us the confidence we could grow in a large market with someone we could trust and who always has the best interest of the company at heart,” says Fay.
“The Charlotte operation had an established customer base with strong relationships that we could leverage for growth. There are probably more architects in Charlotte than all of South Carolina, so that was a very valuable customer base to plug into. It was exactly what we wanted to do,” Fay adds.
For Kenley Jr., the transformation was also significant. “I’d never worked for anyone other than my dad. That was an adjustment, but now that we’ve been in this for a while, it’s really as comfortable as it was when it was just me and my dad,” he says.
Being able to serve not only the Carolinas but also extend into some parts of Georgia as a united front has greatly benefited TPM.
“We’re hoping to have a breakout year; we just had our best quarter in five years,” Brown says.
TPM’s Canon division is a newer venture and reason for some of their enthusiasm.
“Canon represents a different kind of marketplace for us. Every business needs a printer and a copier and now, even a scanner. We’ve always been very targeted, in very niche markets. Canon has opened up relationship-building on a much broader playing field offering products built to the same standards we strive for in our other operations. They are unsurpassed in their color reproduction and innovation,” comments Fay.
TPM’s emphasis on family and personal relationships carries over in their customer approach. Significant to the TPM strategy is encouraging their clients to get to know them on a more personal basis.
“Come in and take a tour of our operations, have lunch with us. I’m confident that once prospective clients get to know us face-to-face, they’ll want to do business with us,” Kenley Jr. says.
“What we want people to know about our business is that we’re truly solution-based. We’re about establishing relationships and doing what’s right for the customer, which is pretty much how we’ve operated since day one,” Fay says.
Going forward, TPM constantly reassesses which sectors of their operations to expand, and how best to keep up with an ever shifting technology industry. “Deciding where to develop and expand is tough. Fortunately, as it is right now, business is picking up all the way across the board,” says Brown.
Fay is confident TPM can keep up with the pace and thinks it’s part of the company’s spirit from the beginning: “A lot of people would have been hesitant to jump into the design software when my dad did, but he was a visionary, always on top of the latest technologies.”
TPM’s offerings are both diverse and dynamic. Still, the original proprietors keep a finger on the pulse of the business they’ve help create. Fay’s dad stays closely involved in the Greenville office and her husband Chris now handles general operations.
Kenley Sr. hasn’t completely made his exit from the business either. His son jokes about his occasional cameo appearances in the Charlotte office: “He makes deliveries now and then and he drinks the coffee.”