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March 2004
From red ink…to in the pink
By Casey Jacobus

      In 1991, Mic Alexander was a young self-sufficient thirty-something living in Atlanta and participating in her first real business venture when her parents actually asked her to come home. Elmore and Marie Alexander were three months into a new printing business and losing money fast.

   “They had no customers and were losing all their retirement money,” recalls Alexander. “I thought it would take six months to help them recoup and to close the business.”

     Fourteen years later Overflow Printing Incorporated is a successful printing business with a customer list that includes BB&T, the Carolina Panthers and the Charlotte Bobcats. Alexander, now the CEO, has even won the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce Small Business Council’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2001 and was nominated as Woman Business Owner of the Year last year by the Charlotte division of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

 

Business is people

     What did it take for Alexander to turn the floundering business into a money-maker? 

     It certainly wasn’t her knowledge of the printing industry. Although her father had almost 40 years of printing experience when he started Overflow Printing in the fall of 1990, Alexander had paid little attention to her dad’s business while growing up in Buffalo, New York. 

     “I’m not into printing presses,” she asserts. “I don’t like getting ink under
my nails.”

     But Alexander had learned some  important lessons from her parents. Every Friday evening her parents would take her and her brother out to eat and then they would drive around and look at homes and businesses in Buffalo. She heard her parents talk about the kind of business they would like to own. She learned to be a risk taker and dreamed of owning her own business someday. Years later, while working as a budget coordinator for AT&T, she also sold custom jewelry and imported clothes.

     “I was always looking for ways to make some extra money,” Alexander says, “but I never thought of it as having a business.”

     When Alexander arrived in Charlotte, she put her energy into developing a strong employee team and marketing the company. Overflow’s first major contract was with the City of Charlotte, printing bus schedules. That was a three-year contract, so it gave Alexander breathing room and time to concentrate on employee development.

     “I love giving people a chance to learn a skill,” she says. “I am pleased that we have been able to hire people who were unemployed or lacked a high school diploma. My dad knows so much and he’s a great teacher.”

     While Overflow is truly a family business, with father Elmore overseeing the printing operations, mother Marie, retired from International Business Machines Corporation, serving as chief financial officer and Alexander running the organization, the Alexander family works hard to create a sense of camaraderie among their employees as well. “We’re a family business and everyone here is a part of our family,” states Alexander. “You are going to be profitable if the customer is happy.  That starts at home. If you have strong employees, you’ll have happy customers. Business is people, not just numbers.”  

 

Finding a niche

     The business community in Charlotte in the early ‘90s was open and welcoming.  Overflow Printing got support from numerous individuals and companies.

     “Every time we got close to closing, we would get a contract,” Alexander says.  “After about seven years, we decided that we weren’t going to close and started operating from a different perspective.” 

     One contract came from the Panthers organization, which took a chance on the small company after Alexander showed them how to save money on their printing needs. The company prints the team’s letterhead, envelopes, business cards,  note pads, etc., and also prints postcards for the cheerleading team. But Overflow’s real shot in the arm came in 1996 when BB&T hired them.  Today Overflow prints over 10 million letterhead and envelopes every year for the bank, as well as  assists with their marketing and other projects.

     “BB&T took us from a mom-and-pop operation to the next phase of being a full-fledged printing operation,” says Alexander. 

     The relationship with BB&T allowed Overflow Printing to upgrade its technology and to purchase new state of the art equipment and software.

     “It is really a partnership between a big business and a small company,” says Alexander. “BB&T acts as a mentor, providing technical and financial support, and we in turn became their customers.  Both of us are really pleased with the relationship. As they grow, we grow with them,” continues Alexander.

     With the support of their large clients like BB&T, the Panthers and, more recently, the Bobcats, Overflow Printing began to redefine itself. It found its niche by targeting small to mid-sized customers, offering a small business start-up package that enables business owners to correspond with prospective customers and vendors while their company identity is still being developed. Overflow began looking at the total package from design to print, becoming more like a consultant than a printer.

     “In five to ten years, I expect we’ll be a full fledged marketing firm as well as a print company,” says Alexander. “We can offer economic alternatives to a company’s marketing strategy.”

     To further this goal, Overflow Printing recently hired its first marketing director, Cheryl Cox. Cox has worked on a consultant basis, for the last eight years, developing logos and corporate identity packages for Overflow Printing’s clients. She works with the company’s graphic designers to implement a strategy that will position Overflow to offer its clients a complete product from concept and design to printing and mailing.

     Overflow Printing took an even larger step toward the goal of becoming a full-fledged marketing firm as well as a print shop when it renovated and moved to a larger facility last year.  For thirteen years, the company had operated out of a 5,000-square-foot building in the North Davidson area.  While it was functional, Alexander says it wasn’t a welcoming place to bring clients.

     “I always wanted something better,” she says. “I wanted a building that would showcase how different we are from most printing companies.”

     Renovating  the new 10,000-square-foot facility on Enterprise Drive off North Tyron Street was another learning experience for Alexander. The building cost almost $100,000 more than projected because the first contractor walked off the job.

     “It was very scary,” says Alexander. “I had never bought a commercial facility before and I paid $90,000 for my education. We were blessed to find another contractor to come in and pick up the pieces.”

     However, the extra expense involved meant Overflow couldn’t afford a space engineer to design the interior of the new building. So Alexander and her father did it themselves. Alexander chose the furniture and picked the colors, including a bright red wall in the lobby. In the process, Alexander gained confidence and learned another valuable lesson.

     “If you believe you can do something, you probably can,” she says.  “You need to follow your own mind and heart, even if you’re out there alone for a bit.”

     The finished building helps to communicate Alexander’s vision for her company.  There is a cage of Australian finches in the lobby to welcome visitors.  These brightly colored birds, chirping loudly as they vie for space on the swing, suggest there is a young, vibrant company with creative employees just down the hall. The building itself includes conference rooms and a media center which small businesses may rent for training seminars, board meetings or presenta-tions. The space will hold about 40 people and Overflow will even cater an event.

 

Moving forward

     At 42, Mic Alexander has a sense of accomplishment. Instead of closing a company, she has turned it around and created a healthy, growing business.  While it hasn’t always met its revenue goals, Overflow Printing has made money every single year. But its pool-playing, motorcycle-riding owner also has the heart and soul of an entrepreneur.           

     Although she isn’t sure exactly what’s next on life’s agenda, Alexander is looking forward. She may go into public speaking or write a book incorporating her experience and giving advice to other small business owners. As someone who started with zero and built it into an opportunity, Alexander would like to encourage others to do the same. But she also offers a word of caution.

     “Get your personal life in order, both physically and spiritually,” she urges.  “You have to be emotionally and physically fit to play the game.  Otherwise, it’s like going out on the football field without pads and a helmet.  You won’t last long.”

     Alexander’s biggest challenge has been learning to prioritize in order to manage the stress level of running a business. 

     “I have a great team, but there are certain things only I can do,” she says.  “And, yet, everything seems to be important. All I can do is do my best everyday.”

 

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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