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April 11, 2022 Tech 25

2022 Tech 25: Overcoming pandemic slowdown, Direct Color Systems regains momentum in niche commercial inkjet printing market

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Rocky Hill-based Direct Color Systems manufactures and sells commercial and industrial inkjet printers.

When Tom Kaplinski took over as CEO of Direct Color Systems, the road ahead looked smoother than I-91.

Founders Bill and Blair Allen had built a powerhouse in the growing niche market of commercial and industrial inkjet printing equipment.

In fact, business was going so well that the Allens decided they needed to bring in Kaplinski’s experience in developing enterprise-grade processes.

That was January 2020.

Tom Kaplinski

The honeymoon was brief — about five weeks, as Kaplinski tells it. That’s when the COVID pandemic hit and Direct Color’s world stopped spinning.

Trade shows ceased; so did orders. As the money flow slowed, Kaplinski found himself preparing for a shutdown. All 50 employees were put on hourly status.

“It’s the first time I’d been an hourly employee since bagging groceries as a kid,” Kaplinski recalls.

A loan of a little less than $1 million from the federal Paycheck Protection Program stabilized the situation and allowed Direct Color to make payroll and keep everyone on benefits.

Since that low point, business has been coming back, both here and in Direct Color’s international headquarters in Portugal. International revenues amount to about 10% of the firm’s sales. Trade shows are moving from the virtual world back toward personal contact.

New ideas never stopped and Direct Color rolled out the wide format UV84-DTS printer last fall and has new products in the pipeline.

Direct Color’s forte is the ability of its product line to print on a wide variety of materials and in a wide variety of shapes.

Want your logo on a coffee cup, golf ball or even a fishing lure? Direct Color has the tools. Want to wrap a car or building? Direct Color has the tool.

How about printing signs in Braille to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations? Not only does Direct Color have the tool, it holds three patents on that technology.

The printing units aren’t cheap, running from a bit over $30,000 to about $100,000, Kaplinski explains.

“We haven’t cornered the market,” he says, but the firm is on a “happy trajectory” in a printer market that’s growing about 3% a year.

He’s delighted with the support he’s received from the Connecticut business community. Connecticut Innovations was an early investor. So were some small local investors. He counts 46 Connecticut suppliers in his supply chain and uses local accountants and lawyers.

He points to the teamwork during the darkest days of 2020 as having been helpful. Businesses were all in the same situation, he recalls. Nobody had cash but “there were things we could do for each other,” he said, “and we did.”

Somewhere downstream, he says he can envision teaching business students about the lessons of 2020.

But for now, it’s full speed ahead.

The in-house design team is working on new products and the Rocky Hill plant can handle the manufacturing volume. Now if Kaplinski can iron out a few international supply chain hiccups, the road ahead will again resemble I-91.

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