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TCI Graphics owners Jim and Debbie Meinsen say last year's revenues were rescued by an early 2020 purchase that diversified the business.
SBJ photo by McKenzie Robinson
TCI Graphics owners Jim and Debbie Meinsen say last year's revenues were rescued by an early 2020 purchase that diversified the business.

Business Spotlight: Fresh Canvas

Fifty-year-old TCI Graphics adapts with focus on fine art reproduction

Posted online

The family that owns and operates TCI Graphics Inc. is accustomed to change – be it in technologies, buildings or industry trends.

“We had the first or second fax machine in Springfield,” says Debbie Meinsen, whose dad, Fred Lorenz, founded the company 50 years ago as Type Center Inc. “When we started, my dad was setting type with hot lead.”

As the name implies, Lorenz and company would set type by hand before it was printed in the style and design ordered by customers.

Remember those fax machines? It was a hefty investment for the early adopters; Meinsen and her husband, TCI Graphics co-owner Jim Meinsen, recall paying roughly $15,000 for their first. TCI Graphics no longer has one; PDFs introduced in the late 1990s began to change that.

“A lot of our business went away because of that,” Jim says.

But the technology disruption in the printing industry also brought opportunities. TCI Graphics transitioned from a typesetting company to perform large-format printing. Today, it has four inkjet printers, representing investments totaling $200,000 over the years.

That bread-and-butter work of printing posters, banners and trade show materials for such clients as BKD LLP, Bass Pro Shops and CoxHealth slowed last year, however, as quickly as the coronavirus pandemic and shutdown orders arrived.

It was time to pivot again. This one, though, was in the works prior to COVID-19 becoming a reality – by mere days.

“We kind of look at it as providence,” says Debbie.

The latest shift was to fine art reproduction work.

Midwest Frame Supply Inc. owner David Eagon was retiring and called Jim in February 2020 about buying his remaining supplies. They agreed on a deal – less than $10,000 in supplies and equipment – and moved it into TCI Graphics’ building, 615 W. College St., the first week of March.

Most businesses were soon under shutdown protocols, but not TCI Graphics.

“We do enough work for the hospitals in town, so we did get to stay open,” says Jim.

But Debbie adds: “A lot of our customers did not stay open.”

“Being open and having business is two different things,” Jim replies. “We lost all of our trade show business within a month. During COVID, all the gatherings, like the Route 66 Festival, they went away. Mostly what we’re doing right now is fine arts reproduction and framing.”

The Meinsens say the new business in the arts, along with big canvas orders in the last months of the year, rescued revenues. Though sales were on pace to drop by half, Jim says a surge brought the year-end tally to $320,000 – only 20% off the prior year.

“Not quite as low as we thought it was going to be,” he says. “We had a tremendous November and December, or we would have been in trouble. We had a customer that did over 600 stretched canvasses by the end of the year.”

That customer – Elite PhotoArt LLC and photographer Will Roberts – represents a growing market for TCI Graphics.

Professional artists Susan Sommer-Luarca and Randy Bacon have worked with TCI Graphics over the years; Sommer-Luarca even painted the oceanic mural on the print shop’s building.

Photographer Bacon says he’s leaning more heavily on Jim and his team of late.

“I’m doing more exhibitions. So, I’ve started sending all that work to him,” Bacon says. “He printed the entire ‘The Road I Call Home’ project on the homeless.”

Those portraits and personal stories of homelessness are up to nearly 100 pieces printed, he says. “The Road I Call Home” is now traveling, Bacon says, and some 30 prints in the collection will be displayed this summer in museums in Norfolk, Virginia; Marietta, Georgia; and Hickory, North Carolina.

Each exhibit is a $5,000 or more print order, Bacon says, and he’s sending jobs to TCI Graphics weekly.

“We’ve developed a close relationship, and he understands what I want,” Bacon says. “It has to be perfect.”

Next on order is a 20-piece exhibit Bacon’s doing for Harmony House. Prints for the show, called “Standing Together” and telling domestic abuse survivor stories, have to be ready for a fall opening planned at Bacon’s Commercial Street studio.

For TCI Graphics, gone are the days of a $120,000 single order by The Marlin Co. for 35 trade show booths. Or a steady stream of menus printed for Neighbor’s Mill, Kai or Karai as restaurants shift to online menus.

Now, it’s more like in-house advertising and banners at Jordan Valley Community Health Center, in-store photos for Bass Pro, and the fine artwork and limited-edition prints.

“If you go over to Cox and see a sign saying June 1 is Women’s Day, or something like that, we do that,” Jim says.

He says the company is pacing for another $300,000 in sales.

TCI Graphics is in its third building – but it’s been there 17 years. The first operated near where Hammons Field now stands, and a shop was on Grant Avenue in between.

“We’ve got a great location being downtown with the art district,” Debbie says.

At 8,000 square feet., she says they fill “every square inch of it” – about 80% for production and supplies like paper, foam board and framing materials.

The latest change is in the form of an idea Jim has brewing. He’d like to print a catalog of local fine art – along with a companion website – for interior designers and companies to select pieces to hang in offices.

“Ever since COVID, the desire to purchase local has gone through the roof,” Jim says. “Interior designers and those kinds of people, instead of picking artists from New York, they can choose some local artists. We have some fabulous artists in town.”

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