Northwest Business Magazine

McGrath Printing: Build Your Skill Set to Expand Your Business

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This business has been a staple in the commercial printing industry for nearly four decades. Find out how this company has captured the attention of the printing industry and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

Kevin McGrath (right), owner of McGrath Printing and Custom Apparel, received several awards last year from the Great Lakes Graphics Association. Pictured at left is Rob Straka, vice chairman for the association’s board of directors.

Kevin McGrath was growing frustrated with the graphics printed on T-shirts and gifts related to fishing and the outdoors. He’d receive gifts with fishing designs, but always they looked dull or unrealistic – nothing like the high-end look he expected. And he knows a thing or two about graphics.

The founder of McGrath Printing and Custom Apparel in Crystal Lake put his entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and industry experience onto the problem. In 2015, he put out a nationwide advertisement in order to hire the top freelance graphic designers to help him create the realistic images of fish and wildlife he’d been searching for. The result: Crappie, Bass, Walleye, Musky and other fish crafted in intricate details, right down to the scales.

Next, McGrath developed, trademarked and patented a gift set containing seemingly lifelike, 3-D graphics printed on a T-shirt, ceramic mug and packaging. The designs soon made it onto hoodies, sweatshirts, hats and other products sold under the Follow the Action outdoor product line.

The concept has been well received. The Follow the Action product line is just one way this business owner has grown and diversified his company over nearly four decades. Listening to his customers has been key. “I knew I had to diversify,” McGrath says.

When McGrath, 56, was a young boy, he would hang out in the garage of the Arlington Heights home where his father ran a small printing business to supplement his career managing a printing company in Des Plaines.

“My dad taught me how to run the press. I used to love getting full of ink,” McGrath recalls. After he graduated from Buffalo Grove High School, his parents encouraged him to work for other local printing companies, to learn more about the industry. He gained a wealth of experience and connections, including one with print broker Chuck Schmidt, who mentored McGrath on marketing, finance and other aspects of the industry. “Many of the things I learned from Mr. Schmidt back in the day are vital to where I am today,” McGrath says.

With experience under his belt, McGrath returned to the family’s Arlington Heights four-car garage containing three presses and other equipment. In 1981 he launched his own commercial printing business and began taking orders for stationery, company brochures, business cards and other corporate items.

The business grew and expanded four times, and in 1995 McGrath and his family built an industrial property at 740 Duffy Drive, in Crystal Lake, where the company still operates today. Instruction manuals, product literature, direct mail pieces, flyers, financial inserts, newsletters, menus and postcards are just some examples of the company’s work.

In addition to commercial printing, McGrath also focuses on pre-press and design, finishing, fulfillment and mailing. When his clients began asking for it, he added screen printing to his menu of services.

“My corporate clients wanted a one-stop shop for their branding and logo needs on not only printed paper but on their corporate apparel,” he says. “It was time to take the business to the next level.”

In 2007 he launched a custom apparel division, with specialties in automatic screen printing and embroidery. From backpacks to sweatpants, jackets to polos, McGrath handles an array of products, including personalized corporate gifts and uniforms.

Over the years, McGrath has continually diversified by adding new specialty services.

“We also do a great deal of miniature folding and produce miniature coin envelopes,” McGrath says. “This is truly a niche market.”

He’s also found a strong niche in printing instruction manuals for consumer products and certain items for the pharmaceutical industry. His firm has been sponsored by a major dental manufacturer to achieve a Quality Control Certification.

“Printing and producing instruction manuals and pharmaceutical inserts has become our claim to fame, if you will,” McGrath says.

“Our unique equipment, which makes us extremely competitive, expedites turnaround time to meet our customers’ ever-growing demands.”

Over the years, McGrath’s family has started joining the firm, which now employs 19. Wife Kathy started about 10 years ago and handles administration and accounting. Son Tommy is the face of social media, including accounts on Instagram and YouTube, where he promotes the Follow the Action line – a product that’s been a source of pride since its launch five years ago.

“Designing the art for the apparel and creating the packaging to complement the entire gift set was fulfilling,” McGrath says. “We had to invest in patents, trademarks and copyrights.”

The industry has taken notice, too. In 2018 McGrath’s Follow the Action line gained four regional Graphic Excellence Awards from the Great Lakes Graphics Association: the People’s Choice Award, an award of excellence for carton and container design, a certificate of merit for specialty printing and the highest honor – the Gutenberg Best of Category for Special Innovation Awards in Printing – which recognized the gift set.

Shortly thereafter, the Follow the Action gift set beat out more than 700 entries to earn two prestigious “Bennie” Awards presented by Printing Industries of America. Again, the gift set took the high honor in “special innovation” and the “People’s Choice” Award.

“Our team is honored to receive these industry awards for innovation, craftsmanship and quality,” McGrath says. The Follow the Action Line is currently sold online at Amazon, Walmart.com, Etsy, and the company’s own FollowTheAction.com.

“We are looking to expand and are currently negotiating with several retail stores,” McGrath says.

Since the days of working in his father’s garage, McGrath has seen a wave of changes within the industry. That’s why he continues to update equipment, investing in state-of-the-art digital presses that complement his current offerings in commercial printing and finishing equipment.

At the same time he’s investing in digital tools, McGrath is still a big believer in the power of direct mail. Studies show that response rates to direct mail are around 5.1 percent, compared to 0.6 percent for email and 0.4 percent for social media, he says.

Still, he’s not one to shy away from new areas. “To advertise your business in today’s world, you can’t do without social media,” he says. “It’s a different dynamic than when I started the business.”

With nearly four decades of business experience, McGrath says he also has learned the importance of balancing business and family.

“You have to spend time with family,” he says.

The other challenging juggling act is balancing employees’ expectations with business expectations. “It is so hard to find good employees,” he says. “Fewer and fewer people are skilled in the manufacturing industry.”

McGrath points to dedication as the reason his business has prospered and grown over the past decades.

“That’s what it takes. It’s 100 percent dedication to my business and to my clients,” he says.

He enjoys the industry and the success he has had in it. “I pride myself in solving my clients’ selling and production needs,” McGrath says. “I take satisfaction when my clients succeed. You can have confidence in me. We’re the go-to business.”

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