By Peter Saunders
Since 1997, McRae Imaging in Mississauga, Ont., has gradually made a name for itself in the wide-format graphics industry both through good fortune and by focusing on niche applications. Rather than operate as a full-service print provider, it has specialized in dye sublimation for the trade, outputting graphics on textile substrates and integrating them into custom-fabricated structures, often for trade shows and other special events.
“Within the trade, people are very aware of us,” says Bob Murray, president, “but we should do more in terms of communications, as it’s been mostly word-of-mouth so far.”
Cutting their teeth
The company has its roots in McRae Custom Colour Labs, which provided photographic services on Stafford Street in downtown Toronto since the mid-1960s. Murray bought the company with business partner Richard Kisiel in 1997. They began to transition its operations to take advantage of newer graphic processes, including digital wide-format inkjet printing.
“The Custom Colour Labs business was almost dead when we bought it,” says Murray. “We saw the traditional photographic industry heading the way of the dodo.”
The next few years continued to see rapid technological change. In 1998, Murray investigated dye sublimation printing—which was then emerging in European markets—for the production of graphics on fabric substrates. He pitched the technology to Kisiel, then vice-president (VP) of production, who agreed to try it in-house.
“We had a pigment printer and could do heat transfers and run dye-sub inks through it,” says Murray, currently the company’s president. “We got the process going in 1999 and were able to cut our teeth on it while the technology was still in its early days.”
While the timing gave them a competitive advantage over other print shops, it also made for a steep learning curve, as there were few others’ examples to follow.
“It’s a combination of science and art and it’s difficult to get right,” says Murray. “In the early days, we developed all of our own colour profiles, spending months refining them. We were used to colour management in the photo industry, but as different fabrics absorb the ink, the colours do not look the same. I remember struggling just to get the three colours right on the Michelin Man! Just when you think you’ve overcome the difficulties, you run into another obstacle.”
The right place at the right time
McRae’s dye-sub output grew dramatically but steadily over the next few years, serving customers in the trade-show sector. The company bent aluminum extrusions into expo booth frames, then stretched the fabrics over them.
“We had already been mounting graphics to rigid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) boards for trade show displays, so it made sense to continue to move that way,” says Murray. “We became the printer of record for Expand International, a company in Sweden that had introduced fabric displays to the North American market. So, we were the first guys to get into this work here—and there was no problem with rebranding ourselves. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time!”
Another key to McRae’s success, however, involved avoiding the common mistake of rushing too quickly into a new business model.
“An amount of caution is always needed,” says Murray. “When we started, we didn’t have much money or access to credit, but that may have been a good thing. While some companies were bankrupting themselves splurging on new technologies every few years, we started with one dye-sub machine and added more in such a way that everything was synchronized. We bought new equipment only as new jobs were coming in. The best advice is to take some easy steps, learn more, take time, become profitable and don’t kill yourself. An amount of caution is always needed.”