Originally published in Business Digest, July 1997

Color Guard

by Julia Lynam

Take a magnifying glass and study the cover of this magazine. Your eye has been fooled into confusing all those dots of red, yellow, blue and black for a high quality, color portrait of Richard Leff. In order to go from a color transparency to a printed page, the colors had to be separated onto four pieces of film. That’s what color separators do. The accelerating technological advances of recent years have led to ever finer and more perfect reproductions of color photographs and illustrations, as well as to previously unimaginable image manipulation and enhancement.

Leff, owner of Horsman, a pre-press and digital printing company in Williston, is enthusiastic about the benefits of the new processes: “When I bought this business in 1992 it was clearly at a time of change,” he says. “Work that had previously been done in a traditional way by hand was going on to the computer.

“But there’s so much new stuff in the industry, you’d go broke trying to keep up with it all — the art is to decide which new equipment and processes are going to be worth investing in.”

Soon after acquiring the business, Leff invested in a direct personal computer link to his sophisticated “high end” image scanners. This has two advantages: completed scans can be sent electronically to the customer for approval and comment, and the scanner can be released quickly for its next job, as the image can be stored on a PC.

In the studio, color department head Charlie Carpentier, who, like most Horsman employees, has a wealth of experience in his specialty, demonstrated how the high-end Crosfield scanner allows him to adjust color values in a photograph before it’s fed into the computer for reproduction. He doesn’t adjust the colors by eye, but by a numerical display of the color intensity. “Charlie’s like a musician who can see notes written on a page and hear the music,” says Leff. “When he reads the numbers, he can actually see the colors they spell out.”

Another significant advance, Leff says, was the introduction of drum-based image setters. In these, film that will be used for printing the final image is produced. Drum-based image setters hold the film steady while the laser transferring the image from the computer is moved across the film. “Earlier technology moved the film itself,” says Leff, “so before these machines appeared in the early ’90s, color printing could be problematic, with the different colors appearing out of register with one another.”

[photo] Richard Leff, who owns and operates Horsman, a pre-press and digital printing company in Williston, has a career background that has taken some surprising turns — from youth counselor and bookstore owner to fire truck manufacturer. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

A California native, Leff came to Vermont to study social sciences at Bennington College, then pursued a master’s degree in statistics from UVM. Why the mix of social services and hard numbers? “I was always interested in applying maths and statistics to social services,” he says. “I thought if you had better statistical information you’d be able to provide more directed services and be able to better evaluate whether you were meeting your goals. I was an optimist!” After college he became director of the Youth Information Center, a social service agency on Church Street, Burlington. Next, he took a job as an information specialist for the Vermont Alcohol and Drug Abuse Service.

Disillusioned with bureaucracy but still optimistic, Leff entered private enterprise in 1977. “I decided I might be able to do more good by providing employment for a number of people,” he says. “So I bought a bookshop.”

He stayed on Church Street, opening the Wit and Wisdom bookshop on the corner of College, in what had been Chapter Two, a part of McAuliffe’s Corner Bookstore. Soon after he added a branch at 100 Dorset St. in South Burlington.

Leff’s 10 years in the book business, working alongside his wife, Susan, were happy ones. “There were a number of small bookstores in Burlington at that time,” he remembers. “We got along well. We all had specialties and we’d send customers to each other. The national chains were relegated to the malls and there was no discounting. It’s not so personal now, and it doesn’t feel like there are so many choices for buying books any more.”

After a decade in the book business, Leff was ready for a new challenge. Selling the shops, he turned his attention to fire trucks. “I wanted to manufacture a real product, so I bought the Middlesex Fire Truck Co. in Montpelier, which built trucks and supplied fire fighting equipment such as hoses, ladders and fireproof coats.”

It turned out to be a very challenging move indeed. The recession of the early ’90s and a state sales tax increase eventually sounded the death knell for the firm, which Leff closed in 1991 after a difficult four years. “We built to order for different communities,” he explains. “So we would spend a lot of time working with a fire department on what they wanted, only to find that, as the recession deepened, they weren’t, after all, able to raise the money.”

Bruised but undeterred, Leff cast around for another arena, and discovered H. Horsman + Co., up for sale after the untimely death in 1990 of Herman Horsman, a well-respected businessman Leff describes as “the godfather of color separations in the area.”

“I thought it would be an exciting business,” Leff continues, “and I liked the idea of being involved with the arts.” Leff purchased the business, shortening the business name to Horsman, in 1992.

This versatility is recognized by Al Mansfield, president of Vermont Business Brokers, who has known Leff since he helped him sell Wit and Wisdom in 1987. Mansfield also worked with Leff on his acquisition of Horsman and, subsequently, Champlain Color. “Rick’s quite an intellectual,” Mansfield says. “He has the capacity to learn skills rapidly regardless of the type of business he’s in. When he owned Middlesex Fire Trucks, for instance, he quickly became very knowledgeable about building fire trucks. He’s been a good businessman in Chittenden County for many years.”

In 1995 Leff acquired a second pre-press company, Champlain Color, and merged the two. He moved Horsman from the Maltex building on Pine Street, Burlington, where it had been since 1985, to the location of Champlain Color, a building with room for expansion at Production Park in Williston.

When Leff bought Horsman, the company came with some of the most experienced color staff in the state. Their expertise, he maintains, coupled with that of the staff at Champlain Color and the use of the best technology available, is crucial to the success of the company.

“Purchasing Champlain Color was a good move,” he says. “It gave us the flexibility of having two high-end scanners and other important equipment, although we also ended up with two of a lot of other things, which we sold!”

After Leff acquired Champlain Color the excitement continued. “At first it was a real struggle,” he recalls. “With our new capabilities we were ahead of our customers. It was tough for the staff, but we struggled through and came out of it with a bang. Sales have been growing steadily ever since, although it’s a very competitive world and prices keep coming down. It seems we have to run faster all the time to become more efficient and maintain that margin of growth.”

It’s also a high-energy business. Horsman does pre-press work for a wide variety of media, producing color scans and films that are used to print books, magazines and advertising material. They can be working on as many as 100 projects in one week, all carefully coordinated from a central office by production manager Maria Serafin.

Flexibility and expertise are vital in a field where competition comes not just from other color houses, but, increasingly, from printers who now offer their customers a color separation service. “Traditionally, printers would send that phase of the work to us; now they are getting into it themselves, doing their own scanning on desk-top machines.”

Leff is convinced, however, that there is still a very definite need for the specialist color house. “A desktop will never match the quality of a high-end scan,” he says. “Our machines give better light and dark variation, better color reproduction and better registration. With a specialist color house, the customer has a much better chance of the material looking the same, whoever prints it.” This is especially important where the same image is scheduled to appear in various media such as magazines, posters, and on packaging and point of sale pieces, all printed on different presses.

Working closely with Horsman for many years, Debbie DeCell, sales representative for Northlight Studio Press of Barre, is impressed with the firm’s dedication: “They’re really interested in having a successful product all the way along the line,” she says. “Not just in producing color work that the client will approve, but also in making films that will be easy for the printer to use. They know what we’re looking for.

“Rick has always looked to improve services, expand their capabilities and stay right on the edge of the technology that is expanding so rapidly. They help me do my job by educating me in new techniques.”

Although most major printers still send work to color houses, this source of business has declined significantly and Leff now markets more intensely to the direct user. “We do different parts of the job for different customers,” Leff explains. “These are people who want to keep control of their own color work. For some we may do just the scan, for some we make films, for some we do both. We have customers bringing artwork on CD, digital cameras or desktop scans for us to enhance or manipulate. We make them look better, then they are taken to a printer.”

Another very real pressure on the market is the purchase of small Vermont companies by larger, out-of-state concerns. Recently, two Horsman customers, Chapters Publishing Inc., a Charlotte book publisher, and magazine publisher Telemedia, were bought by Houghton Mifflin and Hachette respectively. “We see this as a concern,” Leff says. “Sometimes we retain the work, but sometimes it’s taken out of state.”

With the printing and pre-press businesses moving closer together, Leff himself has crossed the divide and installed a digital printing setup at Horsman. This links Xerox hardware directly into a sophisticated software program, bypassing the film-making process and producing high quality color printing in small quantities at affordable prices. “We researched this very carefully and we’re sure that this is the best equipment for the purpose,” says Leff. “This is a niche of the printing market that is not in direct competition with standard color printing.”

Installed in December, the digital printer is running at less than full capacity — once again, Leff is ahead of his customers. “It’s almost like selling marketing,” he mused. “Color printing in small runs on an offset press has always been prohibitively expensive, so people have got used to that idea. With digital printing, short runs make much more sense, so people need to re-think their marketing decisions about quantities.

“Digital printing is ideal for short-run marketing campaigns and for small businesses that might want to target a limited number of customers — it’s also very quick.”

And it’s wonderful for individuals. At a price very competitive with off-the-shelf or catalog wedding stationery, Horsman can print truly personalized invitations, menus, place cards, business cards, thank-you cards, and more. These can incorporate sophisticated collages of, for instance, family photographs, children’s drawings or special messages and poetry, presented in high quality print, not just photocopied.

Leff keeps a keen eye on technological developments but evaluates each move very carefully before investing. He’s currently researching digital camera equipment. “In our two areas of expertise: color printing and the digital world, there are a lot of new opportunities and new equipment out there,” he remarks.

Leff’s persistent optimism is likely to turn those opportunities to the best advantage for his company and his customers.