Jeff Charlton has been an entrepreneur and direct marketer for some 48 years. It started when he was a Boy Scout at age 11. At that time, he was selling fertilizer and didn’t realize what he was doing was actually direct response marketing, a path he has followed throughout my career. Still young, at age 14, he started a summer painting company that grew to 12 employees, running it until college graduation.
Jeff’s professional path led me to the University of Missouri and he attained a degree in Civil Engineering. Then he was off to Procter & Gamble for three years, where he served as an engineer. His journey led him into the printing business in 1988, where he worked as a salesman for a small printing company. He was fascinated by the printing business and started his firm, Graphic Connections Group in 1992, out of his basement with a cash advance from his credit card.
Graphic Connections specializes in helping clients design and implement effective marketing materials, and especially direct mail campaigns. They also do the same for their own marketing. Their strategy includes growth both organically and by acquisition. Jeff has purchased 21 companies in the past 23 years. A large percentage of his current employees comes from those acquisitions. Graphic Connections now has 65 employees on three continents.
They do a large amount of business with real estate investors and our divisions include REI Print Mail, REI Complete and Mortgage Print Mail. They were recently named to the Inc. 5000 for 2022 and expect to see continued growth over the next five years, topping $50 million in revenue in the near future.
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Table of Contents
2020 and 2021 threw a lot of curve balls into business on a global scale. Based on the experience gleaned in the past couple years, how can businesses thrive in 2022? What lessons have you learned?
Jeff Charlton: The key to success is to continually be pushing forward. The pandemic put all sorts of obstacles in front of us. We continually look for ways to overcome those challenges. You have to be independent enough to understand when things such as mask mandates or shutdown orders make sense or not. For instance, when other companies were shutting down or sending people home, we refused to participate in the fear and kept working and pushing forward as best we could.
We did not ignore safety precautions, but let our employees make their own decisions versus forcing them to do things because the government decided they would force their will on us. It is not a new lesson, but we reinforced that when times get tough, you have to increase your marketing efforts. Most companies do the opposite, which is a recipe for failure. I’ve always said you can’t cut your way to success.
Companies should focus on endless self-education, and a dedication to excellence in everything they do. I have always lived by one main philosophy, “Do what you say you are going to do-100% of the time.” I try to combine old-fashioned “my word is my bond” values with modern technology. This strategy has paid off and we have grown dramatically.
The pandemic seems to keep on disrupting the economy, what should businesses focus on in 2022? What advice would you share?
Jeff Charlton: The most important thing to focus on for now and 2023 is aggressive marketing. There are so many distractions in our world with social media and advertising messages coming from everywhere. You have to go out and get the business. You cannot wait for it to come to you.
You also have to think ahead – especially given the supply chain shortage that is upon us. Identify critical items necessary for your business and do everything you can to acquire plenty of inventory to last through long lead times.
How has the pandemic changed your industry and how have you adapted?
Jeff Charlton: The supply chain shortage has been the biggest impact on our industry. Luckily, we anticipated that problem long before it started to become real. We started building paper and toner inventory early in the pandemic, it has proven to be one of the smartest moves we have made.
To this day we still have 15 times the normal inventory in stock so we can ensure that we can fill all orders for all our clients. We could go 6 months without a single supply delivery and still be able to produce product.
What advice do you wish you received when the pandemic started and what do you intend on improving in 2022?
Jeff Charlton: I can’t really put my finger on any one thing I wish I had received during the pandemic. I feel we handled things pretty well the entire time. And, as a result, our sales more than doubled over the last two years. We also did not lay anyone off and, in fact, increased our number of employees. I said it before, the biggest reason for our success is we refuse to give into the fear.
Online business surged higher than ever, B2B, B2C, online shopping, virtual meetings, remote work, Zoom medical consultations, what are your expectations for 2022?
Jeff Charlton: I predict a slow return to normalcy over the next couple of years. When I say normal, I mean back to in-person meetings and slowly re-opening physical office space instead of the total virtual approach.
There’s no question that many companies like saving money by having everyone work at home, but I think there’s a lot lost in human relationships and collaboration while working virtually. We do have an aspect of our company that is virtual. I have a few employees stationed around the country and overseas that we communicate with in Zoom meetings.
But the majority of my company works out of one office in St. Louis. I think companies are going to realize that they’re suffering a great reduction in productivity with remote offices. People need human relationships and it is worth the extra money to bring people together in one space to work.
How many hours a day do you spend in front of a screen?
Jeff Charlton: It is probably average, but not exorbitant on a daily basis. It might be six hours a day, but I do my best to encourage as much face-to-face communication as possible. If I can’t talk to someone in-person I will call them on the phone and email them last. Digital communication is effective and necessary in a lot of cases, but the human element is never forgotten in our company.
The majority of executives use stories to persuade and communicate in the workplace. Can you share with our readers examples of how you implement that in your business to communicate effectively with your team?
Jeff Charlton: I’m not a huge storyteller. However, I am close to 60 years old and have a vast amount of experience in this industry, and in business in general. I find myself spending more and more time sharing my wisdom with younger people. I suppose you can call that storytelling. I will say that if I have a specific story in my past that relates to an issue we are having, I will not hesitate to bring that up.
Business is all about overcoming obstacles and creating opportunities for growth. What do you see as the real challenge right now?
Jeff Charlton: The biggest obstacle for perhaps the next few years is going to be the looming recession. The supply chain problem is not getting better and there seems to be no end in sight. A large part of our business is in the real estate industry and I see a major downturn in real estate prices coming in the next two years.
That will dramatically affect a lot of our customers and will hurt our business. However, we have been through downturns before. The 2000 and 2008 recessions were really tough. We got through them by increasing our marketing and looking to buy failing companies during that time period. In fact, my acquisition strategy has been a very effective method of growth for the past 25 years.
You’d be surprised how easily you can pick up companies who are either about to go out of business or the owner is ready to retire. The opportunities increase during recessions. Those who are nimble and have cash can really do well during recessions. But you don’t even necessarily need cash to acquire other companies. You would be surprised at how easy it is to find a win-win deal that does not involve up-front cash or bank loans.
In 2022, what are you most interested in learning about? Crypto, NFTs, online marketing, or any other skill sets? Please share your motivations.
Jeff Charlton: My main focus for the next couple of years is to use technology to improve the efficiencies of our internal systems, and also offer some unique products that our competitors do not have. We recently just completed several major acquisitions of three key new product lines. We plan to spend a lot of time integrating those three platforms into our existing system to create a hybrid that is disruptive in our industry.
We employ teams of programmers who custom write all of our software and websites. I have found in my career that innovation in a specific niche is a very effective way to become a leader in that marketing segment. I have also found that it’s not hard to come up with products or services that do not exist in a given niche.
be surprised how easy it is to find things that people need that do not exist. We have become very good at identifying and developing products to solve those needs.
A record 4.4 million Americans left their jobs in September in 2021, accelerating a trend that has become known as the Great Resignation. 47% of people plan to leave their job during 2022. Most are leaving because of their boss or their company culture. 82% of people feel unheard, undervalued and misunderstood in the workplace. Do you think leaders see the data and think “that’s not me – I’m not that boss they don’t want to work for? What changes do you think need to happen?
Jeff Charlton: The whole employee shortage thing is a mystery to me. What I don’t understand is where are these job quitters going? I doubt they are financially set where they no longer need to work. But no question the problem is real.
As far as owners thinking they’re not part of the problem, that’s probably true. I have been lucky that we have built a company culture over 30 years where we do not have people leave. Most of my employees have been with me long-term. We have a very positive culture and a family environment that allows people to thrive.
I completely agree that employees do not work for money as much as they work to achieve self-worth and want to be happy. I can’t really tell you what other people need to do to make their company a better place to work. I can only say that for us it has been a competitive advantage because we do not have trouble finding good people and keeping good people.
If I had to sum it up in one basic idea, I would say that you need to find jobs for people that match their skills, and then leave them alone and let them do their job. Always be there as a resource if they have problems, but don’t micro-manage.
If you get a bad apple, you have to get rid of them quickly. It is true that a bad apple can spoil the bunch. If a person does not have the right attitude to fit into our culture, we terminate very quickly.
On a lighter note, if you had the ability to pick any business superpower, what would it be and how would you put it into practice?
Jeff Charlton: I would choose to become an EXTREME EXECUTOR. I have so many ideas than the time to implement them. If I could somehow become a super-implementor to accelerate my ideas into reality, that would be incredible.
I am attempting to become that guy now, but it is not easy. Part of my most recent acquisition strategy was to acquire companies that had superstar employees in skill areas we did not have and then I will make it my job to assign those superstars the right tasks to get my ideas implemented quickly.
What does “success” in 2022 mean to you? It could be on a personal or business level, please share your vision.
Jeff Charlton: Being named to the Inc 5000 Fastest growing company list again would be another major accomplishment. We are on track to achieve that now.
But more importantly, I acquired three companies in 2022, and ending the year with all three of those companies integrated into our system and functioning on all cylinders would be awesome and set us up for a run to $50MM in sales in the next few years.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Jeff Charlton for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Jeff Charlton or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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