Vaulting into the digital age

In the late 1990s, Letterman’s Blue Print & Supply found itself in the midst of a technological and generational transition. The Internet and digital printing technology had begun making inroads into Letterman’s specialty — printing construction plans.

Owner Charles Perret Jr. had begun the process of putting his sons, Steven and Chuck, in charge of the company’s day-to-day operations. The younger Perrets believed if they could harness the Internet’s power, they could keep the Government Street company going. But they weren’t sure exactly how to do that.

Eventually they arrived at a business model built on an Internet hallmark: free content. The service, Digital Vault, allows architecture and engineering firms to post bid documents online for public and private projects.

Users can scroll through a list of the projects, click on any project they find interesting, look at sheet-by-sheet views of plans, and even download a complete set of documents. They can print the documents themselves or have it done at Letterman’s or another company.

“Basically, we became information managers,” Letterman’s President Steven Perret said.

With Digital Vault, Letterman’s can manage the entire bid process. The service saves money for general contractors and subcontractors.

In the past, bidding on a project meant buying paper documents or putting down a deposit, both of which could become expensive. Companies like Letterman’s routinely printed hundreds of sets of architectural and engineering drawings for every single project. Construction companies often found themselves spending $100 or even $1,000, depending on the project’s size to get the details of a project the firms would never bid.

Digital Vault also helps generate revenue for Letterman’s black-and-white digital reproduction business.

“It’s helped us, quite frankly, prevent (that segment) from eroding,” Perret said.

Reprographics firms create and reproduce large-format documents.

In 2007, there were around 3,000 reprographics companies in the United States, with an estimated annual revenue of $4.5 billion, according to the International Reprographics Association. In 2011, there were around 1,550 reprographics companies nationwide with an estimated $2.3 billion in revenue.

Chuck Perret, New Orleans area manager for Letterman’s, said the company’s revenue has grown 12 percent over the past 10 years. Those results don’t sound that impressive until you compare them to the rest of the industry.

Ed Avis, managing director of the International Reprographics Association, said the reprographics industry has shrunk since the housing market collapsed in 2008.

Some of that has been due to consolidation. Some because businesses simply closed.

“The bright side of the industry is that the shops that survived the recession are leaner and more diversified than they were before. They do more work with fewer employees, and they have a broader base of clients,” Avis said.

The recession also hurt Letterman’s. The company closed its downtown Baton Rouge location and the Biloxi, Miss., office at the end of 2008. Letterman’s had been the official print company for Harrah’s planned $1 billion Margaritaville Casino in Biloxi. But Harrah’s sold the property and the project died.

Avis said many reprographics firms, like Letterman’s, have diversified by moving into the lucrative business of making banners, signs, posters and vehicle graphics. These companies already had tech-savvy employees and could handle the complexities of digital color reproduction that were a struggle for some sign shops.

Letterman’s acquired Gold Star Signs in 2011, Steven Perret said. Letterman’s now makes signs for construction companies, retailers, accounting firms and restaurants, among others. Letterman’s does “everything” for the Rotolo’s Pizzeria chain, from interior signs to promotions. Letterman’s also makes the “wraps” that cover cars and trucks, turning the vehicles into rolling billboards.

The new line of business is satisfying in a different way than construction documents, Steven Perret said. It’s much easier to point to a sign Letterman’s made than to a building that was built using some plans that you distributed.

Still, construction documents and Digital Vault remain Letterman’s core business and the heart of the company’s growth strategy.

More and more companies are using the service. Typically, the site lists 15 to 20 public projects each month, and more than 3,000 subscribers can view those plans. The service has been approved by Louisiana Facility Planning and Control. A number of public agencies, including the city of Baton Rouge and Lafayette School Board, have used Digital Vault.

The service has come a long way since 2006, when St. Charles Parish Hospital posted the first project, a facility expansion. Letterman’s spent years trying to show design professionals what Digital Vault was all about and how it could help them.

“We’ve done seminars. We’ve done one-on-ones. We’ve done lunch-and-learns,” Steven Perret said.

It’s only in the past 2½ years that the service has caught on.

Letterman’s didn’t develop a five-year plan for Digital Vault. The company was just responding to the needs of its clients, and that turned into something really good.

But, Chuck Perret said, even in the 1990s, the family could see both the service and a change in how the company did business were necessary.

The days of making five copies of an original are gone forever, like servicing black-and-white television sets.

It helped that Letterman’s has always embraced new technology. For example, the company was the first in Baton Rouge to offer computer-aided design, or CAD, plotting as a commercial service, he said. Letterman’s goal now, as in the past, is to bring the benefits of technology to the workflow of construction and design firms.

Steven Perret said technology allows design firms to provide much more detail in construction documents than was possible in the past. Instead of 30 pages of drawings, there may be 50.

Drawings are so detailed that software programs allow contractors to take an online walk through a project. They can see exactly how many items, such as electrical outlets, they need to include in their bid.

If a project includes a requirement for small Disadvantaged Business Enterprises or Small Business Enterprises, that information is also posted. Many state and federal agencies encourage the use of minority- and women-owned companies.

That level of detail means fewer errors and delays in construction, he said.

For now, most of the projects posted on Digital Vault are in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas. But Letterman’s has begun posting projects in the Lake Charles and Lafayette, where the company has offices. And Letterman’s recently began posting projects in north Louisiana. Next year Letterman’s plans to use Digital Vault to expand the company’s electronic footprint to states outside Louisiana.

The company will advertise in professional and trade publications and through targeted marketing, Steven Perret said.