A Sad Emblem of Our Times

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

A venerable Richmond-based printing company closed last May. Somehow, that really saddened me. Perhaps because it was located not far from where I live. Perhaps because it had been around for so long.  Perhaps because it had a niche business that seemed sort of neat to me. Perhaps because its closing seemed so emblematic of the times.

I meant to comment on it then, but other topics and activities kept bumping it down the list. Then, Jim’s post yesterday about the Virginia economy and some of the follow-up comments brought it back to my mind.

The William Byrd Press was founded in 1913. In 1984, it merged with a North Carolina company and was renamed Cadmus. By 2007, it had 500 employees and was the world’s largest printer for publishers of scientific, technical, and medical journals. It was the fifth largest printer of periodicals in North America.

In 2007, it was acquired in a $430 million buyout by Cenveo of Stamford , Connecticut. The national company has at least 30 other printing operations in the United States and India.

At the time of the announcement of its closing, employment at Cadmus had dwindled to 184 and its business had changed to the printing of magazines, comic books, journals, and direct mail advertisements.

In its closing announcement, Cenveo management blamed the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming it “has adversely impacted our customers’ businesses and, in turn, has diminished the available work at the facility.” Perhaps COVID-19 was the catalyst. Or, perhaps it provided the excuse.

Without any inside knowledge or research, I suspect there were more basic forces and reasons at work. One was the continued decrease in our society’s use of, and reliance on, printed material, particularly anything that is more than a few paragraphs long. Second was greed. There was the greed of the Cadmus board to take a buyout that most likely meant big money to the senior management. Then there was the well-known propensity and greed of national conglomerates to buy up competitors, suck them dry, and then close them.

The sad story of the William Byrd Press and Cadmus would make a good business school case study as well as a case study of our modern economy.