Mario Assadi, founder of Greenerprinter, next to the six-color Heidelberg press at the company's west Berkeley HQ. Photos: Lance Knobel

The growth of Greenerprinter, West Berkeley’s eco-friendly printer, serves as an object lesson in the risks, twists and turns entrepreneurial businesses need to navigate.

When Mario Assadi, founder and CEO of Greenerprinter, started the company in 1987, he had a freshly minted degree in mechanical engineering but was impatient to do something on his own. Desktop publishing — fuelled by the Apple Macintosh and Adobe PageMaker — was burgeoning, and he started a pre-press company, then called Tulip Graphics, on University Avenue.

He handled the changing technology and demand sufficiently to open another office in San Francisco in 1993, to be close to the ad agencies that were big purchasers of his services. And, like so many other businesses at the time, he found himself in the middle of the dotcom boom.

“You couldn’t go wrong,” Assadi recalls. “Everything we did worked.”

With his engineering background, Assadi was determined to stay at the forefront of technology in his business. In 1996 his was one of the first pre-press companies to have a website, he says. The company purchased one of the first digital scanners in the Bay Area. Despite the growing business, he shut down the San Francisco office when one of his production managers was hired by Adobe, and he decided to concentrate his staff on one Berkeley site. The birth of his first son in 1997 and the desire to eliminate a bridge commute contributed to the decision.

But Assadi saw something that made him restless: the steady encroachment of technology into pre-press was eroding the business. Just as the dotcom era was busting, he determined that his company needed to shift into “full-blown printing”. However intense the capital demands in pre-press, moving into printing required an exponential leap in investment.

“I went to Chicago in September, 2001, to look at presses and I decided to spend $3 million on a Heidelberg press,” he says. “We didn’t have financing or a location for the press, but I thought, ‘This is what we have to do.’”

Sheets being rapidly fed into Greenerprinter's press at the west Berkeley plant

He shook hands with Heidelberg on September 10 and flew back to the Bay Area. Later that week, following the attacks of 9/11, Heidelberg called Assadi to see whether he still wanted to buy the presses, or whether the uncertainty of the times had frozen his plans. He decided to go ahead.

Where would he put his new press? He found a building on Seventh Street and Grayson, but it was unpromising, to say the least.

“This was a most disgusting, dilapidated animal testing lab that had been vacant for two years,” Assadi says. “You literally couldn’t walk in because the stench was so bad.”

But that dilapidation also presented an opportunity for Assadi. He bought the property and embarked on a renovation that left only the roof and three concrete walls from the original. He fired his architect as the cost rose from an originally quoted $1 million to $1.4 million, and completed the project as his own builder, general contractor and designer. In 2002, the company went live on the new site.

“There were plenty of well-funded, established printers out there,” he says. “I decided there were going to be two things that differentiated us: we’re going to go green, and we’re going to go online.”

A focus on the enviroment

Assadi says that the paper industry is traditionally one of the more environmentally harmful businesses in the world. He forged a partnership with New Leaf Paper to use 100% recycled stock. He also has worked to eliminate harmful chemicals from the platemaking process. The company purchases Renewable Energy Credits to offset its internal energy consumption and the carbon footprint of its shipments. A growing amount of their work uses digital printing, which Assadi says is “greener” than traditional printing.

In 2008, Assadi took another risk, but one that he believes carried the company through the recent recession — he leased another building on Carleton and Eighth streets, where he established his own bindery. “Most of the vendors we were using went bust,” he says.

Greenerprinter now has between 27 and 30 employees, and Assadi is bullish about the future — despite the competition.

“How can a company like us in Berkeley compete with a company in Cincinnati where the rent is 30 cents a square foot and the employees get paid a maximum of $15/hour?” he asks. “We really have a commitment to what differentiates us and we go beyond the standard requirements in everything we do. We’ve been thinking more and more locally. We’re catering to small- and medium-sized businesses that are green-minded. It has to be local to be true to the nature of our business. I know that even if we pick up 1% of the business in the Bay Area, even with the diminishing print market, we’ll have more business than we can handle.”

Greenerprinter is a sponsor of Startup Berkeley, Berkeleyside’s Local Business Forum which takes place on the evening of March 5 at the Freight & Salvage in downtown Berkeley. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Brown Paper Tickets.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...