Taking care of business
Third in a five-part series about family businesses with deep roots in the area economy.
In 1910 a farmer-turned-publisher from Armour decided to grow his fledgling newspaper business by buying into a publishing company in Pierre.
Thomas B. Roberts Sr. had reason to be optimistic about the venture. The native of South Bend, Ind., had successfully run newspapers in Grandview and Armour. And the offices of the new newspaper, the Pierre Daily Dakotan, also handled printing for state government.
While the newspaper would only compete with the Capital Journal for a few decades before manpower shortages during World War II killed it, the business Roberts managed proved nimble enough to survive into the modern era of digital printing.
The business had already seen two sets of owners when Roberts became involved, with one group taking over soon after the company was founded in 1883.
“Somewhere shortly thereafter a group of guys bought it and changed the name to the State Publishing Company, so we assume by the name, calling it THE State Publishing Company, that it was a private business that did the state’s printing for them,” said Tom Roberts, Thomas’s great-grandson and the current owner.
His great-uncle, Thomas Roberts Jr., took over the print shop from Thomas Robert Sr., while his grandfather ran the Roberts Laundry, known today as Buhl’s Dry Cleaning, in downtown Pierre. His father, Godfrey Roberts Jr., was asked to help in the print shop and found himself running it after Thomas Robert Jr. died of a heart attack in 1950.
For years the company did business with the state government, publishing bills and journals for the legislative session, in addition to book binding and other assorted printing needs. However, that business slowly died down and the company expanded into commercial printing.
“When my Dad came back to Pierre in 1950, about 80 percent of our business was state business. When I came back in ‘78, it was something like 50 percent. And now it’s probably 15 percent,” Roberts said.
Recognizing that change and trying to avoid the perception that the company was a government agency, the company rebranded itself in 2010 with the name it bears today - Pryntcomm.
But changing the business to suit current needs isn’t new to the company. Roberts said one key to Pryntcomm’s longevity is adopting new technology quickly. The company was one of the first to transition between hand-setting type and using a machine, and then using computer-to-plate technology in the 1990s. That hasn’t been a trend in the industry, Roberts said.
“There are a lot of printers that haven’t kept up with the technology and this is probably a dying industry. Not quickly by any means, but 25 years this business is going to look a lot different than it does now. It looks a lot different now than it did five years ago because of outside technology interfering with the ink on paper,” he said.
But in the near future, the business is secure and the family legacy might extend another generation as Robert’s son has expressed interest in taking over once he graduates from college.
“What we’ve been doing in the last few years is making sure we are set up equipment wise and technology wise for the next few years, so we can determine how our transition will take place – whether it’s to a fifth generation, which is a strong possibility, or to a sale. But we’re geared up right now that we can run without a major investment for the next five to eight years, at which time we got to make a decision,” he said.
But the business has been good to the family and the family has, in turn, tried to be good to Pierre. Robert’s great-grandfather was a city commissioner and fire chief, while both his grandfather and father served as the town’s mayor.
Roberts said he’s tried to maintain the history and heritage of his family’s business.
“It’s important to know that to this point I’ve been successful doing it. And I think my family before me would be proud of it. It’s taken care of the Roberts family for a long time. And it continues to take care of us,” he said.