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Cross Rhodes St. Louis Location
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By Ed Avis
Here’s the usual path to reprographics shop ownership: A teenager works at his parents’ blueprint shop, steadily climbs the ladder, and eventually takes over the family business.
That’s not the path Elmer Rhodes took.
Rhodes is the owner of Cross Rhodes Reprographics, which has four locations spread across the Midwest and South. He didn’t grow up in a blueprinter family – he grew up in public housing in St. Louis, played a little football at Eastern Utah University, then joined the Army.
He got his first taste of the reprographics industry after his Army enlistment ended in 1990. “I got a job working for a company that installed PeachTree accounting software, and we got a contract with Custom Blueprint in St. Louis,” Rhodes recalls. “So I worked there teaching them how to use the software.”
But then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the Army decided they needed Rhodes more than Custom Blueprint did.
“I got reactivated. My specialty was firing the M203, which is an M16 with a grenade launcher, and there was shortage of guys with that specialty,” Rhodes says. “My name came up and I got called. I hadn’t read the fine print when I got out – I didn’t know they could do that!”
He spent a month polishing his skills at Army camps in Wisconsin and Nevada, then shipped out for the Middle East. He ended up spending a total of two more years in the Army.
“I saw some combat in Desert Storm, but very little compared to what soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone through,” he says.
When things finally quieted down and the Army let him go, Rhodes made his way back to Custom Blueprint. They hired him as a salesman, and he learned the business there over the next eight years.
He was good at sales, and knew he could move beyond what Custom could offer him. In 2002 he joined a Xerox dealership for a while, then bought into a reprographics firm. But things didn’t work out with his partners, so in 2003 he started a new firm, Digi Reprographics, in St. Louis, with two architects as partners.
At Digi Reprographics Rhodes first tested an idea that had been brewing in his mind – printing at remote locations rather than shipping finished prints.
Remote Printing to No Printing
“We were the first guys in St Louis to use remote printing and make money off it,” Rhodes says. “I never believed in printing and shipping – the print bill was smaller than the ship bill. I figured out if we used the remote printing we could raise the price and still make money off it. Once we did that I basically captured every general contractor in St. Louis that did work all over the country.”
Digi Reprographics participated in the US Reprographics network, which connected repro firms across the country to allow a firm in any part of the country to accept jobs that had to be printed anywhere else. The files were transferred through ftp sites, and the printers doing the actual printing delivered the jobs to the remote clients and split the revenue with Digi Reprographics.
Rhodes' next step? Skip the printing altogether.
“Then we got into document management,” he recalls. “We got a document management contract with a large general contractor in Florida that paid us twice a month even when there was no printing to do.”
That side of the business grew, and Rhodes realized that the future of reprographics was not in the traditional printing.
Finally, Sole Owner
Rhodes and his partners in Digi Reprographics parted ways after about a year, and he became general manager of Commercial Blueprint in St. Louis. He held that position for six years, but eventually realized he really wanted to go into business for himself – without partners.
“I started my own shop in 2009,” he remembers. “It was a little bitty shop in the St. Louis Enterprise Incubator Program. I had two suites, 400 square feet total. That was the start of Cross Rhodes Reprographics.”
Based on his earlier experiences, Rhodes focused his new enterprise on document management rather than traditional printing services. He became a reseller for PlanWell document management software.
“That was the basis of my service – my thing was to make printing a by-product,” he says.
Rhodes bids on the document management portion of large construction projects, and these days those projects typically call for advanced electronic document management capabilities. “These are construction projects with a lot of players involved,” he explains. “They want to tie in their iPads and other devices, do electronic mark-up, relate to the GCs and developers, and keep it all organized.”
Cross Rhodes’ business from the little office in St. Louis grew rapidly, and in 2011 he acquired Precision Blue in Lombard, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He focused that firm on document management, too, and it is now profitable, he says.
His expansion continued the next year when he started an office in New Orleans. He had a foot in the door of that market because of work he was doing for a general contractor rebuilding levies after Hurricane Katrina. He followed with another location in Mandeville, which is across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, about a year later.
The latest piece of his growing firm was added in 2013. Stephen Orthwein, the owner of his previous employer, Commercial Blueprint in St. Louis, is part of the family that owned Anheuser Busch. When the big brewer merged with Inbev, Orthwein’s fortunes rose and he decided to get out of blueprinting. He sold the firm to Rhodes, who subsequently closed the little incubator office and moved the entire operation into Commercial Blue’s space.
“Mr. Orthwein has been a great mentor to me, and he still mentors me,” Rhodes says. “I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
Rhodes has grown all of his branches by focusing on digital services and technology. “I think everybody thinks their idea is the best, but I believe the way I’m selling it is the future of reprographics,” he says. “Others are using the technology to get the printing; I’m making money from the technology.”
Not surprisingly, Rhodes' business acumen has caught the attention of others in the field. "When you meet and talk to Elmer, it’s easy to understand why he became a mover/shaker in the reprographics industry. He is persistent, aggressive, very smart .... and, if you were (or are) a competitor of Elmer’s, not easy to compete with," wrote industry commentator Joel Salus in his write-up about Rhodes in his "Reprographics Hall of Fame" entry.
Next Move – Professional Services
Rhodes, who is joining the IRgA board of directors this fall, isn’t content to let his current service offerings grow – he’s already thinking about what’s next. He’s planning to open a new shop in Jackson, Mississippi in 2015, and he’s begun offering two innovative new services to clients: RFID tracking for construction sites and certified payroll services for contractors.
“So we have found other avenues to get involved in a project that do not involve printing,” Rhodes says. “I think anything helping a general contractor manage a project should be coming through us.”