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By Ed Avis
If Paul Fridrich had a slogan for his life, it would probably be “Start Over.” Fridrich has hit the “restart” button on his life and career at least five times in the last half century. Each new beginning brought him a bit closer to his current position, owner of four-location CyberCopy and newly installed president of IRgA.
Restart Number 1: Goodbye Czechoslovakia
In 1967, Fridrich was a star 20-year-old amateur basketball player in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. His on-court skills helped him do more than score points -- he landed a job at a petrochemical factory with the understanding that he would play on the factory-sponsored team.
Being a hoops star helped in another way: Because the team played in tournaments around the communist bloc, he was issued a passport during an era when crossing borders was extremely difficult. That passport played a key role in Fridrich’s first big restart.
See, while Fridrich was a play-maker on the court, his father did not play the communist game. “My father refused to join communist party and they expelled him from the forestry industry for no real reason,” Fridrich says. “And because of that I couldn’t go to university, that road was blocked. The university was only for kids of communist party members.”
Since he wasn’t able to pursue higher education, and the Czech army was about to draft him, Fridrich dreamed of leaving. He didn’t tell his parents – “I knew they would be interrogated, and I wanted them to be able to truthfully deny all knowledge of my plans” – but he did confide in his friend Vladimir, who also had a passport. They planned their escape together.
Having passports meant they could board a train bound for the other side of the Iron Curtain, but there was a catch: Fridrich’s passport was secretly coded to warn border guards that he could only pass if he was traveling with the basketball team. So the two men caught a train headed to Munich with the fear that if the border guard noticed the code, Fridrich might be removed from the train and carted off to jail.
On its way to Munich the train passed through Yugoslavia, which was a good thing. Because Yugoslavians were not as devout communists as many other Eastern Europeans, the border guard who examined Fridrich’s passport before the train crossed into Austria – and freedom – was somewhat casual about the basketball-team code.
“He noticed the code and asked me where the rest of the basketball team was,” Fridrich remembers. “I told him they were sitting back there, in another car. He laughed and threw the passport back at me. He couldn’t give a damn.”
Fridrich and Vladimir were free. They eventually made their way to a refugee camp near Nuremberg, Germany, where they joined a British army unit made up of former residents of Eastern Bloc countries. Somehow the American consulate learned that Fridrich had worked at a petrochemical factory, and they interviewed him at length about its operations. “I sang like a canary,” Fridrich remembers.
Ten months later Fridrich and Vladimir had conditional visas to come to the United States.
Restart Number 2: Go West Young Man
Fridrich and Vladimir flew to New York, where Fridrich snagged jobs as a dishwasher at a Holiday Inn and night janitor at the PanAm Building in Manhattan. He knew there was more to experience in America than that, so after 18 months he and some other Czechs decided to drive across the country.
About a week later they pulled into Los Angeles. One of his traveling companions had a list of other Czechs living there, so they started calling them in search of jobs.
“One of the numbers I dialed was a draftswoman who worked for an architect,” Fridrich says. “She said they were not hiring, but she said, ‘I sit in the back of the office and every time a driver from our blueprint company comes in to pick up the originals, it’s a different face. They must be going through drivers like crazy!’”
Fridrich visited the blueprinter – Universal Blueprint – and 10 days later he was given the job as a driver. “So that’s how I got into this business.”
He quickly learned other jobs in the company, and improved his English. By 1973 he was experienced and respected enough that he became manager of a new location in the San Fernando Valley.
Restart Number Three: Becoming an Owner
Fridrich managed Universal’s San Fernando Valley location for two years, then resigned the position and took five months off to travel in Europe and visit family. When he returned, in 1976, a former colleague from Universal told him he was going to start a new shop and asked Fridrich to join him. He agreed and became one-third owner of Reliable Graphics. The former colleague and his brother owned the other two-thirds.
Becoming an owner fulfilled a long-time dream of Fridrich’s, and the company thrived. Quickly Reliable grew to three locations.
In 1978, however, the three owners decided to go their own ways. Fridrich ended up with one of the locations, in Westlake Village. He renamed the shop Westlake Graphics.
“I started with that one location in late ’78, just as a huge recession came about,” Fridrich recalls. “It was a miracle that I survived. It was basically just me and one employee. I ran all the equipment and my employee made deliveries and pickups.”
Eventually the recession of the late ‘70s faded, and business started picking up again. Fridrich began adding locations, and 12 years later he had six shops and 130 employees. His company even made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest growing independent companies!
Restart Number Four: After the Explosion
Westlake Graphics was unquestionably successful, but like most reprographics firms, it was not immune to overall economic problems. By the late 1980s another recession was brewing and growth slowed.
But compounding the recession was something much more dramatic: In 1989 an ammonia tank exploded in one of Fridrich’s locations, injuring four employees.
“It took off like a satellite. Hazmat teams came in, closed the block,” Fridrich says.
The damage to the building was significant, but that wasn’t the real problem. What seriously damaged the company’s finances was a dramatic increase in worker’s compensation premiums. Coupled with the shrinking market, the premiums nearly put Fridrich out of the business.
His first employer in the blueprinting business, Universal, stepped in and bought Westlake Graphics. Fridrich became an 18 percent owner of Universal, and was appointed the combined company’s director of sales and marketing. That lasted about three years until the other owners prompted Fridrich to sell back his shares. As part of the deal he signed a three-and-a-half year noncompete agreement.
He was once again facing a restart.
Restart Number Five: Hello CyberCopy
Fridrich’s noncompete with Universal ended in March 1997, and he launched CyberCopy the next month. The equipment for his first location, in Thousand Oaks, California, came courtesy of Mohan Chandramohan, founder of American Reprographics Corp.
“Mohan said, ‘In six months if it looks like you’re going to make it, you’ll pay me over five years for the equipment,’” Fridrich says. “I finished paying him to the last penny.”
CyberCopy did make it, and is still making it. That first shop included two diazo machines, one plain paper engineering copier, and two small-format copiers. That location still exists, though today it’s packed with modern equipment, and three other locations have joined it.
Fridrich says CyberCopy has succeeded by patiently growing. “I had a formula down pat of making the shop profitable even if it had just two employees, and you grow from there,” he says. “After six months you break even and keep on building patiently and slowly.”
It also helped that he was the first in Ventura county to offer a digital planroom, which made many forward-looking clients happy. Furthermore, he capitalized on his many long-term relationships with clients.
“All these people in the area knew me. The companies changed, the names changed, but I was the one constant,” he says. “So when I went back to them and told them I had started again, most of them became CyberCopy’s customers.”
CyberCopy also has diversified by adding large-format color services. The company bought a Roland Ecosolvent printer last April, and has since added an EFI flatbed printer and a Multicam router. Most of their outdoor signage is being sold to existing AEC customers, but Fridrich is finding some work in advertising agencies, retailers, and hospitals. He said some of his employees are pursuing contractor’s licenses so they can start installing electrical signage.
How does he compete with existing sign companies? “You just keep knocking on the doors and sooner or later you find somebody who’s not getting good service and is willing to give you a try. We are not embarrassed to be a back up to somebody until we get the opportunity to show what we can do.”
Fridrich says one of the biggest keys to his latest company’s success was his hiring, six years ago, of David Beardsley as president. “He’s a professional, he runs things profitably, and very efficiently, and commands a huge amount of respect from all employees,” Fridrich says.
Another important turning point in Fridrich’s career, he says, was joining ReproMAX 14 years ago and learning how other successful reprographers run their businesses. “It was a total eye-opener,” he says.
The Next Restart?
Fridrich now spends part of his time at the helm of IRgA. Among his goals for the coming year are to shepherd the organization to financial sustainability and to grow the organization by adding more members from the younger generation of owners and managers, especially from smaller reprographics firms.
“IRgA definitely has a place in the industry, especially serving the smaller, independent reprographers,” he says. “These companies don’t have the resources of a big company, or the support of ReproMAX or RSA. They are left out there alone, they really need the resources and information IRgA can provide.”
With five restarts under his belt, it stands to reason that Fridrich can also help guide IRgA on its continued journey.