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Leading firm amid industry change

In 1973, Mark Cleary was riding his bike along Monroe Avenue, stopping at stores and applying for jobs. He happened upon Price’s Sea Foods, which was opening a location at Twelve Corners in Brighton, and the owner hired him on the spot.

After two years, the owner approached Cleary on a Friday afternoon and asked him to close up the store the following day.

“I didn’t know how to respond. He had employees who had worked (there) longer or were older than I was,” Cleary recalls. “I asked him, why me and not one of the other, more senior people? He simply stated, ‘Because I trust you.’”

Four decades later, Cleary practices what he learned in his four years with Price’s Seafood to head his family’s successful commercial printer, which serves more than 500 repeat customers annually. City Blue Imaging Services Inc. employs some 30 people at its downtown location, and in the last five years the company has experienced more than 10 percent growth in sales.

The printing industry overall, according to financial information company Sageworks, experienced roughly 5 percent growth in the same time frame.

“I think the reason the company remains successful after 90 years is our unwavering attention to customer service and ability to handle difficult deadlines,” City Blue’s 59-year-old president says. “We also act as advocates for our customers, many of whom know nothing about printing. We don’t try to offer customers services they don’t need or are priced higher.”

Longtime firm

City Blue was founded in 1926 by William Schock. The business originally was located near Clinton Avenue and Main Street, among the vaudeville theaters and shops downtown.

In 1937 Schock moved to Elm Street behind the Hotel Cadillac. This proved advantageous when Midtown Plaza opened in 1962, as it provided City Blue with a multitude of customers.

In its early days, City Blue focused its work on blueprints, with many of Rochester’s prominent architects and construction firms as clients. In the 1960s, the company added art supplies, which increased its customer base to include many downtown advertising firms.

During the 1970s and 1980s, City Blue handled a lot of photography for its advertising clients—McCurdy & Co. and B. Forman Co. ads often were hand-drawn and photographed for publication in newspapers—as well as printing music manuscripts for the Eastman School of Music.

In 1986, Cleary’s family pooled their resources to buy City Blue from its second owner, William Fay. At the time, none of the family’s nine members had experience in the commercial printing industry. Cleary was working for ARA Services in Madison, Wis., now known as Aramark Corp., while his father was an attorney with Harris Beach PLLC.

“While I had no experience in blueprints, I had over eight years in food service and felt comfortable that with a record in customer service, I could learn the printing business,” Cleary says.

While family members came and went, Cleary remained at the helm. His brother, Peter, the company’s customer service guru, also has been with City Blue for 30 years.

In 1993, City Blue purchased R.A. Ellis Corp., a company primarily focused on prepress work, film work and photography for ad agencies. Running firms in two locations proved stressful, so in 1995 the two companies merged their operations into City Blue’s current facility on Scio Street.

A decade later, City Blue acquired Classic Image Associates Inc., an offset printer then located on Monroe Avenue, and the company grew to 21 staffers, as well as a number of part-timers.

The catalyst for his company’s growth primarily has come from the addition of companies not versed in City Blue’s core services, Cleary says.

“In the last five years, I’ve been approached three times by competitors, and it just wasn’t the right fit because they had a lot of similar equipment,” Cleary says of acquisition possibilities. “Each time I’d done that in the past it was a completely different line of business, a different customer base, a completely different set up of equipment.”

At one time, Cleary said he would never purchase another business, but he has learned to never say never.

“So anything’s possible,” he says with a smile.

In an ever-evolving industry, City Blue has had to diversify its offerings through the years. Today, the company is a full-service printer, offering offset printing of large runs, digital printing for short, quick runs, poster and banner printing, as well as blueprints.

“During the time of the recession, and a little bit before, blueprints accounted for almost 70 percent of our business,” Cleary says. “But what started to occur was that with digital information we became more ‘holders’ of digital management than blueprinters.”

Customers used to order 100 sets of drawings in the 1980s and 1990s, Cleary explains. But with technological advances those orders began to look more like five sets of drawings and 50 CDs of stored information.

“So now blueprinting is about 25 percent of our business and the color banners and everything else is the other 75 percent,” Cleary says.

Fast turnaround

Since before the Cleary family took over, City Blue had a reputation for quick turnarounds.

“We still enjoy that reputation,” Cleary says, “with customers coming to us with projects with seemingly impossible deadlines.”

And while City Blue is practiced at meeting deadlines, last minute jobs can make you want to pull your hair out, Cleary acknowledges.

“Sometimes, I don’t care how many years you’ve been doing it, it’ll just throw you a curveball and keeps you up at night or causes you to drink that one extra glass of wine,” Cleary says with a laugh.

In conjunction with meeting tight deadlines, to be a successful commercial printer means attention to details, says John Mealey, City Blue’s director of sales.

“It’s really just focusing on service, and our attention to detail in that process really helps us stand out,” Mealey says. “We really strive to make sure we’re delivering the products (customers) need and when they need it.”

The rush projects can be exciting, says Kenneth Wood, a 20-year City Blue veteran.

“We always need to be on top of our game and on our toes,” Wood says. “Things are needed very quickly in our world. It’s very fun to make it happen.”

Teamwork is another facet of the company’s success.

“We’re all willing to jump in to do whatever needs to be done to get these quick jobs turned around,” Wood adds. “There’s a lot of interdepartment working together.”

Wood, who serves as a manager at City Blue and who worked with Cleary in their food service days, says what keeps him coming back for more is the people he works with, particularly Cleary.

“Mark is a very hands-on manager with clear direction,” Wood says. “He’s allowed us to manage our own departments so he can focus on other areas.”

Adds Mealey: “Mark enables all of the employees to tackle and provide solutions as we work for our customers, and that’s very refreshing. Everybody has a certain level of autonomy and that makes it exciting.”

Cleary is engaged in the business while allowing his staff to shepherd their own work and be creative in the process, Mealey says.

“That type of management style is what lends itself to the creative and energetic atmosphere we have here,” Mealey says.

In recent years, Cleary has tackled social media and advertising via online resources as a way to reach customers. Cleary keeps the company active on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook.

“I try to keep the company’s name and services in front of the public,” he says.

The biggest challenge he sees mirrors that of many other Rochester businesses, Cleary says.

“The biggest challenge I think many organizations face in Rochester has to do with employment and having talented employees that make your company rise above your competitors,” Cleary says. “While it’s a challenge to attract and retain such a workforce, I think we have done a great job. We have an incredibly talented staff.”

Mealey cites another challenge for City Blue.

“It’s a very competitive market. Certainly there’s a move in some areas of printing to digital, so away from print and more to digital media,” Mealey says. “We have been able to adapt from a technological standpoint by being proactive with the types of equipment we use and offering the ability to handle sophisticated, specialty types of pieces. And I think that really helps us stand out.”

Cleary’s staff and colleagues describe him as committed and loyal.

“He’s extremely dedicated to his employees. That’s first and foremost. He’s got a big heart,” Mealey says.

For his part, Cleary says he communicates well, delegates fairly and tries to stay ahead of emerging trends. In the last several years Cleary says he has learned to become more focused on the company as a whole and not the individual projects.

Longtime friend Richard Hobert, who met Cleary at St. John Fisher College, says he treats his employees like family.

“He’s good at relationships,” Hobert says. “He’s very approachable. One of those people that when you have a conversation with him, he gives you his undivided attention.”

The best part of Cleary’s job is standing at the front counter when a customer comes in to pick up a job.

“And they open it immediately and start to comment how well everything looks,” he says. “And they say wow, this turned out so much better than I thought.”

Cleary says one of the great things about the blueprint business years ago was that he was privy to seeing large projects that would change the face of the city, seeing the plans before the shovel hit the dirt.

“We also have been fortunate to have several cultural institutions use us,” he adds. “It’s great to walk into one of those institutions and see something your staff created.”

Cleary says he feels blessed City Blue is as relevant and well-thought-of as it was when he took over three decades ago, and he feels fortunate to be able to work alongside his siblings, children and nieces and nephews.

“I remember thinking back in 1986 that taking over a business that was 60 years old was a responsibility. Everyone was asking me what changes, what new direction I might be taking the business,” Cleary recalls. “And inside I was praying ‘I just don’t want to screw this up, to be the one that ran it into the ground.’”

Off the clock

Born and raised in Brighton, Cleary now calls downtown Rochester home. He has two sons, Patrick, 24, and Mackenzie, 22.

In his spare time, Cleary enjoys cooking—his mom was a good cook and he inherited her culinary skills—bike riding, roller blading and travel. He also enjoys meditating.

“As the oldest of seven kids it was always a little crazy growing up in our house, but family trips were always a lot of fun,” Cleary says. “And I love traveling with my sons now.”

One thing he has done on his travels is participate in the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, twice. The second time was with his sons.

Hobert calls his friend philanthropic but humble about giving back.

“He’s one of those under-the-radar guys who does a lot of things for a lot of different institutions,” Hobert says. “He comes from a big Irish Catholic family. You go to Catholic school and you’re taught respect and compassion, consideration and honesty. And those embody him the most.”

Cleary serves on the boards of several area organizations including St. Ann’s Foundation, WXXI Public Broadcasting System and Rochester Contemporary Art Center.

Cleary says one thing he has not done yet, but will someday, is work in a soup kitchen. And he says although he has made his share of mistakes, he has learned something from all of them.

“I wouldn’t change anything,” he says. “The lessons I’ve learned made me stronger.”

When Cleary was 20 he dropped out of college. He did not like being there without knowing what he wanted to do with his life. Soon he was working for ServiceMaster cleaning carpets and tending bar at the Richmond Grill.

He became friends with many of the old-timers who would spend their evenings there. He enjoyed their company and became friends with many of them. Most of the time they would tip him a nickel or a dime because they did not have much money.

“One night one of them called me over and said, ‘Give me your hand.’ He then pushed in it a dollar bill. He closed my fist and said ‘This is for you,’” Cleary recalls. “He then added, ‘Use it to go back to school. What are you doing here?’

“I was extremely touched and thought about that exchange for months,” Cleary adds. “I did go back to St. John Fisher—and graduated—but this time with a renewed sense of direction.”

Mark Cleary

Title: President, City Blue Imaging Services Inc.

Age: 59

Education: B.A., communications, 1981, St. John Fisher College

Family: Sons, Patrick, 24, and Mackenzie, 22

Home: Rochester

Interests: Cooking, traveling, bike riding, roller blading, meditating

Quote: “The biggest challenge I think many organizations face in Rochester has to do with employment and having talented employees that make your company rise above your competitors. While it’s a challenge to attract and retain such a workforce, I think we have done a great job. We have an incredibly talented staff.”

12/23/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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