From Blue Collar
to Show Stopper
How Dru Riess became Dru Riess
"You couldn’t have done what I did,
I wouldn’t wish that on you, but what can you do?"
A Waiter in Waiting
After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 2005, Dru Riess was waiting tables, eager to find a way to make something of himself. He tried a corporate job and found it was not a fit for his lifelong vision of success.
So, two years after graduating, Riess found himself back at PF Chang’s, waiting tables. He was broke, had no car, had a max credit limit of $500 on his credit cards, and a credit score of 520.
But, in 2007, a friend of Riess’ told him about a guy who had a bankrupt printing company in Dallas, Texas. According to his friend, the owner was looking for an entrepreneur to rebuild the brand and bring the business back to life. Riess’ friend, realizing he himself was not cut out to be an entrepreneur, passed the opportunity onto Riess.
"This printing company, or shell of what used to be a printing company, was literally in a barn," Riess says, located in the small town of McKinney, Texas. "It was disgusting. There were mice. There were snakes. There were bugs everywhere! It was off of a gravel road in the middle of nowhere."
Where he could have seen junk in the old printing presses, Riess saw opportunity. He had a vision bigger than himself: being a star of his own headlining act. No corporate strings, no boss, no rules.
Dru Riess: A One Man Show
Inside the barn were two dated printing presses, but after a quick search on Google, Riess realized it all had potential. At the time, the flexible package industry in the United States was almost $30 billion a year in sales. The forecasts for the industry were expected to continue growing for the next two decades due to consumers driving the end-all desire to have packaging portable and portion-controlled.
Riess, then 24, was determined to build a business. On Aug 1, 2007, he put on the top hat and became the magician/entrepreneur of a flexible packaging printing company. Riess had no printing experience, no packaging degree (which people go to school for), no engineering degree (which people go to school for), no proven business acumen, no idea what the first move should be, but signed the sweat equity deal regardless. He virtually lived in the barn, cold-calling potential customers all day, sleeping at his desk, and maxing out his credit cards frequently to make trips across the world to self-educate himself.
The original owner was not going to put any more money into the business and the sweat equity deal was that if Riess could rebuild the company and get the original owner out of personal guaranteed debt, Riess would gain 49% ownership of the company. How long that would take, no one knew. Would it ever happen? No one knew. But Riess remembered a quote from one of his favorite movies. Willy Wonka once said, “You should never doubt what nobody is sure about.”
Riess was given zero resources. No operating cash, no capital expenditure budget for improving technologies, old and dated equipment, no raw materials, no vendors that extended credit and a facility that did not meet industry regulations. To fund the growth of the new venture, Riess’ first decision was to sell one of the two printing presses--and quickly! Fire selling that asset was the only way Riess would gain a little cash to begin the rebuild process and have a shot at achieving the impossible.
Undercover World Traveler
To learn more about the industry, where it was going, and what more it was going to demand of Riess and the future brand, he traveled to Asia posing as a potential customer.
“It was the most dangerous thing I have ever done in my life. I put on an act that I was a print broker looking to bring a book of business worth $30 million overseas. In doing this, I was treated like royalty in Singapore, Thailand, and China by manufacturing companies that wanted my hypothetical book of business.
I was shuttled around in private cars, meals were paid for, entertainment paid for, and more. I went over there doing espionage and learning what it was I needed to build. I went so deep into the hills of China, roads ended and turned into dirt roads, where manufacturing facilities were more like prisons. I could have been killed, robbed, held captive, but I risked it all. I learned the science of printing. I saw factories running the way they should run when it comes to flow and process control, I learned about film structures, how film was made, what resins were, how resins worked together, safety concerns, how to price goods, how much raw materials should cost without middle men involved and more."
Riess’ act fast forwarded his inevitable learning curve and gave him an edge over the other domestic manufacturers.
Riess’ “Truthful Hyperbole”
After relentless cold calling of old customers from the 90’s, Riess landed his first customer: the health-care conglomerate, Abbott Laboratories, which gave him the brand called EAS Myoplex. That is, after pulling off one of the best sleight-of-hand tricks known in business history.
Riess flew out to meet with the leaders of the EAS brand and painted a picture of where he was going, what he was about, and not the current state of the business. The way Riess described the facility was what he envisioned the future facility to look like, the way he spoke of the facility being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, was a vision he had for the type of demand he wished for in the future, but none of it existed in the present day.
Riess did not lie, but rather, he led the potential customers to assume things. In essence, he pulled off closing a business deal and gaining a client by creating illusions of a reality in the customer’s mind. Some call it a “Truthful Hyperbole.” Showing no nerves and dropping a few tears in a meeting with the decision makers for EAS, the first customer in the rebuild process was on board. With Abbott as a customer, Riess used it as bait like anyone in business should do.
“When you have a brand that people recognize, use it to your advantage to gain credibility and other opportunities.”
EAS, at the time, was sold at every GNC, Walmart, Sam's Club, and more. With Abbott as a customer, the next customer to join was Nutrisystem. Soon, the dead print company was running 40 hours a week and employed 3 people, including Riess. With Nutrisystem and EAS as customers, more customers came flocking to the company as the other brands trusted these two powerhouse brands’ due diligence process.
An Entrepreneurial Groundhog Day
The facility was gross, in an undesirable location, had no talent, no processes or procedures, etc. Everything produced in that facility was like a chef cooking his first dish ever. It was learning the flexography industry on the fly, and it was not easy. Riess hired a guy off of Craigslist, who had experience running the make-and-model of printing press that he had in the barn, and Riess shadowed every move that guy made. Before he knew it, he was capable of running the machine himself. As the business gained traction, Riess assumed a non-stop, exhaustive schedule.
● 3 a.m. - Riess would set the entire machine up by himself.
● 6 a.m. - The Operator would run the job during the day while Riess helped on press with ink management, loading master rolls onto the press, unloading finished goods off press, running the QC machine inspecting questionable print, taking sales calls, working the shipping dock, and managing all the other things a business needs tended to.
● 6 p.m. - When the Operator went home, Riess would deep clean the press by himself, often not leaving the facility until 9 p.m. or later, only to return at 3 a.m. to do it again the next day.
It was not uncommon for QC inspection to get backed up, emails needing to be answered, quoting of jobs needing to be done, and thus, Riess would elect to not go home. In essence, 3 a.m. would roll around, and he would assume his position of setting up the press; and like groundhog day, he did it again.
Re-Building a Business Can Break You
Over the years, Kellogg’s, Starbucks, Costco, Sam’s Club, Walgreens and more flocked to the industry-changing company Riess had built.
There were hard times, though. The business ran out of cash, skipped payrolls, and experienced rejections that nearly bankrupted the company for a second time. Too many orders came in at once, and there were not funds to afford all the raw materials. There were liability lawsuits when a product failed in the market that Riess manufactured. However, by staying calm and steadfast, every obstacle was overcome. Financial hurdles were overcome by factoring invoices, borrowing money on personal notes from people around town with high interest, and more. When payrolls were skipped, so were meals. From 24 to 28 years old, there were no nice dinners out, no weekends spent in downtown Dallas, no perks and no fun being an entrepreneur. The desire and fire to achieve a vision pushed Riess to sacrifice his mid- to late 20’s in hopes of breaking into the spotlight someday as a successful business owner.
By Riess’ 28th birthday, he had paid off all the original owners debt and the company was profitable. However just a few months after his 28th birthday, the original owner turned on Riess, betraying him, and told him to get lost. The original owner assumed that, now that the company was up and running profitably, a young 28-year-old would concede the loss and the act of being stabbed in the back. With no lawyer documents signed for the hypothetical sweat equity deal, Riess did not have any true ownership in the company. It was a napkin deal signed 4 years earlier against business law.
Promises mean nothing in business, and Riess learned this the hard way. However, the original owner was then challenged by Riess to call a customer and see if the customer would keep doing business with him if Riess was removed from the brand. To Riess’ expectation, the customer replied, “We do business with Dru, not your company. If Dru is gone, we go with him where he goes.” This solidified the original owner indeed owned the equipment, but Dru’s incredible story, his relentless effort, his tenacity, his personality and his charisma owned the book of business.
Taking Ownership, Disrupting the Industry
On Aug 11, 2011, Riess borrowed $100,000 from a local friend he had met in 2009 and bought the printing press away from the original owner. From 2011 to 2015, the company grew at a record rate. Riess moved the company into a real industrial park in 2012 and built out exactly what he described to EAS and Nutrisystem years prior. The new facility was certified by a third party as food grade approved; the offices were a depiction of what he described in 2007, never truly knowing if he would see it come to life, and the staff was over 25 + and growing.
Riess ran a press as an Operator from 2008 to 2015. If it was a weekend shift or an all-night shift that needed pulled, Riess was the one to do it. He ran the forklifts, wrapped the pallets in shipping, and ran the rewind/slitting equipment. Riess instinctually made decisions about where to spend the profits and where to re-invest in equipment. He bought his second and third press in 2012 and 2014 to accommodate the growing demand for his services. While playing the role as the CEO, Janitor, Director of Sales, Product Engineer, Packaging Engineer, Shipping Manager, Prepress Manager, Press Helper and so much more, Riess became whatever was needed at any given minute, day or night, for the growing brand.
Like a magician, he convinced everyone that the vision he had was real enough to believe, and in time, it became a reality.
From the facility, to the culture, to the products and more, the company became a Market Disruptor to a century-old industry. In 2014, the industry magazine named Riess’ company the “Top Printer of the Year.” With over 3,000 companies alike in the USA and most of them being around for decades (if not several decades), Riess’ company was named the best in 8 short years. In 2016, the company was featured again on the cover of the industry magazine for building a Google-esque culture/campus in a blue collar industry. In 2017, Riess’ company was listed in Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 360 list, SMU Dallas 100 list, Inc 5000 list and more. Nine years into the rebuild project and Riess was named one of the Top Power Players in business in all of the Dallas-Fort Worth region by the Dallas Business Journal, was a finalist for Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2017, and featured in a hit show on CNBC.
Eventually, every illusion became a reality, and the act came to life with legs of its own once all the media and accolades began to rack up. The hard knocks business education that was gained over 12 years, was equivalent to getting a masters at SMU, but more physically painful, more stressful, and paid for with his own sweat and tears.
Not mom and dad’s money.
In 2015, Riess sold off most the business for millions and kept a small piece of the investment for himself. He then became a 30-year-old multi-millionaire with liquid cash in the bank. From 2015 to 2017, the company saw its best years. The staff hit 50+, and the revenues were around $30 Million per year and growing.Riess then began to look for what else he could bring disruption to.
An Entrepreneur's Sleight of Hand
In 2017, he began putting pen to paper writing the book “Sleight of Hand” – an Entrepreneur’s bag of tricks. The book captures Riess’ life, upbringing, and entrepreneurial journey. It also captures:
Business street smarts that helped him navigate the entrepreneur waters of building a business in something he knew nothing about
● Selling tricks to help people close a deal
● Tricks about how to lead people
● Exercises to gut check your work ethic
● Tricks to inspire people
● A truthful look into what business really is when the curtain is pulled back.
By 2017, Riess’ credit score was 876; his credit card balances were at zero; he had several luxury cars, his dream house, two beautiful kids, a wife, and a bright future ahead.
“It’s crazy to reflect back to 2007 and what all has changed in my personal life simply due to the fact that I pulled off what everyone else said was impossible. I appreciate those that doubt me, as they are the fuel to my fire.”
In 2018, Riess formed Dmotivate, LLC, and has begun disrupting the motivation/self-help industry, changing the way it is delivered, and exposing its corruption. He also invested in a few other startup companies as an investor/mentor.
That’s the story! Read the book, and get more details as to how the tricks were pulled off.