AMS thrives in mail-dominated field

From small beginnings, this company now in top 500 worldwide

In the beginning, in 1986, it was little more than a place for Canadians to drive into the United States to get packages. Now, this business — AMS Print, Mail, and Label Specialists — is the largest label producer in Whatcom, Skagit, and Island counties; ranks among the top 30 companies in the Northwest for print materials; and is in the top 500 such companies worldwide.

And, in an interesting quirk, AMS produces more jury summons than any other single provider in the nation.

How did the company get from four employees (with two of them part-time) in a little ship-and-receive storefront to today’s 30 employees in an expansive, 25,000 square-foot facility in Blaine filled with world-leading printing equipment? Dave Freeman, president and co-owner of AMS Print, Mail, and Label Specialists in Blaine, looks at the evolution of this company.

How much of your business is printing? Mailing?
One platform of our business is sheet-feed printing for commercial clients who need both promotional material and day-to-day forms and materials. Printing and mailing go hand in hand. What we print, we most often mail.

The other platform is commercial label production, which we started in 2016. Some people will call and say, stickers? No, it’s far greater than that. Breweries, artisans, farms … we are part of the supply chain for them. If you see 40 products on a grocery store shelf, we printed eight of them. We are the largest producer of labels north of Seattle and growing. It’s become well over half our business.

What brings in the most revenue?
One of our largest revenue sources is something we don’t advertise or promote — sounds odd, I know — but we produce more jury summons (6 million annually) than any other single provider in the country, serving more than 65 county courts and two state courts. That’s increasing as the pandemic subsides.

Second, our label division is very successful. It’s the most exciting part of our business.

Why does AMS matter?
If the answer were simple ink on paper or on a product label, I would say very little. But we do much more. We partner with customers to provide the best quality message that a label or brochure can bring. That label speaks to who you are, what you do, and how your product brings value to your customers.

The result is that great products and services are being generated, purchased and used in our community, by our community. We’re privileged to be part of that circle.

Who are your customers?
Most of our product labels are for regional and West Coast manufacturers, including artisanal brewery and food producers. Our commercial printing and mailing serve small, medium and large manufacturing clients from Canada and the United States. Regional customers include nonprofits, medical providers, schools and entrepreneurs.

What’s fascinating about your industry?
It’s a constant evolution of technology and market trends. I suspect the next five to 10 years will bring greater change than the previous 30.

How did AMS begin?
We started as a shipping and receiving company primarily for Canadians to conduct business in the United States. By the late ’80s to mid-’90s, we had more than a thousand mailboxes; we were one of the largest mailbox companies in the country by then. About 95% were Canadians and Canadian businesses. We saw a need for printing and mailing for our customers to promote their products. We slowly acquired mailing equipment. From there, we experienced growth from Whatcom County printing businesses that needed reliable mail services.

We made a decision to go into printing at the end of the ’90s. We did transactional documents, legal notifications, bills … We print and mail Lynden’s utility bills and process and mail Blaine’s.

In 2000, we built this 25,000 square foot facility on Grant Avenue in Blaine. That year, Dale Vander Stelt came on as general manager of operations, bringing a wealth of experience from being general manager at the Lynden Tribune.

Dale became minority owner of AMS in 2015. We knew that would be our path.

What events were pivotal to growth?
We decided to invest heavily in digital print technology, and in 2013 we installed our first HP Indigo Digital Printing press. This gave us the ability to print highly personalized materials and transactional documents on time with no waste. This separated us from competitors and helped us reach new markets.

We were always looking for new technology and opportunity, thus we installed an HP Indigo label press in 2017, broadening our ability to serve the demand for labels on time, locally.
Our staff is critical. You can have the best equipment on the planet, but without the right people occupying the right space at the right time, it would not succeed.

Another milestone was 2015, when my son Jordan came aboard for sales and project management.

Last year, we invested in a new system for our jury summonses, giving us more capacity and efficiency.

What outside influences affected AMS?
We knew we needed to adapt to the so-called paperless world, in which mailing was shrinking. The answer was variable and personalized mailings that target known audiences. No more shotgun, but direct, marketing to the right people at the right time.
We are also creating a digital storefront for our labels division. This is our biggest initiative for 2022: seamless ordering and processing for our clients.
I’m proud that AMS and its staff are thriving amid constant change in the industry over the last 35 years.

When did you join AMS?
I came to work in 1986 for the mailbox company and purchased it later that year. The owner was a locksmith, and he’d added mailboxes when Canadians asked if they could have packages sent there. Mail was not his profession.
In 1991, I sold the ship-and-receive part of the business to an employee. I didn’t sell our client base of mailing and printing. I moved that to a new location and became a separate entity, Automated Mailing Services. That was the company name in 1992.
I had graduated from Western Washington University in 1985 and joined the locksmith’s mailbox company as a temporary, stopgap job. It turned into my life. You take opportunities when they come.

What do you like about Blaine?
I’m a fourth generation Blaine family. Some of my kids and grandkids live here and enjoy the small-town culture. Business in Blaine has a far-reaching effect on our region while providing a good living to many in our community. ■
Answers have been edited.