You’ve probably seen Joseph Merritt & Co.’s work, but you might not know it.

Anyone visiting the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., over the past year would have seen a massive Merritt-made screen covering the court’s west-front façade. Printed on the front was a life-sized image of the court’s pillars and other architectural features being repaired behind the screen.

And for several years, the Hartford custom print and graphics shop has created the giant New York City billboard of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover, which gets unveiled during the Late Show with David Letterman.

Indeed, giant signs have become a bigger business for Merritt since its construction documents business took a dip during the 2008-2009 recession, which left the company with nearly 30 fewer employees across its divisions (it has 70 full-time workers today).

Aiming for future growth, Joseph Merritt is now expanding to better accommodate its “big color” division, which includes producing large screens, billboards, wallscapes, vehicle wraps and other visual offerings.

“We have no place to put skids of product coming in,” Ed Perry, Merritt’s president and CEO said in a recent interview at the firm’s Hartford headquarters. “It’s difficult for us to engage in buying material at bulk pricing. We need to be more efficient.” Merritt will move its high-tech printers and approximately 20 big color employees to a 27,000-square-foot facility on Prestige Park Road in East Hartford’s enterprise zone.

In turn, the company will close one or two of its other, smaller locations — though Perry would not specify which ones — and consolidate their operations into the newly freed space at its Franklin Avenue headquarters in Hartford.

The company also offers scanning and digitization services, direct mail and on-demand printing, printer sales and construction document management.

Merritt has facilities in Danbury, New Haven, Waterbury, Providence and Woburn, Mass.

Here to stay

Perry is sensitive to any perception that his company is moving employees out of Hartford. Its 24,000-square-foot Franklin Avenue office will remain its headquarters, although there will be a reshuffling of staff. It will, however, maintain a similar number of employees even after the new location opens early next year.

East Hartford simply has the right sort of space at the right time, he said.

“We wanted to do this in 2007 and 2008, but along came the recession, and I was not about to increase my fixed assets,” Perry said.

A new location across the Connecticut River was attractive, Perry said, because it’s a short drive for his employees who have special skills he sometimes has difficulty finding. He didn’t want to lose anyone in a move.

Perry thinks the big color division can double its sales in the next three years.

The East Hartford facility has a number of advantages for the big color division, said Patrick Freer, an executive vice president who will lead that division in East Hartford.

It has enough space, for example, to drive a tractor trailer inside for a vehicle wrap job, which means Merritt will be able to offer those services year round. Right now, Merritt doesn’t have the space to do vehicle wraps indoors, so the company can’t do them in the winter because colder temperatures prevent the materials from bonding to vehicles properly.

“We’ll promote that more and advertise that more,” Freer said.

The move will also allow the company to buy its ingredients, like giant rolls of paper, in bulk, creating opportunities for cost savings.

And the building will fit even larger printers for giant signs with fewer seams.

“The opportunities will be to certainly expand in larger Boston and New York retail accounts,” Freer said. “There’s plenty of business that hasn’t been tapped.”

Additionally, Merritt may be eligible for tax credits because the new facility is in East Hartford’s enterprise zone.

A changing business

Visiting Joseph Merritt’s headquarters is a bit like stepping behind the curtain of pop culture and the corporate world’s advertising machine.

Employees work to churn out pamphlets, political signs, bound books, posters and other media at huge printers. Hanging on the walls are past jobs — a cutout of actor and comedian Tracy Morgan from a visit to the area; a ‘Finding Nemo’ movie poster; and retail signs for a global athletics brand.

There’s also a gallery of the company’s work that Merritt used to bring customers through. These days, the gallery isn’t used much, and the space will likely be repurposed soon. Customers mostly check Merritt out online, where much of the company’s business has shifted.

“We’re doing maybe 30 percent of what we did before in terms of printing,” Perry said. “But we’re doing significantly more in digital management.”

Focusing on digital has been essential, as the printing industry’s revenue has fallen steadily since the recession. Overall, printing revenue is expected to fall 1.2 percent this year to $77.7 billion, according to a June report from research firm IBISWorld.

But there are positive signs that outdoor advertising is on the upswing.

Outdoor ad spending has been slowly recovering since dropping 16 percent in 2009, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. In 2012, spending totaled $6.7 billion, the closest it’s been to the $7 billion mark since 2007. And the data may bode well for vehicle advertising, a segment Merritt will put a renewed focus on at its new location. That segment grew 4.5 percent in the first quarter of 2013, and crept back into the top-10 spending categories for outdoor advertising, according to OAAA.

Those positive numbers have Freer and the rest of the Merritt staff ready for the expansion so they can get a piece of the action.

“The faster we get over there and get this going, the faster we get growing,” Freer said.

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