By the time he turned 17, Luke Lingle had learned two key skills that, to this day, help him run a growing and successful business in Hastings. First, he learned about printing. Second, he learned the basics of making money.
As a member of a Park High School boys hockey team that was having a successful season, he spearheaded an effort to print up hundreds of T-shirts that featured the names of the players on the team. Lingle and his friends sold the T-shirts everywhere they could.
Since those successful T-shirt sales, little has changed for Lingle: He's still printing things, and still making money.
Nowadays, you'll find him in the Hastings Business and Industrial Park as the owner of Plastic Printers, a growing business that employs 35 people.
But it hasn't all been rosy for Lingle.
He started the business in a house owned by his parents and worked with his father, Ron, around the clock to keep a small press running 24 hours a day. For years, they had to keep the press running as much as possible to fill enormous orders with a machine capable of printing just 600 cards an hour.
By 2001, though, the business had really taken off. More employees were hired. Orders kept pouring in. More employees were hired. More orders came in.
All of a sudden, he was a very successful small businessman, and he started letting the success get the best of him. He was often on the road, acting as a sales representative, and he'd end up in the hotel bar with clients.
Before long, drinking wasn't just something he did on the road. Before long, he had a real problem.
"I went down that path of the partying, the drinking and thinking I was invincible," he said.
One year ago, Lingle's fiancé Courtney urged him to stop drinking. Immediately. Courtney was pregnant with the couple's second child. She told Lingle he stood to lose a lot and gain very little if he were to continue drinking.
He looked around and quickly came to the realization she was right. He had to stop.
"I saw all that was there to be lost," he said. "I saw what (drinking) was doing to me, and what it was doing to my family."
He stopped cold turkey and since then has his focus back on his business and his family.
"My head is definitely here now again," he said. "Now, the only reason I want to leave early is to go be with my family."
Plastic Printers continues to grow, something Lingle knows is possible due, in large part, to his dedicated employees.
"If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have any of this," he said.
More about Plastic Printers
What happens within the four walls at Plastic Printers? Good question.
Lingle owns approximately 400 domain names and at any time has about 40 websites running, ranging from clearplasticcards.com to plasticbusinesscardsonline.com to plasticgiftcardsonline.com and on down the line. Potential customers can get a quote online, or work with someone in the sales department. From there, the order goes to one of four in-house print designers.
When it is time for the order to be printed, it goes to the world's one-and-only, custom-made 6-color printer. Essentially, a simple white plastic card goes in one side and seconds later, literally, it comes out completely printed and dried.
Long ago, each card had to make six passes through the printer before it could be completed. Those days are history.
The sales team at Plastic Printers fields approximately 1,400 new leads a week, and follows-up on about 400 leads from referrals a week, Lingle said.
While in high school, Lingle started working for the school district as a printer. He eventually landed a job at Graphic Design in downtown Hastings, starting in the shipping and bindery department, then moving up to work on a press.
Just after graduating from Park High in 1994, Lingle took a job with a firm in Roseville that printed plastic phone cards. At the time, those phone cards looked like a gold mine. Lingle saw an opportunity, and approached his father with it. The two offered to buy the business from its owner, who declined. Six months later, the business folded and Lingle was looking for work. He took odd jobs and printing jobs and saved all he could.
In March 1996, he and his father started Custom Plastic Printers out of a house in Cottage Grove. His parents took out a home equity loan to buy a press, and Lingle got to work securing business.
He landed a few clients and, when the first one was completed, he happily phoned the customer.
"Your cards are done," Lingle told the customer.
"No they're not," the customer said.
The customer needed the pin numbers and scratch off applied to the back of the cards. Lingle had no such capability at the time. He scratched around for another $30,000 to buy another the piece of equipment, and off they went.
Phone cards were the name of the game, and Lingle printed them by the tens of thousands. But almost all his business was coming from just a few customers who were printing nothing but phone cards.
Lingle wanted to diversify. He worked hard to sign up small businesses and took on things like gift cards and plastic business cards.
Four years into the business, Lingle noticed he was spending much of his time quoting jobs for customers. He launched www.plasticprinters.com and built in an online quoting system. That move turned his business into an international one and dramatically sped up the growth of the business.
In 2001, they moved to a location in Hastings at the intersection of Spiral Boulevard and Millard Avenue. Soon, there were seven employees, and soon he added on to the building to double its size.
By 2005, they needed more space, and moved to 745 Spiral Blvd.
By 2007, they again needed more space, and moved to 741 Spiral Blvd.
Since 2001, Lingle has prided his business on one that serves small businesses well. That helps them stay diverse, as they have 90,000 customers at any point. If one leaves, it is unfortunate, but not devastating.
"We want to service all the mid- to small-size businesses out there and stay focused on them," Lingle said. "Everyone else is out there chasing the big guys."