Check up on Hampton firm and you'll find a multi-faceted company

by Michael McCord

New Hampshire Business Review, Seacoast Intelligence Section, March 24, 2000

Reprinted with permission of the New Hampshire Business Review

We receive a lot of press releases at SI telling us about the various happenings of every conceivable type of business in the region. But it's not often that SI gets a promotional trinket like the one we did recently.

The trinket was a small key chain accessory that was accompanied by a letter citing the effectiveness of using promotional T-shirts, mugs, caps -- just about anything -- to keep the message going strong. What made the letter more effective than most was this twist:

"Not long ago, in fact, the big tobacco companies agreed to stop using promotional products to sell cigarettes, and in the process made a very good case for their effectiveness as a marketing tool," the letter said. "Promotional products worked so well for the big tobacco companies that they were actually banned from using them."

Well, this promotional merging of law and marketing caught SI's attention, so we had to find out more about Relyco, the Hampton company behind this creative initiative. And we came to find out that while Relyco can apply business slogans and logos to more than 40,000 different types of mugs, magnets, pens and the like, promotional artwork is actually a small part of the company's business.

Relyco is a successful printing company with 25 employees and a growing national reputation for printing checks of all types -- in particular, customized laser payroll and accounts payable checks. Lots of checks.

How many?

"We estimate about 200 million a year," Relyco's president, Michael Steinberg, told SI. If that seems like a lot, it's only a small part of the estimated $65 billion spent annually for checks of all types. Since its founding in 1989, Steinberg has seen his company grow into a multimillion-dollar venture that may not be very glamorous, but touches the lives of every working soul.

Located on Park Avenue in Hampton, Relyco has built a large client base of more than 3,500 firms across the land through, Steinberg says, "aggressive marketing and keeping up with the latest in technological innovations."

Relyco's first client was local, Bottomline Technologies of Portsmouth, and since then it has grown to include a combination of Fortune 500 companies and lesser-known institutions that handle lots of money. The company's customers include Microsoft, the National Basketball Association. USA Today, TV Guide, Toshiba, Fidelity Investments, Wells Fargo Bank, Time Inc., the state of North Carolina, Oracle, Adobe and the New Hampshire Retirement System.

It's also a multi-faceted business. Relyco also offers secure documents, tax forms, mailers, labels and envelope products and sells specialized equipment and software. But checks are the meat and potatoes of the business, accounting for 70 percent of its revenues, which are growing at a recent rate of 25 percent a year, says Steinberg. Relyco also processes and sends direct-mail checks to consumers for large companies. One recent project required sending out $700,000 of incentive payments to potential customers of a Florida phone company (by cashing the check, the customer automatically signs up for the service).

The next trend

Steinberg has been in the printing business all his working life (he started with Portsmouth Paper before launching Relyco with a partner, whom Steinberg bought out a few years ago). The Seacoast area native tells SI he loves the business "because it's changing all the time." And keeping up with the latest technologies, such as eight-color checks, is not only necessary in preventing fraud, it can be fun.

Steinberg tells SI about working with the FBI to nab "three to four people" involved in a scheme to secure blank checks and then cash them as soon as possible. "Needless to say, we keep a very close eye on orders and are suspicious about even the smallest things."

Michelle Sawyer, Relyco's marketing vice president, agrees with Steinberg about the fascinating aspects of the business. She also is a local native and returned here a few years ago after working for a while in Virginia. "I never imagined I'd be doing this for as long as I have. But it's a good business and we develop some great relationships with our customers." Relyco will expand its staff to 32 soon to bolster its customer service and sales force.

Sawyer and Steinberg let SI in on the latest innovation that is coming in the industry -- one that will not go unnoticed by check-cashing employees.

"We are working with agencies and clients to put advertising on the back of checks," Steinberg says. For clients who join this marketing bandwagon, the benefits are immediate and cost-effective -free checks, as advertisers will pick up the cost of check making. "It's the next big thing," Steinberg says about the day when we will endorse the back of checks with offers for cheeseburgers, cars or phone service.