How an immigrant is keeping print alive in Sacramento

Since around 2008, Alvaro Rodríguez has been frequenting coffee shops in the city he eventually decided to call home. He said that there is a communal aspect that he really enjoys about getting his morning latte—especially since he usually runs into someone he knows.

“Going for coffee in the morning is when you’re most alert and sharp. You get to meet people and hang out a little bit before you go about your day. For me, it has been a great place to network,” said Rodríguez. “And I can’t hide, so I might as well take advantage of it.”

He said that he sticks out easily because he is a towering presence at 6-foot-7-inches tall, but his former boss, Anthony Yung, attested that Rodríguez also has a sort of magnetism that has made him a successful entrepreneur. Yung, the former President of Sacramento, California’s Compose Systems USA, a company that provided consulting and management systems for printing companies across the world, said he has known Rodríguez for almost 30 years.

“Alvaro has a good personality to lure people to him, and that’s part of the reason he’s successful working with customers—he’s always helpful,” Yung said.

In 2012, before he became an American citizen, Rodríguez left Compose and started ARB Digital, a Sacramento company focused on print media and consulting. Using specialized knowledge he built over decades of working all over the western hemisphere in the printing industry, his company has focused on keeping print relevant in the digital age by utilizing cutting-edge technologies to print on unconventional surfaces.

Rodríguez was born in Venezuela with ties to print media—his grandfather was one of the first Venezuelans to graduate as a journalist—but he did not expect it to become a large part of his life. After going to electrical engineering school in Caracas, Rodríguez had dreams of working at a big software company, but he said his life took him to different places. He recalled that, at 19, one of his first jobs was setting up an Apple computer showroom for the Venezuela’s National Guild of Journalists.

“I got to meet a lot of cool people, and that opened the door for me to know not only journalists but also the editors of newspapers as well,” Rodríguez said. “They started calling on me to go and do their networks at different newspapers around the country.”

As he found great success working for newspapers, he said that his clients began asking to buy computers from him. They asked so often that, after two years, he decided to start his own Apple computer dealership, which he said eventually became the top Apple dealer in Venezuela.

“Back then, the profit margins were like 30% on a computer, so if I sold one for $2,000, it was $600 in profit,” Rodríguez said. “For a 21-year-old, $600 was a lot, and when you’re still living with your parents, it’s pretty nice.”

However, Rodríguez’s success did not last into the mid-90s. He said that it was partly due to a decline in Apple’s products, but a much bigger player was Venezuela’s oil-based economy. According to history professor George W. Schuyler of the University of Central Arkansas, Venezuela was in financial peril after other oil producers began increasing production. This led to the Venezuelan savings and loan crisis, where the government took over several banks—which later failed. Venezuela’s El Nacional newspaper indicated that the country’s economy has never completely recovered. In 2018, it reported an estimated 87% of Venezuelans live below the poverty line, and, as of 2019, the International Monetary Fund estimated the country’s unemployment rate to be above 44%.

“When oil prices were really high, Venezuela was doing really well—we were one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. But when the savings and loan crisis happened, articles of the constitution could be put on hold. So, the Venezuelan government, in order to freeze assets more quickly, suspended the right of private property,” Rodríguez said. “Around that time, friend of mine asked, ‘Do you want to come work in Miami, Florida?’ and I said, ‘Sure!’”

Rodríguez said he has lived in the U.S. ever since. He spent the next several years travelling across the world selling color management and newspaper systems for Compose, and Rodríguez said he eventually became a permanent resident despite his mother’s desire for him to return to Venezuela. She has become more accepting of his move to the U.S. in recent years, but he also said she longs for democracy to return to Venezuela so that her son can return. However, after his company moved him from Miami to Sacramento in 2000—where his daughter, Isabelle, was born—Rodríguez said that he’d never move back.

“When we had Isabel, there was the opportunity to move to other places. We considered Europe and China, but by then I had become a Sacramentan. I cared for Sacramento,” Rodríguez said. “Today, when people ask me where I’m from, I say Sacramento, and I mean that—I am first a Sacramentan, then a Californian, and then I teeter between Venezuelan and American. I have that dichotomy of being from here and there.”

Rodríguez said that his daughter was the reason he decided to become an American citizen and why he decided to start ARB Digital. He wanted to reduce the travelling that his work at Compose required, but he also wanted to use the skills that he had honed at the company to create something distinctive.

“In the early 2000s, print was in the top 10 industries in every country around the world. It was huge. But when the internet happened, print as a way to distribute information became passé,” Rodríguez said. “I wanted to continue consulting, but I also wanted to do something that was unique enough that I wasn’t competing with my customers.”

He turned his attention toward color management and innovation. Rodríguez said that, by keeping a close watch on how technology was affecting the decline of historical staples of the print industry, like direct mail, and focusing on areas that were growing in spite of the internet, like packaging, ARB Digital has been able to see success where similar companies have not.

“For example, one of the things we use in packaging is white ink—like, look at a bag of Doritos. It’s printed on clear plastic with a layer of silver followed by a layer of white with the color on top. That’s just how it’s been done for a while,” Rodríguez said. “The silver is meant keep light from reaching the product, but we can use that silver ink to make metallic effects on the product that you can’t usually do in traditional color. When you mix yellow with silver you get gold, or when you mix orange and silver you get copper.”

Rodríguez said that, by acclimating to the changing needs of the market, he has been able to grow from printing out of his garage to sharing a space with Time Printing, where, since January 2020, he has been utilizing some of the most advanced equipment available to innovate the art of printing.

“Time Printing is in a good position right now because they are nimble and very flexible to reconfigure to what the necessities of the market are. They’re not afraid to take something on,” Rodríguez said.

He said that every day is an exciting new challenge, and his customers are always providing him with a new problem to solve. He’s experimented a lot in order to be able to print on horseshoes, disc harrows and sheep pelts. His willingness to try anything has allowed for his work to be seen all across Sacramento.

“He’s very creative when it comes to solutions,” Yung said about Rodríguez. “He’s also a people person, so he always worked with the customers well and tried to understand their problem and try to get it solved.”

Rodríguez’s work in Sacramento has earned him acclaim on the national stage. In 2018, ARB Digital was awarded a first place prize for 98-square-foot mural for Folsom’s La Fiesta restaurant. Composed of 512 individual travertine tiles featuring high-resolution imagery, Rodríguez collaborated with photographers and contractors to complete the complex process.

“There’s one-eighth of an inch of grout between each tile, which complicated things a little,” Rodríguez said. “But we got the recognition, so we’re pretty happy with what we’re doing. We know what we’re doing is right.”

Rodríguez said that ARB Digital has been a great part of his life for the last eight years. He said that he continues to look toward the future to innovate for Sacramento. Printing wallpaper for several restaurants and bars, like East Sacramento’s Canon and The Snug on R Street, has been one of his latest endeavors, but he said that the true work is with 8-year-old Isabel.

“She’s the biggest project,” Rodríguez said. “I think our responsibility as parents is to make good human beings—not successful, but good human beings. Teaching her to confront life and confront situations and figure out the best course of action is the most important thing I can do.”

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1 comment on “How an immigrant is keeping print alive in Sacramento”

  1. Jan Haag says:

    What a great story, Chris! I’m so interested Mr. Rodriguez and his work… and I want to see that tile mural in La Fiesta in Folsom someday. And he’s 6-feet-7?! Wow! A towering man in more ways than one. Very well done profile!

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