Basketball Star Takes Shot At Printing Business

Isiah Thomas plans to score in business before time runs out on his basketball career.

Turning around American Speedy Printing Centers Inc. may be his toughest shot yet.

The Detroit Pistons star joined computer giants Joseph and Rick Inatome to buy the company out of bankruptcy last month. With heavy debts, unprofitable stores and a saturated market to contend with, American Speedy's success is not assured.

But Thomas is determined to make it a winner.

"This is not an endorsement deal," Thomas said. "I'm in daily contact with all things that are going on at American Speedy."

That means chairing weekly board meetings, working late nights at the office and visiting print shops on weekends. The 32-year-old point guard with the two world championship rings knows he's in a transition game.

"The athlete today has to leverage the assets he has," he said. "I'm not going to retire and wait two or three years and then do it."

American Speedy is a bit like the woeful, last-place Pistons when Thomas joined the team as a rookie a dozen years ago.

One of the largest U.S. quick-print chains, American Speedy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 1992, with $22 million in debts. Angry franchisees and creditors sued the company. Its owner and chief executive, Vernon Buchanan, had resigned abruptly eight months earlier.

More than 100 stores closed after the bankruptcy filing. Until it can sell new stores again, American Speedy relies on a small percentage of franchisee receipts to pay off debts and rebuild.

Thomas' investment group paid $2.35 million and pledged up to $30 million in international revenues to creditors in the American Speedy acquisition. Last year, the company's 500-plus stores posted $154 million in systemwide sales.

Franchisees welcome Thomas' drive and intensity.

"It suddenly gives my centers a new value," said Maureen Christensen, owner of two stores in Birmingham and Southfield, Mich. "During the year of bankruptcy, I had nothing more than a mom-and-pop print shop does."

Thomas, the Inatomes and Ohio lawyer Michael Wager own 85 percent of American Speedy's stock, and management executives own the balance.

Thomas is a 6-foot-1 all-star in a league of towering players - and the Pistons' career scoring leader. But his eight-year, $16 million Pistons contract runs out next year, and injuries and age are adding up. Thomas isn't ready to hang up his high-tops yet, but he's looking to the future.

"Too many times we've read stories about athletes that were taken advantage of and end up broke," he said. "When you're done playing, then what?"

Thomas, who is president of the NBA's players association, owns a multimedia production company. American Speedy, however, is a big step up.