Abrahem Helal

Earning It

As a young man coming out of college, you might say Abrahem Helal had commitment issues—not to relationships, but to his family’s business, a small printing, publishing, and document management outfit serving the federal marketplace in Washington, D.C.  “At that young age, I didn’t know how to work, how to be the strongest employee, and how to lead a company,” he remembers.  “It was a little rough at first.  I had just given up my dream of becoming a professional tennis player, and it wasn’t until later that I realized I had had great experiences pursuing that goal, but that shouldn’t stop me from doing and accomplishing bigger things.”  Now the Vice President of Operations for Gray Graphics, those bigger things are now coming to fruition.

Gray Graphics started as a small letterpress shop launched by Clarence Gray during the Great Depression.  He grew it slowly, and the company was still small when Abrahem’s father purchased it from Mr. Gray in 1975 to the tune of $25 thousand.  “I remember having to tediously line up the individual silver letters to form words,” Abrahem reflects.  “From there, we’ve grown it little by little over the years, and we’ve evolved with technology over time.”  Now, everything is digital and direct-to-plate, and today, Gray Graphics is worth around $16 million.

The company’s bread and butter is off-set printing, both large format sheet-fed and web-press, but they’re getting much more entrenched in the digital realm of technology as well, delving into e-publishing and records management services for judicial, government, or health organizations that need services like litigation or medical records management.  For example, they currently have a contract with the Air Force to scan all of their old case files to clear out warehouses.  “We’re having to diversify our offerings,” Abrahem explains.  Gray Graphics has since grown from a one-man operation to a staff of around 65 operating out of a 55 thousand square foot facility with an adjoining 24 thousand square foot facility on a six-acre campus.

Abrahem’s parents immigrated to the United States from Egypt in the late 1960’s after traveling to Germany to study printing.  He wanted to leave the country to give his children a real opportunity to succeed in life and was somehow fortunate enough to find a way out.  “America truly is the land of opportunity,” Abrahem avows.  “Had my sisters and I grown up in Egypt, we would not be where we are today.  I’d have a different perception of the world and a different idea of what’s possible, and I’m very grateful.”

Mr. Helal worked for a printing company operating out of Ohio when he came to America and was actually offered a high-paying government job at the same time he came across the opportunity to buy Gray Graphics.  “He had always been someone who wanted to work for himself and set his own destiny,” Abrahem reflects.  “When confronted with the choice between a secure yet limited government job versus entrepreneurship and the American Dream, he chose the latter.”

From the very beginning, Mr. Helal was working at Gray Graphics day and night, leaving his children and wife at home.  When Abrahem was six, he’d come in to help with collating, and by the time he was twelve, he was operating major pieces of equipment.  “I hated it,” he laughs.  “I wanted to be outside playing, though I’m certain I wouldn’t have the work ethic I have today if I hadn’t helped my father when I was young.”

The family soon realized, however, that the current system of running Gray Graphics wasn’t sustainable.  “When you’re one person bringing in the work, producing the work, invoicing the work, and with a skeletal crew of people around you, eventually people realize you can’t watch everything, and they start to take advantage of your trust,” Abrahem says.  “Money started disappearing, things started getting late, and my father ended up with a lot of debt he didn’t realize he had.”  When that debt came to surface, his mother stepped up to the plate to help fix it.  She didn’t speak English well and didn’t have a strong educational background, but she was determined.  She had a family to provide for and wasn’t going to be run out of town, so she told her eldest daughter to care for her younger two kids and dove in.

They sought advice from a close family friend who was an attorney and borrowed money from other friends to pay off their debts.  Mrs. Helal stayed with her husband day and night, handling his accounting and recordkeeping, ensuring jobs were getting out on time, and overseeing employees like a hawk.  Her stern yet just demeanor garnered an unparalleled respect and fidelity from their employees, and many of those individuals still work for the Helals twenty years later.  Thus, when Mr. Helal’s big picture, visionary brand of entrepreneurship combined with the detail-oriented, cost-conscious, structured style of his wife, the result was unstoppable, and Gray Graphics was never in debt again going forward.

The turning point for the company really came in the 1980s during the Reagan years, when the Internet hadn’t yet taken its toll on the printing market and the government was spending a lot on prints and reprints.  “Printing was the number one industry to be in at that time because everyone needed it,” Abrahem recalls.  “You couldn’t communicate without print.”

Gray Graphics brought on new technology that extended beyond the letterpress style of previous years, and their quality vastly improved.  They had always been a government contract printer, but today, their printing quality is among the best in the government printing landscape, ranking them number seven on the Government Printing Office’s list.  After that turning point, growth and quality were maintained through his mother’s oversight, his father’s work ethic, and the company’s willingness to evolve and embrace new technologies and services.  It’s a tough industry to be in today, but Gray Graphics perseveres.

As Abrahem helped out through high school, his parents paid him not through traditional wages, but through allowing him to pursue his love of tennis.  After excelling at the sport, he requested to attend a tennis training facility for a year, which they paid for.  He rose quickly to the state and then to the national level as a junior.  Then, after high school, they supported him as he competed for several years before pursuing college.  He traveled worldwide, achieved world ranking, and trained with Bonnie Gadusek, who had been sixth in the world in women’s tennis, until he felt he had pushed his game to the brink of his abilities and was ready to try something new.  Two weeks before the fall semester of 1992, he began contacting college tennis coaches in Virginia and Maryland to explore his options, and Virginia Tech leapt on the opportunity immediately.  Within a week, he was registered for classes, had a dorm room, and was ready to start his college career.

Abrahem spent his first two years at Virginia Tech pursuing electrical engineering before realizing it was not for him, so he transitioned over to forestry and wildlife.  Wood science was applicable to engineering because he learned how any wooden structure was built, and it related to printing as well because he learned about paper production.  “I knew it would help with Gray Graphics if I wanted to go into that in the future, and I wanted to keep that option open,” he says.

That intuition proved accurate, and Abrahem formally joined the family business after graduating.  He then decided to pursue his masters in homeland security management—a fortuitous choice considering the company now holds a security clearance to better serve the GPO and relies on him to serve as facility security officer.  “I never thought we’d have a clearance or that I’d serve as the FSO,” he muses.  “I’m having to learn a lot and work with people in the intelligence community, and it feels like I’ve really found my niche.  Ever since I’ve started the homeland security track, I’ve fallen in love with it.  It’s a career I really believe in, and you can do a lot with it, from cybersecurity to intelligence to language services to signals.”  Looking into the future, Abrahem hopes to channel the growth of the company around that clearance, pursuing more records management contracts and printing and publishing opportunities along that vein.

Today, in his day-to-day experience, Abrahem is challenged with a wide array of responsibilities as he manages people, projects, certifications, and the company’s clearance.  It’s a delicate juggling act, and therein lies the excitement of his profession.  “I enjoy the fact that I have all these different responsibilities that nurture the growth of the company,” he observes.  “At our company, you’re not confined to job descriptions by rigid task delineation.  Instead, you’re doing anything and everything to keep the ship moving, and that in turn keeps me moving.  The only person that could keep me from being challenged is myself.”

At forty, Abrahem sees himself continuing that focus on challenging himself for many years to come.  “The future of Gray Graphics is me and my sisters,” he says.  “I create structure, follow up, and am very detailed about things, delegating and helping with future development and growth.”  With technology changing so rapidly, he has to be, as the investments they make going forward must be in the right digital technology, the right IT, and the right people.  New orientation around e-publishing and workflow management will continue to take hold, with a special focus on building the right team of people around those areas of expertise in terms of implementation, development, and marketing. “My parents built this business,” says Abrahem.  “They really accomplished something, and I want to accomplish as much as they have.  What I will accomplish remains to be seen, but it would never happen if I just sit on my hands.  So I’m using what I have, looking for where we can go, and constantly thinking about how we can create a bigger future from what we’ve already built together.”

Beyond the hours and manpower he invests in Gray Graphics and the sustained commitment to tennis, Abrahem has been involved in the Washington, DC Rotary Club over the years, and in that capacity he’s been able to give back to the community through a number of different projects, from water quality improvement to polio eradication.  “Many times, you get jaded because you hear about people who get their hand in the pot and steal,” he remarks.  “You get a tainted perception of how human nature truly is, but in reality, there are a lot of people who go out of their way to give back and to do the right thing.  Rotary Club is a network of people who continually impress me with their passion for improving the world, and I’m ever honored and humbled to be a part of it.”

In advising young entrepreneurs today, Abrahem recalls a piece of advice his own father gave to him when he was younger.  Mr. Helal was so generous that he’d give you the shirt off his back, but when it came to success in business or in life, he had one thing to say.  “You have to earn it,” he would tell his son.  “You have to think about what you want and you have to commit to working hard and getting it.  No one is going to give you a free pass.  If you want to get something or somewhere in life, it’s hard work that’s going to earn you that thing or that place.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that when asked to put his finger on the most important thing he got from his tennis career, Abrahem names “discipline” without missing a beat.  After training ten hours a day, giving up mornings and evenings alike, and after pursuing perfection on the court that bled over into the classroom, he has an especially literal example of what “earning it” really means.  That’s why, since assuming a leadership role at Gray Graphics, he’s focused on setting up a clear management structure and taking the initiative to promote the company’s growth.  “No one’s just going to hand you business,” he says.  “You have to get out there and earn it, whether that’s attaining the certifications that will make you competitive or spearheading new marketing campaigns that draw in business.  Both personally and professionally, I live by looking for what isn’t getting done and then doing it.  To me, that’s earning it.”

Abrahem Helal

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

No items found.