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2004 HALL OF FAME George Stephenson -- Savior to His Company

October 2004
By Erik Cagle

Senior Editor

The greatest challenge George Stephenson has ever faced as the owner of a sheetfed and full-web printing company is not the same as the greatest challenge that has ever confronted the business itself.

Stephenson, 70, is founder, president and CEO of Stephenson Printing, located in the Washington, DC, suburb of Alexandria, VA. He opened the plant in 1959 and aggressively built the company, was a forerunner in the color revolution and the first printer on his block to delve seriously into the manufacture of annual reports.

Those reasons alone make him a prime candidate for the 2004 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame induction class.

In 1998, amidst a changing ownership landscape that was ruled by industry consolidators, also known as "roll-ups," Stephenson decided to sell his company to Master Graphics.

"It looked like the smart thing to do, and it gave me the opportunity to phase out while the time was right," Stephenson explains. "Unfortunately, the company I sold it to was a 'Johnny-Come-Lately' in the roll-up concept that tried to do too much too soon and ended up with financial problems."

The problems persisted to the point that Master Graphics filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2000. Stephenson, now on a contract basis with the establishment that bore his name, was concerned about the future of the print shop he had painstakingly grown from the ground up. Thus, in late 2000, he put together a plan to buy back the company's assets.

"With Master Graphics selling off some of the assets of their companies, my concern was that they might sell off Stephenson Printing's equipment," he says. "I wanted to ensure the future of the company. It took a while to get over the stigma of being in Chapter 11. Buying the company back was the best solution to making it healthy and well again. And we're doing very well today."

Born and raised about three blocks from the White House, Stephenson spent some of his childhood years helping his father, an electrician who worked on radios. He found part-time work with a small print shop as a teenager and operated a small-format Multigraphics 1420 press—an experience that whetted his appetite for the industry. In junior high and high school, Stephenson took printing courses and came to the conclusion that he loved the vocation, even to the point where he left school a year early to pursue commercial printing.

Stephenson started out full-time as a pressman in 1951 and, five years later, formed a partnership to open a small lithographic printing operation in Georgetown. Three years into that venture, his partner encountered personal problems and had to bow out, leaving Stephenson to start from scratch again. However, this time the company, Stephenson Lithograph Printing, had only one boss.

Living Color

It became clear to Stephenson early on that color printing was going to have a major impact on the industry, so he pieced together the shop accordingly. In 1961, he purchased a two-color Miehle Roland press. A 49˝, two-color Harris followed in 1963, and a four-color, 50˝ Roland joined the fold in 1969.

"I always had a huge interest in color," Stephenson says. "In the early '60s, I did my color separations with my own camera. As I grew the company, I would add additional equipment. I installed my first scanner in 1972, and became very involved in working with the design community, which also pushed the color side of printing.

"When color TVs came out, it became obvious to me that color was the hottest thing going," he adds. "I sought out anyone who wanted color work."

Stephenson picked up his first annual report job in 1964, and his first major coup was a six-color book for Fairchild Industries. By 1970, he had a stranglehold on the DC-area annual report turf.

The printer also outgrew his home. The facility Stephenson once leased, then owned, yielded in 1980 to a newly constructed operation five times its size in nearby Alexandria. It wasn't long after that Stephenson garnered his first web press. Today the just-under 100 employee company has two 223⁄4x38˝ Heidelberg (Goss) M-1000BE heatset webs (one six- and one eight-unit). Sheetfed printing capabilities include two 25x35˝ Heidelberg SBD presses; a 20x28˝, six-color MAN Roland; a 28x40˝ six-color Roland with aqueous coater; and a 28x40˝, eight-color Roland.

Aside from its diet of annual reports, Stephenson Printing also produces direct mail, publications, catalogs and promotional work. A pair of rollfed Xeikon digital presses installed in 2003 allows the company to produce print-on-demand and variable data work. Mailing capabilities are also offered.

"Our focus still is to be a very capable, local printing company that can accommodate a broad array of needs for our clientele," he says. "We have an excellent customer base—a core of companies that have been with us for many years. We have clients from Connecticut to Florida, but the bulk of our business comes out of the DC/Baltimore area."

So what has been the greatest challenge Stephenson himself has ever endured? That would be the economic slump that has handcuffed the graphic arts industry since about the fall of 2000. He calls 2002 and 2003 the most demanding years in his company's history, presenting an even bigger challenge than the repurchase of Stephenson Printing from Master Graphics.

Stephenson credits hard work, carefully minding customers and adding to his client portfolio for being able to sustain the recent conditions. Also, he's had to readjust to a lower level of growth; prior to the sale to Master Graphics, the company was enjoying profit margins in the eight percent to 12 percent range. In 2002, the operation found itself in the red.

"The printing business is very difficult today," Stephenson remarks. "We have all of this wonderful technology that makes our job easier, but we have all of this competition and a lack of willingness to spend the dollars that makes it more difficult.

"With the advent of the Internet, competition is fierce because some print buyers are soliciting an excessive number of print companies for bids. So instead of having two or three bidders in a local market, you can have 10 or 20 across the country. That cuts into your profit margin really quickly."

One way to combat cattle-call quotes came to Stephenson not long ago when he needed to have some commercial plumbing work done at the plant. Each plumber he called to get an estimate wanted $50 or $100 for the quote, which gets credited to the bill upon receipt of the job.

United Front

Getting an entire industry nationwide to stand shoulder to shoulder on such a hot-button issue would be a momentous, but worthwhile, task, according to Stephenson. Otherwise, there's nothing to keep print buyers from running their jobs under the noses of an unlimited amount of printers.

"Printers are providing serious, hard quotations for people, but there's zero in it for them unless they get the job. And there can be 25 of us printers quoting the same damn job," he laments. "The smartest thing our industry could do is for printers like me to have the chutzpah to start charging for this free service."

Stephenson's energetic spirit can capture anyone's attention in short order, according to Walter Herrmann, a vice president of GE Capital who sold sheetfed presses to Stephenson while working for Rockwell International's Graphic Systems division roughly 15 years ago. Stephenson has "a dominating level of energy and exuberance," and is a caring person, according to Herrmann.

"He's the most knowledgeable printer I've ever encountered, in terms of understanding the printing process and how to get the job ultimately done," Herrmann says. "He's a survivor and a motivator. When I met George, he had the reputation as the best printer in Washington, DC—and that hasn't changed."

Personal Touch

What customers like most about Stephenson is his willingness to be personally involved in their projects, notes Dick Flanagan, national communications director at AMVETS. Stephenson has printed AMVETS' quarterly four-color magazine, American Veteran, for 14 years.

"I've noticed that with other printers, you only deal with the sales rep. But George makes it his business to stay involved with customers and stay in touch with them," Flanagan says. "I've never seen anyone take an interest in customers like he does. That sense of treating each client personally all flows down to his salespeople—that willingness to help and go the extra mile."

Stephenson has two daughters, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife, Sandy, is one of the company's top salespeople and helps manage the administrative side, as well. It makes for some interesting debates at the dinner table.

While he enjoys a good round of golf, Stephenson's greatest pastime passion is boating; he's had a vessel tied up somewhere about as long as he's been in the printing business. To celebrate his 53rd year in printing, the Stephensons acquired a new boat, dubbed the 'Nauti-Lady.' They plan to spend a lot of time on the water.

Still, the veteran printer knows what side his bread is buttered on. He allowed Sandy to name his new vessel.

"I learned long ago that the key to having a happy boating relationship is to either let your wife name it or name it after your wife," Stephenson notes.

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