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

October 2004

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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