2009 Printing Industry Hall of Fame : Joy of the JourneySeptember 2009 By Erik Cagle
HOW OFTEN does a 12-year-old have a strong sense of what he/she wants to become in life? Even most 22-year-olds haven't a clue as to what their future holds.
Well, Ralph Pontillo knew. Roughly 46 years ago, he stepped into a printing shop as a seventh grader and found his destiny staring right back at him. Call it focus, call it motivation, call it determination. It doesn't matter.
"The day I walked in here was the day that I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life," Pontillo recalls. "I'm one of those unusual people who knew exactly what they wanted to be, even before going to college. I just focused on graphic arts and printing from that point forward, and have never regretted it. It's been a fun and interesting journey."
Pontillo, 58, may have predicted his future, but history books will reveal him to be the savior of his company: Miami Valley Publishing, of Fairborn, OH. He boasts an overall resumé that more than qualifies him as a 2009 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee.
Of his 37 years in the graphic arts industry, 2009 has to rank as the most eventful, and certainly the most memorable, for Pontillo.
Transcontinental Inc.—which owned Miami Valley Publishing and had hired Pontillo 15 years earlier to quarterback the operation—made the strategic decision to focus on its core strengths in North America, which include direct mail and newspaper production. Miami Valley Publishing, which focuses on commercial printing—particularly retail inserts—wasn't part of the long-range plans and would be shut down.
Pontillo started negotiating for the right to acquire Miami Valley Publishing from Transcontinental in late January. Not quite five months later, the papers were signed and the plant's former general manager officially became owner of Miami Valley. Pontillo had saved the printing "farm," without having ridden into town on a white horse.
"It was kind of scary," he says of negotiating a deal in such a sour economy. "A lot of my friends called me and questioned whether I knew what the heck I was doing. But, it really came down to having managed this facility for the past 15 years. I know this business, I know the customers and I believe strongly in our people.
"We're going to make it work, with all 150 of us committed to doing whatever it takes. Every person throughout our facility is focused on making sure we keep our jobs. Like I told everyone in the plant, we're here to save everybody's job, including mine. We're not going to get rich in printing. But our goal is to keep the company afloat and to maintain our livelihoods. We all enjoy what we're doing, and hopefully we can all retire from here."
Attracted to the creative and mechanical aspects of printing, Pontillo enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stout after graduating from high school. He credits much of his print grooming to the quality instruction he received in high school. In fact, one of Pontillo's instructors was instrumental in making his matriculation at Stout a reality. And, as an example of the small world that is printing, Pontillo ended up working for that instructor's son at W.A. Krueger in Scottsdale, AZ.
Learning the Business
Armed with a BS in industrial technology, Pontillo's first printing job was with Wallace Business Forms, where he worked in maintenance. After a stint with a small printer, Pontillo landed at W.A. Krueger, where he came into his own from a manufacturing standpoint. The best practices and business philosophies he picked up along the way left a lasting imprint on how he would later navigate Miami Valley.
"It was extremely important having that production background and working for a company like Krueger, which was very focused on scheduled maintenance, statistics and Deming's process control theories," Pontillo says. "Gathering metrics and utilizing all that information has a positive impact on the operations. It's all about using data as a tool, and not a weapon, to manage your business.
"Too many executives take metrics and data, and then manage from the top down. They should figure out what the operation needs to improve, how data can be a part of it and then get people involved in that information instead of forcing it down on them."
Transcontinental tapped Pontillo in 1993 to turn around its ineffective and under-performing Miami Valley facility. He was charged with coordinating the U.S. sales and manufacturing operations in North America. Even as Transcontinental focused away from Miami Valley's niche, Pontillo never lost focus on what his plant needed to do in order to remain successful.
"Ralph's a fair, honest guy," notes Steve Martin of Hostmann-Steinberg, who has done business with Pontillo for more than 10 years. "His continued success will be realized based on the commitment that he demonstrates every day to achieve customers' expectations. He's really a great guy, and it's always a pleasure to sit down and talk with him."
Mike McInness, general manager of retail for Transcontinental in Brampton, Ontario, describes Pontillo as a fabulous guy who is an asset to the printing industry. "When I joined Transcontinental, I was teamed up with Ralph so he could help show me how to navigate through parts of the organization," McInness recalls. "My plant is by far the most successful of the Transcontinental retail plants, and Ralph had a hand in that, going over strategies with me."
Pontillo credits people such as Jack Fowler, the former CEO of W.A. Krueger and World Color—as well as a 1987 Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee—with influencing his managerial style. Fowler was "extremely emphatic, had a passion about customers, manufacturing and operations, and making sure everyone understood what was going on," Pontillo notes.
A Straight Shooter
As for his own attributes, Pontillo sees himself as a consensus builder who can rally his employees while shooting straight from the hip, without any nonsense. He surrounds himself with strong, opinionated people who provide candid, frank analysis. This, in turn, enables Pontillo to make better informed decisions.
For the past 10 years, Pontillo has been an active participant within the Web Offset Association (WOA) and its board of directors; he served a three-year stint as chairman. Previously, he was on the GATF Innovations selection committee and a number of other task forces.
The WOA is near and dear to Pontillo's heart. "It's more than the camaraderie," he says. "It's networking with fellow printers and understanding that we're all working toward the same goals—improving the business, improving technologies. It helps you grow."
Away from the office, Pontillo loves to spend time in the great outdoors, be it golfing, fishing or hunting. Closer to home, he enjoys gardening and yard work, which he finds to be quite relaxing. Pontillo also loves to take long bike rides with his bride of 36 years, Pamela. "Taking an afternoon ride allows you to chill out and relax," adds the self-described fitness nut.
The other reason 2009 will be memorable for Pontillo, ironically, is that he underwent triple-bypass heart surgery. Pam Pontillo suggested her husband visit the doctor for some tests, which showed the need for surgery despite his penchant for exercise and fitness.
The Pontillos have two children: a son, Tor, and daughter Autumn. He enjoys playing golf with his son each Sunday and frequently visits Autumn at her Phoenix home. Pontillo hopes to retire in the Southwest some day. PI