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2013 Hall of Fame : Bill Fitzgerald - It Was Love at First Sight

September 2013 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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It's frequently referred to as that "ah-hah" we all experience at some point in our lives—the moment in which the clouds open, angels sing and clarity hits us. Whether it's a revelation that propels us forward in our personal or professional lives, we tend to remember even the most subtle minutiae about that point in time.

For Bill Fitzgerald, a professional trip from Point A to Point B yielded an eye-opening experience at Point C. While working at a printing firm making Cromalin proofs early in his professional career in 1978, the Massachusetts born and bred Fitzgerald quickly found the mindless job to be the height of tedium. So, when they needed help in the shipping department, the invisible harps began to play.

"When I was led through the pressroom, which I never saw prior to that day, I saw plain white paper going into one end of the press and this beautiful image—a yellow-petaled flower—coming out the other side at relatively high speed," Fitzgerald recalls. "I knew from that moment I wanted to learn everything I could about printing. I still remember the moment vividly today."

It may have been the first time that something different caught Fitzgerald's eye at a print shop, but it wouldn't be the last. Perhaps it was a willingness to learn every aspect about a printing operation, being unafraid of getting his hands dirty and pushing himself to be the very best in his profession, that led to a long and highly successful career in the printing industry. The CEO of Westwood, MA-based Universal Wilde has also carved out a niche for himself as a member of the 2013 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame induction class.

Even as a youngster, Fitzgerald developed a reputation for being a go-getter, a hustler looking to make a few bucks by mowing lawns or shoveling snow. His tenacious personality enabled him to be a fierce competitor, whether it be baseball in the back yard or playing on the hockey team.

"I loved sports and loved to compete," he notes. "I wasn't necessarily the biggest kid, or the best, but I tried the hardest."

Joining the industry right out of high school, Fitzgerald took it upon himself to become well-versed in virtually every aspect of a printing business. Aside from proofing, he has worked a camera, plate making, press, bindery and shipping, not to mention customer service, estimating and sales. Fitzgerald was never bored with the workflow (OK, making Cromalin proofs wasn't all that stimulating), so he never gave thought to any other line of work.

Decides to Go Solo

After the first company he worked for went out of business, Fitzgerald took a sales position with another firm, and after two years decided to try it on his own. In 1998, he realized a lifelong dream of owning his own company with the creation of Graphic Services. In the process, Fitzgerald implemented a "Thought to Distribution" mantra that focused on the "why" of customer buying habits instead of the "what."

There was no mistaking Fitzgerald's buying habits. In an 11-year span beginning in 2001, he embarked on an impressive merger and acquisition journey that entailed bringing 11 new companies into the fold. The first was Intercity Press (2001), followed by Charles River Lithography (2003) and Universal Press, acquired from Quebecor in 2005. In 2006, Fitzgerald obtained Universal Lithograph from Cenveo, and the company was rebranded as Universal Graphix.

In May of 2007, Universal Graphix merged with Millennium Printing, which had acquired Daniels Printing in a deal with Merrill Corp., creating Universal Millennium. Direct Mail Services was added in 2009 and, during the course of the next two years, Fitzgerald brought in Acme Printing, Dynagraf, and Wilde and Wilde Agency, which led to its current moniker.

Thought to Distribution

Today, the company boasts five production facilities in Massachusetts: one sheetfed plant, two web facilities, a digital printing plant and a very large fulfillment and mail facility. Westwood, the corporate headquarters, also houses the award-winning Wilde Agency, which focuses soley on direct response marketing. These acquisitions, combined with strong production disciplines at Universal Wilde, have enabled Fitzgerald to fully realize the "Thought to Distribution" motto from a product and capability standpoint.

"No one in the industry is more customer-centric than we are, and the fact that I've always thought about our customers' businesses rather than just the transaction has helped Universal Wilde become a true partner with our clients and not just a vendor," Fitzgerald notes. "I've also always been a believer in new technology and have embraced change rather than fight it."

One of the greatest challenges to come Fitzgerald's way came during the recession in 2009. The recession caused some customers to pull back on what they considered discretional spending, which included printing. This accelerated the change away from ink on paper and a move toward electronic alternatives. When combined with the decision by its biggest client to procure its print overseas, Universal Wilde saw 36 percent of its top line sales eroded.

Fitzgerald acted quickly, consolidating plants, reducing pay and laying off employees. As painful a move as it was, it was necessary to ensure the long-term viability of Universal Wilde. Fitzgerald also sank more dollars into the business, investing in areas such as IT and strategic acquisitions.

"I became a bigger proponent in my early beliefs that you must not just look at the transaction but how we can help our clients from 'Thought to Distribution.' These moves ultimately did prove out as Universal Wilde did emerge a winner. Our offering today is very broad around information distribution," he notes.

Along the way, Fitzgerald has been fortunate to come across a number of great minds in the industry. When Fitzgerald broke into sales in 1988, he was fortunate to work alongside Bill Sullivan, an industry veteran 40 years his senior who constantly reinforced the importance of the customer. And, in the last 10 years, Fitzgerald has developed a solid friendship with Jim Bailey, another staunch advocate of the "Thought to Distribution" mindset.

Fitzgerald's tenacity has enabled him to develop the reputation for being driven. He freely refers to himself as a "pusher," which he believes is an asset and an occasional liability.

"When I have a passion for something, I'm all in," Fitzgerald admits. "I expect my senior team to be all in, as well. I have a pretty good way of pushing people and making them feel proud about their accomplishment while I'm pushing them on something else. My managers would probably say they like the fact that I challenge them, so maybe challenge is a better word than push."

Dan Shipman, vendor management and procurement strategy manager of global supply chain at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), is amazed by Fitzgerald's problem-solving skills. It took 25 years before the printer missed a delivery date—while Fitzgerald was on vacation—and "they killed themselves to get the job done," Shipman notes.

Another time, HMH inadvertently sent the wrong files to the printer. It was late in the day, people had already left work, and it was during the dark ages, before cell phone proliferation. Fitzgerald spotted the gaffe and did a literal cut-and-paste job—substituting the proper pages from another book—on a spiral-bound book destined for a Texas client. The typical supplier, Shipman points out, would have just gone home and addressed the problem the next day.

"Bill didn't want to not do anything. He problem-solved it pretty impressively," Shipman says. "He was from a sheetfed shop and we were more web-based, so Bill really helped us plan out our projects to make them the most efficient. It was obvious that he knew all aspects of printing, and the value for our side was just huge."

Brian Lane has known Fitzgerald since they were in high school, and the two remain best friends (and served as the best man in their respective weddings). Lane, who has spent his 35-year career with a number of printing companies, describes Fitzgerald as "a giving guy with a heart of gold. He'd give you the shirt off his back, but he wouldn't want anyone else to know that he did that. Bill doesn't flaunt it when he helps somebody.

"He's my best friend and I think the world of him."

Away from the office, Fitzgerald enjoys golfing (he boasts an 8.0 handicap index). While he's not much of a traveler, he's hardly a stay-at-home person, either, spending time with his adult kids (Mike, 27; Sean, 24; and Heather, 22) and friends when his schedule allows. Sean works at Universal Wilde, as does Fitzgerald's ex-wife, Sharon, who remains good friends with her former husband.

Suffice to say, there are few nights where you'd find Bill Fitzgerald plopped in front of the television set.

"I'm not the type that lets life pass by," he admits. PI


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