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2013 Hall of Fame : David Pilcher Sr. - Inspiration and Reclamation

September 2013 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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The practice of letter writing—putting pen to paper, then dispatching the correspondence via a stamp at the local post office—is a dying (if not dead) art form. To a generation that is accustomed to instantaneous information courtesy of texting or social media, the idea of sending a message of importance through the U.S. Postal Service must seem a bit far-fetched.

Truth be known, Mr. ZIP played a pivotal role in breathing new life into the career of David Pilcher Sr.

It was 1980 and Pilcher was a then-13-year veteran of Litho Color Press in Chicago. He had read a fascinating story about one Frank Beddor Jr., whom Pilcher would consider the Donald Trump of printing. Pilcher was in awe of Beddor and wanted to be a part of his growing empire, so he wrote Beddor a letter, asking to be considered for a position within his organization.

Beddor's reply was succinct: "Looks interesting, let's meet, thanks a million."

Pilcher, for one, was eternally grateful for the meeting. It would set him on a path that would one day lead him to acquire Freeport Press in tiny Freeport, OH, and embark upon one of the most illustrious and remarkable turnarounds the printing industry has seen in the last 20 years. It would also earn him a place alongside 1987 inductee Beddor as a member of the 2013 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame class.

As for the interview, the pair met on a Wednesday and Beddor was impressed enough to offer Pilcher a job on the spot…and ask him to start on Friday. Under Beddor, he became adept at overseeing the construction of new printing facilities with highly efficient workflows. Pilcher worked on the design of two plants: The Printer of Minnesota and The Press of Ohio, operating out of a construction trailer, hiring staff and ramping up with equipment.

"I had the unique privilege of being able to be involved in any meeting, on any subject, at any one of Frank's 10 manufacturing facilities or the partnerships," Pilcher explains. "It was an unbelievable opportunity for me. Frank was a peer of (Harry) Quadracci; they each evolved in their own ways."

Starting at the Ground Floor

Pilcher's evolution began in the early 1960s, when he joined a church youth group that spent nine months in Berlin, Germany. It was an exciting time to be there, as it coincided with the Berlin Crisis during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Regardless, the group had its own small printing operation that was in place to promote the church's ministries, and Pilcher was instrumental in the printing of literature and other materials.

He spent the next four years working his way through Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. Pilcher worked security at night and, during the day, he logged time in the university's in-plant printing operation.

"We had some ancient equipment in there," he recalls. "We were burning plates with a carbon arc lamp and things like that, so it was pretty crude."

Pilcher spent the summers between semesters working at a number of print shops in and around his native Chicago, the final two spent with Litho Color Press and Good News Publishers. He started out as a customer service manager when he went full-time, but shot his way up the ladder to become general manager, and the second in command to company owner Paul Benson.

"I felt like a kid in a candy store. I was free to do what I needed to do and I was learning all aspects of the operation—customer service, estimating, expanding the building, buying property, purchasing web offset presses. I really took them into the web area and also helped them buy perfect binding equipment. We significantly grew that business and brought it up to speed."

But, it was under Beddor that Pilcher truly flourished. He spent time working with all of the Beddor plants, including two of Beddor's latest acquisitions: Danner Press (Canton, OH) and Brookshore Lithographers (Chicago), before being named president and CEO of The Press of Ohio.

When Beddor sold eight of his companies to Banta Corp., Pilcher joined that organization. It wasn't a good fit as he struggled with the "uniqueness of the culture" during his 24 months with Banta. He was recruited by North American Directory Corp. (NADCO)—a joint venture between Bell Canada and Courier Corp.—which wanted to construct a coldset web directory printing plant in Hazleton, PA, and was intrigued by Pilcher's experience in greenfields. Pilcher jumped at the opportunity and dusted off his hard hat to help assemble a 250,000-square-foot plant that boasted two Harris 9000Ds and a KBA Commander web press.

Trying the M&A Game

During the plant's first year of operation, it turned in $50 million in volume, but when it was sold to Quebecor a few years later, Pilcher felt it was time to move on. He found a partner and tried his hand in the M&A business. Pilcher performed due diligence, but found that his build-from-the-bottom-up mantra diverged from his partner's desire to buy and flip.

It was an educational experience for Pilcher, and he enjoyed turning around troubled businesses. He did a workout of a seized asset, a Pittsburgh-based company called Interform Corp. The $30 million business forms manufacturer and distributorship performed an about-face within five years and was sold to Champion Industries.

Opportunities seem to find Pilcher. One day, he was contacted by the owners of Freeport Press, which was struggling mightily and looking for a buyer.

"The company was upside down in serious financial trouble and was facing a bank foreclosure," Pilcher remarks. "I started doing some due diligence on it and liked what I saw. It had been in continuous operation since 1880, and had loyal customers and dedicated employees—some of whom had worked there for more than 40 years. And it had been profitable. But the owners were taking money out and not investing in it, so there was a lot of old equipment, some of it 30 years behind the times."

Pilcher relished the opportunity. He bought the firm, brought in sons David Jr. and James to help with the rehab, and worked his magic. Fifteen years later, Freeport Press now lays claim to one of the nicest equipment lines in the industry, solid banking relationships with access to capital and an impeccable reputation. The publication and catalog printing operation posted just south of $33 million in sales and is poised to double that amount during the next five years.

Righting the Freeport Ship

Righting the Freeport ship was not an easy task. "We were dealing with employees who had limited training or background," Pilcher notes. "They had very little industry experience; most were home grown. It was hard to attract anyone because we couldn't meet the wage levels. Today, we're able to hire anyone we need. We have a great employee pool and we've developed great alliances. We also have tremendous relationships with our vendor partners."

Pilcher steadily turned over the equipment, using liquidations, plant closings and auctions to phase out the LBJ-era gear. Operations were streamlined, decisions were quickly made and opportunities pounced upon. A new building was constructed.

One year, a Komori web offset press was added; two years later, another followed. To make things more interesting, the first press had the distinction of being obtained in October of 2008, "when the bottom dropped out of the world," Pilcher observes.

"I had more debt than ever," he adds. "We shrank the company down, sold our way back out of it and, two years later, put in the second Komori web."

Pilcher stresses the importance of having great vendor partnerships, including Komori and EFI, in coming back from the brink. He also credits his sons for playing vital roles in the rebirth of Freeport Press. The company prides itself on having the industry's lowest waste, according to Pilcher, and Komori has confirmed upon the printer the title of world's fastest web makeready record.

Marc Olin, senior vice president and general manager of EFI's Productivity Software business, sees Pilcher as a "true leader" of the industry. It is Pilcher's willingness to take calculated risks that impresses Olin.

"He was able to take a 100-year-old business and turn it into a state-of-the-art, highly competitive facility that is growing fast in one of the toughest segments of the printing industry today," Olin notes. "That Dave had the vision to see opportunity in a place where many only saw risk is a testament to his leadership and skills. The industry needs more people like Dave Pilcher if it is to survive and thrive in the future."

From an association standpoint, Pilcher has been active in the PIA with both the Printing Industry of Illinois and the Printing Industries of Ohio and Northern Kentucky. In 2012, he was honored by PIANKO with the Franklinton Award.

Jim Cunningham, president of Printing Industries of Ohio and Northern Kentucky, counts Pilcher as a good friend and is extremely impressed by his business creativity. When PIANKO sponsored the Ohio state fair, Pilcher was one of the first to step up and donate considerable resources to the fair's program.

"He's an industry leader, someone who is committed and concerned about the industry," Cunningham says. "That comes across in all walks of his life. The man bleeds ink, but he truly cares about people. He's very open to providing his experience and anything he can do to help others.

"Every time I visit his facility, I feel like I'm walking into a friend's home."

On the personal side, Pilcher has been married to his wife Jean for the past 46 years. In addition to David Jr. and James, they have a daughter, Elizabeth (who works part-time for the printer). All told, Jean and Dave Pilcher have 11 grandchildren.

Having seen his reclamation project turn into a family business has been most gratifying for Pilcher. And the best may be yet to come.

"We're enjoying the most exciting and explosive time in my entire career," he concludes. "We're doing that by expanding our business, in spite of these difficult times. Having my kids with me to experience this is very satisfying." PI


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