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DON WALSWORTH III -- Selling Peace of Mind

September 2003
By Erik Cagle


The truth of the matter: Don Walsworth III is not in the printing business. His true line of work is security.

Sure, the 69-year-old Walsworth, a 2003 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee, has been involved in the family business, Walsworth Publishing, for a majority of its 65 years. And while ink on paper is the final product, the goods that he truly peddles are satisfaction and peace of mind. This is especially important to customers who are, by and large, wet behind the ears.

It's not that the customers are naive. They're high school students who have found themselves in the publishing business for the first, and most likely last, time in their lives. They are members of their high school's yearbook staff, which has an annual turnover near 100 percent. Thus, it falls upon Walsworth Publishing to bring its own educational component to the fray.

"One of the key factors is simplicity. We try to make it as easy as possible for customers to perform whatever they have to do, be it commercial printing or yearbooks," notes Walsworth, the company's president and CEO. "We're not selling printing per se; we're selling security, and that's the philosophy of our company. We have to produce product on time, at the price we quoted and we need to meet the quality expectations of our customers."

Walsworth Publishing is the pride of Marceline, MO, a commercial and yearbook printer that posted sales of approximately $85 million in 2002. The company was started by his father, Don Jr., in 1938 as a vehicle for promoting local theater. His parents staged hometown plays—mother Joy would do the casting and rehearsals while the elder Walsworth sold show bills and advertising for the bills. In addition to the bills, the Walsworths also printed cookbooks compiled by relatives.

A Mover and Shaker

Don Walsworth contributed to the family business as early as his elementary school years. The play bills were produced via a photographic method using paper film, and Walsworth would shake 30 one-gallon jugs of hypo and 15 one-gallon jugs of developer every day.

"Man, did I hate doing that," Walsworth laughs. "But once I got into high school, I worked on making plates and became pretty efficient at that."

The Walsworths found another outlet for selling advertising in the form of yearbooks. In its nascency, the concept of the yearbook consisted of the printer/publisher selling yearbook advertising in the community, then giving the books to the schools free of charge. After a while, Walsworth Publishing removed itself from the advertising component and focused on selling yearbooks to the schools.

As for Don Walsworth's future, the printing business was pretty much a foregone conclusion. He was an education major at the University of Missouri, where he played guard/forward for the men's basketball team. He broke an arm his sophomore year, putting an end to his playing days. He also took courses on printing at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh.

"Printing had always been what I wanted to do and I enjoyed it," Walsworth recalls. "I focused on it all through my college career. My parents died during my sophomore year. When I came back to work at the company, it was quite small then. It was more of an advertising company, church cookbooks, things of that nature."

Walsworth joined his uncles in running the family company after he graduated in 1957. By 1965, Walsworth Publishing had ventured into commercial printing.

"Yearbooks are cyclical, and we felt we needed to add commercial printing to supplement it," Walsworth explains. "We do yearbooks for more than 5,000 schools each year."

A commercial book division, specializing in high quality, four-color books, was forged in 1974. It also manufactures trade books, military publications, as well as regional government products such as county and city history books.

Rick Jensen, a sales/publications specialist with industry supplier xpedx, has known Walsworth for 22 years and considers him to be a quiet, yet intense, individual.

"He's not a screamer or a yeller, just quietly very aggressive," Jensen says. "Don lets the people who work for him lead the way, then he comes into the picture if things aren't going well. He runs and works out, and always seems to be going from point A to point B quickly."

Educational Leadership

Doug Henry, superintendent of the Tarkio (MO) school district, first met Walsworth while a principal at Brookfield (MO) High School, the same town that houses Walsworth Publishing's prepress facilities. Henry feels Walsworth and his staff go far beyond what is expected of a product and service provider, calling the company an educational partner.

"Don and (son) Ed were the driving force behind our school getting into the graphic arts and offering it as a vocational program," Henry says. "Don invested in our school, giving us computers. He cares about the kids and gives back to the community.

"He gives out six principal awards each year for being a consummate professional," he adds. "That, to me, speaks volumes about Don and his company."

Henry notes that graduating children of Walsworth employees can apply for scholarship money towards college tuition. To date, the company has given out more than $800,000 toward students' tuition.

Big Investments

Now boasting nearly $85 million in sales, Don Walsworth (seated) and son Don Jr. have led Walsworth Publishing to become much more than just a producer of high school yearbooks.
Perhaps the primary challenge Walsworth faces is the pace of technology and the cost of maintaining the highest level it offers. In the last three-plus years, the company has invested more than $30 million.

"If you don't stay on the cutting edge, I'm afraid you'll get lost in the shuffle," Walsworth maintains. "We have great people here analyzing it constantly. A couple of our employees concentrate solely on new products, methods, new techniques and material. They travel the country and the world to do that, and that's how we stay abreast of the market.

"We provide sheetfed, web and digital printing. Most of our information comes in as PDF files. We're encouraging our schools to submit all of their copy as PDF files, and it's a big challenge to stay up with technology. The key word for us, again, is to simplify the process. We have 29 programmers working in our Kansas City office, doing nothing but taking existing programs and making them more customer-friendly. I think we're accomplishing that."

Walsworth stresses the importance of reminding employees how valued they are for their contributions to the final product—an aspect of employee relations that he feels is often overlooked. Bringing down the corporate barriers even more is the Walsworth Community Center in Marceline, and the company is also a major sponsor of the Brookfield YMCA.

A strong presence in his community, Walsworth has also served as mayor of Marceline.

"I love everything about my job," Walsworth remarks. "I've never considered retirement and don't plan to. I still find it challenging because of the nature of what we do.

"We've been innovative in various technologies. We've been pioneers in many different areas: page pagination, complete pagination, eight-up film, computer-to-plate and now computer-to-press. We've been innovators, not followers. We maintain an entrepreneurial atmosphere here. We're somewhat of a risk taker, but we want the rewards, too."

Having bolstered the company's leap from a mom-and-pop operation to a 1,500-employee-strong organization with a startup company in Scotland and a publishing company in Virginia Beach, there are ample reasons for Walsworth to be proud. "What I'm most proud of is how the employees of our organization have handled change—with enthusiasm, vision and foresight," Walsworth says. "To a lot of companies, change is a bad word. That's not been the case with our company."

An avid golfer who also jogs six miles a day, Walsworth and his wife, Audrey, have three children—Lynn, Ed and Don Jr. Don Jr. spent 14 years on the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tour.
 

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