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2008 Printing Industry Hall Of Fame : 2008 HOF -- From Grip to Graphics Arts

October 2008 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
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NO ONE can blame Michael Keene for having grandiose dreams. Who among us, in our youth, didn’t dream of becoming a professional athlete, a rock star, an astronaut, or perhaps a fireman? Maybe that dream was to run away and join the circus.

Keene started working toward his quest of becoming a filmmaker after getting a BA in studio art from the University of Minnesota. He managed to get a job as a grip (moving equipment around) with a film company. The gig paid $1.50 an hour, not exactly big bucks even in the early 1970s. Plus, he had a young wife and child to support.

On the other hand, Keene was making $3 an hour working in shipping and receiving at The John Roberts Co., a printing firm co-owned by his father, Robert Keene (John Chelberg was the other half of the namesake). Before long, the younger Keene found himself heading up the prepress department. The movie business would take a back seat.

“Making $1.50 an hour as a grip, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to pursue that,” notes Keene, the president and CEO of Minneapolis-based The John Roberts Co. “It took a while to come to the realization that (printing) was what I wanted to do. There was no defining moment...sometimes it’s the things you have no control over that have more of an influence on you.”

The film industry may have lost out on an award-winning director, but look at it this way: Had he opted to make movies, John Roberts would have lost a future leader, and the printing industry would’ve missed out on a 2008 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee. 

Keene, 58, has deftly guided John Roberts, a general commercial printer, into an upper echelon company since taking over as president in 1986. The firm posted sales of $69 million in 2007 to earn a rank of 85 on the Printing Impressions 400 list. But it was Keene who helped guide the company through two events that would’ve spelled the end for many businesses.

“What strikes me about Michael has been his ability to guide John Roberts through some tough economic years and still have a thriving company,” notes John Olson, a sales rep for Midland Paper who has known Keene since 1987.

“He’s done such a fine job growing the company. And people love working there. Everyone talks fondly about John Roberts. It’s one of the nicest places to work in Minnesota, and I attribute that to Michael.”

That reputation didn’t come without some heartache over the years. Keene became vice president in 1981 and, two years later, the company experienced a work stoppage due to a labor dispute. Keene was asked to participate in the negotiations. They broke down and the strike was on, lasting a grueling 14 months.

The job action took its toll on Keene, who was good friends with many among the union’s rank and file. “It was a huge learning experience,” he recalls. “After the third meeting with the union, they were putting up picket signs. I guess I didn’t do a good job.

“I learned a lot about labor law and some other things. Security costs became our highest single cost. Our sales decreased, but we continued operating all 14 months.”

Compounding matters, all supervisors at the time were part of the union, and John Roberts was left without anyone who could run a press. When the strike finally ended, the union voted to decertify. John Roberts has been union-free ever since.

John Roberts survived another punch after 9/11, as roughly 15 percent of its customers were in the travel industry. A decline in sales resulted for the next few years, and Keene found himself in the unenviable position of having to reduce staff. “We did what we needed to do internally to cut costs,” he says. “You learn to survive. You also learn that sometimes you’re not as smart as you think you are.”

Keene cites the company’s employees as being the driving force behind its growth. For proof of growth, look no further than John Roberts’ facility. It measured 40,000 square feet when the printer relocated there in 1974; after several additions, it now stands at 225,000 square feet, with more land for additional expansion available. John Roberts also owns the land and building.

The taste of success is something that does not grow old for Keene, whether it’s the acquisition of a major piece of equipment or reducing makeready waste.

“A couple of days ago, we received a letter from a customer who had a great experience and talked about how great our people are,” he says. 

Mark Carlson, a regional vice president for Heidelberg who has done business with Keene for 25 years, calls Keene an innovator who has always been driven by technology. Keene was among the first companies to install both the Heidelberg XL 105 and the CD 74 presses, and has been utilizing color management tools for many years, Carlson notes.

“Michael’s knowledge of the printing press and costs is just tremendous,” Carlson says. “He was into environmental sustainability before it was a popular thing to do. And about 15 percent of his power supply is from renewable sources. Michael’s out there walking the talk.”

Keene relishes the challenge of consultative selling and the company’s potential for adding value and enabling clients to grow their businesses. Unfortunately, in the commercial space, the process all too often regresses into a pricing game. Going forward, Keene’s goal is to demonstrate to clients John Roberts’ value beyond quoting estimates.

Keene also credits John Roberts’ success to surrounding himself with top-flight salespeople. “Being a visionary is tough; it’s not an easy job,” he notes. “Sometimes, the crystal ball is a little foggy.”

Not surprisingly, Keene relies on the wisdom of his father, Robert, for guidance. Much of what John Roberts embodies from a company culture standpoint is a continuation of what Robert Keene originated when he acquired Ackerman Printing in 1951.

Michael Keene has served on the board of directors for the PIA/GATF, as well as the Printing Industry of Minnesota and the Web Offset Association. He also serves on the Presidents Conference committee. Keene finds it refreshing to see so many printing executives willing to give of their time for the betterment of the industry.

Michael and Ann Marie Keene have been married for about six months. He has two children from a previous marriage—son Koan and daughter Marnie, the latter of which works at John Roberts as a purchasing manager—a stepdaughter (Samantha) and four grandchildren.

Away from the office, Keene is a proud member of the Hamsters USA motorcycle club, which treks to Sturgis, SD, each year for the Sturgis Rally. A traditional skier, Keene gave barefoot water skiing a whirl 10 years ago. 

“It’s really not that difficult, but most people won’t try it because there’s risk involved,” he says. “If you fall at 40 miles an hour, it stings a bit. But that’s what’s cool about it and makes it a little more enjoyable.”

Maybe there’s a future in film yet for a stunt double. PI



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