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

After trying barefoot skiing 10 years ago, Michael Keene admits to being hooked by its adventure.

Michael Keene (second from right) stands alongside his new bride, Ann Marie, and other family members following the Keenes' wedding.

Michael Keene

Michael Keene enjoys riding his motorcycle.

“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.”

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