2012 Hall of Fame : Mike Graff - Answering Print's 911 CallOctober 2012 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
One has to question the sanity of a man who would willingly enter a burning building. Truth be known, it's not all that different from being the chief executive of a printing establishment. Just ask Mike Graff.
The president and CEO of Clifton, NJ-based Sandy Alexander has seen his share of crisis situations during his 33 years in the printing industry, not to mention 27 years as a volunteer fireman. Despite some harrowing moments, Graff has managed to keep his cool and survive both disciplines.
The fire chief of New City, NY's fire department retired recently—he was formerly an emergency medical technician (EMT), as well—but that doesn't mean Graff is letting his guard down. From the moment he took the reins at Sandy Alexander, Graff has needed to rely on quick, but measured, analytical thinking and strategizing to avoid catastrophies of the business variety.
"When you face a life-threatening situation, where someone is depending on you for their survival—whether it's a heart attack or burning building—the training for these rescue situations is really intense," Graff notes. "Firefighters that excel to become officers must have the ability to go into a low gear and process everything very calmly. There are times when people around me in the printing business may become hysterical about an important, critical issue. I say, 'OK, let's analyze, assess and come up with our plan.'
"If you go into a burning building, you need to have a second way out, a secondary attack plan," he adds. "It's the same thing when you face a crisis in business. You have a main attack; but, if that doesn't work, you pivot to your secondary plan of action."
A Multi-Talented Leader
Graff has touched nearly all facets of the printing business: Developing into a highly successful salesman; a student and now teacher for the science of color who helped deliver the industry's GRACoL 7 color management standard; and an executive quarterback who called several audibles during the past five years that have enabled Sandy Alexander to reinvent itself during a period of great industry change and economic instability. With this comes a deserved spot in the 2012 Printing Industry Hall of Fame class.
In a roundabout way, the Bronx-born Graff found his way into the printing industry when he wasn't able to lay his hands on a gun. As a youngster, his father had called while on a business trip, promising he had "picked up another thing for you to shoot with." The gift turned out to be a used camera but, after getting past the initial disappointment, the younger Graff was hooked. It led to his first business venture as a teenager, and a first brush with printing.
"I started photographing real estate listings," Graff recalls. "I would shoot pictures of houses that sold and print postcards on Kodak postcard paper. Then, I'd sell them to the listing agents, who would give the postcards to the new homeowners as gifts. I had a nice little business going."
Graff took that love of pictures to Rochester Institute of Technology, where he initially majored in accounting and minored in photography. He began to fall asleep in accounting classes, and didn't measure up to his classmates on the photography end. His parents insisted that Graff stay and find another academic interest. Fortunately, his college roommate was enrolled in the printing program and convinced him to give it a shot.
"It was love at first sight," Graff admits. "I was doing tone reproduction photography, camera back separations."
Upon graduating, Graff passed up more lucrative job opportunities from major concerns in search of a small, local company that would enable him to get more hands-on experience. He joined Press of A. Colish in Mount Vernon, NY, in 1980. There he met Bob Mark, a plant manager who showed him the ropes and was instrumental to his success.
Graff was elevated to director of sales in 1988. Two years later, when A. Colish merged with two other printers to become Americom Graphics, Graff was appointed senior vice president of sales. All the while, he struck a balance between sales management and his love of technology, particularly prepress and color management. In 1992, he was named senior vice president when Americom joined Sandy Alexander and was later promoted to executive vice president. Graff played a key role in building sales to the $100 million plateau.
The G7 standard had its genesis at Sandy Alexander, in a sense. The printer served as an alpha site as part of The Manhattan Project (along with AGT and Applied Printing Technologies). Graff worked with ICC/G7 guru Don Hutcheson toward the goal of creating a set of "print appearance" standards. Hutcheson's Press2Proof custom gray scale calibration later became G7.
"I get to speak on the subject a lot. It's something that is near and dear to my heart," Graff says of the color management standard.
Responding to Adversity
Graff was named president and CEO of Sandy Alexander in 2008, but the timing was anything but fortuitous. The Great Recession was just beginning to take hold and, beyond that, fundamental changes were altering the way clients, and the general public, viewed the printed piece. Direct mail, in particular, began to take a beating.
Graff didn't rush into this burning building, but he didn't drag his feet, either. While the head count was reduced by 90, the company invested $9 million into the business at a time most printers resembled capex turtles.
"In 2008, I knew what the business plan needed to be," he says. "We moved very quickly. We equipped the sheetfed pressroom with fast-makeready equipment. We also knew that our web offset presses had to focus on shorter runs. We basically re-engineered the entire company, and now the plant is running at 40 percent higher efficiency than before in terms of hours run, impressions run, makeready times and waste factors."
With the litho business no longer boasting broad shoulders, Graff turned to customer surveys, face-to-face discussions and focus groups to get a better pulse of the marketplace. The result: Golden opportunities presented themselves in wide-format printing and retail graphics. A dedicated division serving these markets at Sandy Alexander is now celebrating its second anniversary. The company's digital printing division was also completely revamped, and is growing by leaps and bounds.
Perhaps one of the toughest parts of Graff's job is reconciling the optimistic salesman side of his persona with that of the cold realist manager. "Sometimes, you have to shift from being an optimist to a realist, because what you see isn't pretty," he notes. "You can't just say, 'We're going to sell our way through it.' "
The realist in Graff is also mindful of the impact his decisions have on the lives of his employees, as well as their families. But, that's not necessarily a bad thing, either. He feels indebted to them on many levels.
"Nothing makes me happier than when we have a family event at the company," he says. "Picnics, barbecues, cleanup events around town. When I see the kids and spouses of the people who work with us…it means everything to me to know that we can make their lives enjoyable. But, that responsibility also keeps you up at night; you carry it with you, even on weekends or on vacation."
Tim Fischer, a senior vice president with NAPL who has known Graff for nearly 10 years, feels it's easy to be a fan of the Sandy Alexander executive, given his infectious enthusiasm for the industry.
"Mike is one of the smartest people I know in terms of his knowledge of print, and his ability to bring creative solutions to customers and prospects," Fischer relates. "His enthusiasm and passion for the business is infectious. Mike is respected as a thought leader among his peers, and is considered a fair and thoughtful leader among his colleagues."
Aside from his work with Hutcheson/G7, Graff is involved with the Web Offset Association and serves on the board of New York University's graduate program for graphic communications. He's also a familiar face on the trade show and conference circuit as a speaker. "If they ask, I usually volunteer," Graff admits.
He has a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Melanie, who are both in college. Besides photography, Graff enjoys boating, skeet shooting, skiing and racing. He formerly competed in the Skip Barber open wheel car series and is also an avid motorcycle rider. PI