NICHOLAS SIMON -- A Rich Blood Line
Does everyone have a price in the business world? Apparently not. Case in point: Nicholas "Nick" Simon, president of Publishers Press and a 2003 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee.
Simon, 45, tells the story of the acquisition that was not in the cards. In the early portion of the 1990s, a major, billion-dollar national player in the commercial printing industry made overtures about acquiring Publishers Press, based in the Louisville, KY, suburb of Shepherdsville. Simon, another Publishers Press executive and a representative for the suitor met for lunch to discuss the proposal. When Simon excused himself from the table, the suitor asked the Publishers Press rep, informally, 'So, is there any way we can buy the company from this guy?'
"The guy who was with me, my CFO, had worked with my father Frank," Simon recalls. "He told the (would-be buyer), 'With his father, you might have bought it. With Nick, no way.' "
Publishers Press, which posted sales of $161 million in 2002, continues to be privately owned by the Simon family, which opened the business as a small commercial printing operation in 1866. The founder was Nicholas Simon, for whom the current president was named. Being named after a great-great grandfather, and serving as co-custodian (along with brother Michael, a 2002 Hall of Famer) to a 130+-year-old business heirloom is quite an obligation.
Ink in the Veins
"I kicked around the idea of going to law school," Simon admits. "But the family, the tradition, is really important to me. Our blood line in printing mean a lot."
Publishers Press remained a small operation from 1866 until the 1940s, when Frank Simon entered the fray and took the company into magazine printing. Publications represented more stability in contrast to the somewhat inconsistent commercial market of the 1950s. By the '70s, Frank Simon had made the decision to make the switch from sheetfed to web offset printing.
Nick Simon began working with his father as a pre-teen, getting fun money for running various errands. Nick watched with fascination the quest by Barry Goldwater to become president in 1964; a few years earlier his father had printed a book written by Goldwater, "The Conscience of a Conservative," which enjoyed about 10 printings. Though Goldwater was thumped by Lyndon Johnson in that election, the younger Simon saw the power of the printed word in action.
Simon attended Catholic schools growing up, then went on to Northwestern University, where he majored in history. After working at Publishers Press in the summers of his high school and college years, he joined the staff full-time upon graduating Northwestern in 1981.
Frank Simon passed away in 1990, the same year that Publishers Press added a facility in nearby Lebanon Junction, KY. That has enabled the company to build upon what Frank Simon accomplished.
"When I started in 1981, we had 275 employees. When my father passed away, we had 750," notes Simon of the now 1,600-employee operation. "There were many tough times—some lean years in the 1960s and early 1970s—and my father was in a lot of debt. Then he got involved in short-run printing and was one of the pioneers of running short-run magazines on web presses in the late '60s to early '70s. The 1970s and 1980s were a great time of growth for the company.
"The second plant worked out well. We pooled our mail and used common maintenance staffs. It's only 12 miles away, and we're hard wired between them with fiber optics that provide infinite bandwidth. There are a lot of synergies between the two facilities."
Being privately held is a big advantage, according to Simon, providing for more flexibility and greater accountability at higher levels. "It makes us a lot more nimble," he says. "If a customer has a problem, they can call one of the owners—my brother or I—and we can straighten it out. No one person owns most of our competitors, so their structure is a little more cumbersome."
Bolstering the company's outlook even further has been the practice of reinvesting much of Publishers Press' profits back into the business, Simon notes. This has been particularly critical during the current economic downturn.
"This has been the toughest market we've ever faced," he admits. "Even when my father had a rough time financially, the market was growing. I now face tougher competition than he did. Most of the larger printers weren't really involved in short runs while he was alive. My father competed against companies more his size, but now competing against billion-dollar companies in a down market makes it a little tougher and really squeezes our margins. We're probably one of the last mom-and-pop shops left in the magazine business."
The economy has tested Publishers Press' creativity—customers are enticed with competitive terms and flexibility that publicly traded companies would not dare touch. "We've been pretty good about this, working through a depression in the magazine business the past three years."
That type of understanding and business compassion stems from the family atmosphere that's been fostered at Publishers Press. "I love the family tradition that we've established here," he says. "Every year, we have 50 to 60 new babies among our employees. Husbands and wives have met each other here. Whenever I sign a baby card, I feel like we've helped make the world a better place."
Larry Porter, a field representative for the web offset division of INX International Ink—and a Publishers Press vendor for 25 years—sees Simon as a strong family man with unbreakable ties to his company.
"Nick has always been a very trustworthy, caring and sincere individual," Porter says. "As a leader, I'm impressed with the way he communicates with his managerial team, and how he gets their cooperation and loyal support. He has a cohesive group of managers around him."
Similarly, it is those people skills and an ability to assemble a quality team that enables Simon to form lasting bonds with customers, according to Ken Perrine, senior account manager for Tembec Paper and a friend of 20 years.
"Nick is one of the most generous people I've ever met," states Perrine. "He treats employees like they're family. Same with his customers; it's hard for them to leave because, after awhile, they feel like part of the Publishers Press family."
Simon is especially proud of taking the family's business torch and making it burn a little brighter. "We've kept it going and we're showing we are an alternative to the big, publicly traded companies," he says. "The fact that a privately held company is still going strong after 137 years is a nice mark to leave."
Simon enjoys participating in outdoor activities, such as hunting and fishing, and plays racquetball twice a week. An avid reader and self-professed egghead, he subscribes to three newspapers and more than 30 monthly magazines.
Absorbing information has turned Simon into somewhat of a trivia buff. He and six other contestants were the only people to pass a "Jeopardy!" game show test out of several hundred in Chicago. They were the only test takers to get at least 35 questions right out of 50, though he never got called for the show. While a senior at Northwestern, Simon was a member of a runner-up College Bowl trivia team.
The PIA Printing Industry of the South "Man of the Year" in 2002, Simon has been married to wife Nanette for 11 years. They have three children: Anna Louise, Nicholas Francis and Alexander Joseph.