2012 Hall of Fame : Carl Gerhardt - Exuding Trust and IntegrityOctober 2012 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
Never underestimate the networking potential of a party. One never knows when a little light conversation over a few hors d'oeuvres and some drinks can turn into a life-altering event. Just ask Carl Gerhardt.
It was the mid-1980s. Gerhardt, who grew up on a central Missouri farm, graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in agriculture economics and had spent nearly 20 years in the agri business. He had done well for himself. But, this was a recessionary period, and the farm equipment industry had been impacted severely. Three years of successive contractions—10 percent to 15 percent layoffs annually—left Gerhardt at a crossroads.
Sensing a career change was in order, Gerhardt and his wife, Judy, attended a party. They fell into conversation with another couple who, a year earlier, had purchased a quick printing franchise. The couple simply gushed about their new venture. The Gerhardts made for a rapt audience. This was an ah-hah moment for them.
"They seemed to be doing well and were excited about their business," Gerhardt explains. "As we left the party that night, they drove off in a Mercedes and we drove off in my company car, which was not a Mercedes."
Judy, a graphic artist whom Gerhardt had met at work, loved the thought of working with her husband in the quick printing business, which ironically had been growing at 10 percent to 15 percent a year. They also shared a dream of living in Colorado.
Within three months, in 1985, the Gerhardts trekked off to Colorado Springs, CO, as the proud new owners of an American Speedy franchise. Instead of the franchise serving as an occupation destination for Gerhardt, it stood as a jumping off point. It paved the way to a career that saw him play a prominent role in propelling the Allegra Network to one of the nation's Top 25 printers, reaching a peak of $371 million in network sales for 2008. That alone is enough to punch his ticket as a 2012 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee.
Moving Up the Ranks
Gerhardt presided over the height of Allegra Network's success, having taken the helm as president in 2004. Three years later, he added CEO to his resumé before transitioning into chairman in 2011, with Mike Marcantonio—who spearheaded the management buyout of the Plymouth, MI-based franchise in 2000—expanding upon his role by becoming CEO.
"Helping our franchise members successfully and profitably grow their companies is certainly the most rewarding aspect of the job," Gerhardt notes. "The same is true of our staff members. Helping them grow in their careers is very rewarding.
"What's challenging, though, is seeing people stagnate in their companies or careers and then having to face the tough decisions that come with helping them exit their companies or their careers. It's not easy, but necessary if one is to maintain a successful company. Not everyone is going to make it."
Gerhardt knows all too well the difficulty in pulling the trigger on change. He'd become an accomplished executive in the agri business—first with Ralston Purina in sales and marketing for the animal feed and supply aspect, then Alfa Laval, where he started out as sales and marketing director before shifting to vice president and general manager. As a husband and father, the constant relocations—St. Louis, Atlanta, Connecticut and Kansas City—were growing old, as well.
Colorado Springs provided Gerhardt with stability and even more potential for growth. Just two years after acquiring the quick print shop, the master franchise rights to American Speedy were acquired by Bill McIntyre, who asked Gerhardt to help him at the corporate level by assisting fellow franchise owners, while still operating his own Colorado Springs shop.
"I became vice president of the Western Division and served somewhat as a 'have gun, will travel,' consulting with franchise members all over North America," Gerhardt notes. "I was back in the corporate world again, but continued to develop my center in Colorado Springs along with my corporate responsibilities."
McIntyre was critical to Allegra Network's success early on, saving it from going under by taking it through bankruptcy reorganization in 1992. The American Speedy brand changed to Allegra Print & Imaging (now Allegra Marketing•Print•Mail) as the focus shifted away from the basic quick printer model. Franchise acquisitions netted Allegra Network such brands as Quick Print, Zippy Print (in Canada) and Insty Prints. By obtaining Signs Now in 2005, Allegra was able to tap into large-format and signage. Sales catapulted from $190 million to $370 million. Gerhardt made his own deal in 1996, acquiring a company that helped push his center's sales to the $2 million mark.
"Although Bill did not come from the printing industry, he had a profound influence in both my professional and personal life," Gerhardt says of McIntyre. "He was a great leader who led by example. He is man of uncompromising integrity who also had the skills and courage to run an organization and attract others to work with him. I often said that there were two things I would never do. One was that I wouldn't leave Colorado and the second was that I would never sell my center. Well, Bill convinced me to do both."
Giving Back to the Industry
Gerhardt sold his center to "sweat equity" partner Brad Rhodes and moved to Michigan in 2004. And, while the transition to Allegra board chairman is a changing of the guard, Gerhardt remains a significant force in the industry. In past years, he has served in a number of capacities with the Printing Industries of America (PIA) and the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL). He was on the board for PIA Mountain States and chaired the National Association of Quick Printers (now part of NAPL).
His industry involvement has helped enrich the lives of others, according to Brenda Kai, executive director of the Electronic Document Scholarship Foundation (EDSF), for which Gerhardt has served in numerous capacities. "When you mention the name Carl Gerhardt, the faces and stories of hundreds of students who received scholarships from the EDSF immediately jump to mind," Kai remarks.
"Carl's tireless contributions as a board member, executive vice chair and chairman of the development committee, and activist on behalf of EDSF cannot be understated. These students are part of his amazing legacy and will leave an incredible footprint as they become young leaders in our industry."
Some of Gerhardt's biggest advocates are, in fact, his competition. Take Rich Lowe, president and COO of Franchise Services Inc., the franchise home of (among others) Sir Speedy. Not only does Lowe sit on the EDSF board with Gerhardt, but the two men get together annually and share information of common interest.
"Carl has led American Speedy and Allegra with tremendous integrity," Lowe says of his friend and industry contemporary of more than 20 years. "He represents our industry extremely well and is a consummate professional. He is a sincere advocate for supporting EDSF and, on a personal note, Carl is just one of those people that you naturally trust. He's a hard working guy. I couldn't hold him in higher regard. Carl is a special man."
A familiar face in the printing industry blogosphere, including a popular blog on PIworld.com, Gerhardt has not been afraid of tangling with supplier-based issues, helping to bring about changes that have been beneficial to the industry at large, not just Allegra Network. "We have taken on Adobe, Xerox, Canon, HP and others when they have done things that are not consistent with being key suppliers to the print-for-pay market," he says. "And, to the credit of our suppliers, they have reacted and changed these programs when our industry became proactive."
Carl and Judy Gerhardt recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. They have one daughter, Brenda, and two grandchildren. Brenda is married and lives in California with husband Tony, son Nicholas and daughter Sophia, who the Gerhardts visit frequently.
For fun, he's caught the wine-making bug during the past 10 years, bottling about 200 to 300 units annually (fortunately, Gerhardt had a wine cellar built into his new home). He also maintains strong ties with his German relatives, who are equally avid in the wine-making department.
Golf and classic automobiles are also passions for Gerhardt. The former owner of a 1957 Chevy pickup truck, he now enjoys puttering around in a 1948 Chevy Fleetmaster two-door coupe. In late August, the Gerhardts took in the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, a classic car event that draws in excess of a million people.
"I haven't spent a lot of time on any of these diversions, but I'll have enough time to tinker around with those hobbies as I phase into retirement," he says, noting that he'll likely transition into either retirement or a reduced capacity at the end of 2013. PI