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Retired at 95, Printer Turns 100

August 2003
MILWAUKEE—Five years ago, Arthur Wetzel extended an invitation to Joe Davis, chairman and CEO of Consolidated Graphics.

"Joe, I'd like to invite you to my 100th birthday party," remarked Wetzel.

Davis, who had just purchased Wetzel Brothers from Wetzel, assured him, "I'll be there."

Wetzel joked, "I hope I am."

On August 15, Wetzel got his wish as he arrived at his 100th birthday celebration—attended by family and friends—in a vintage Rolls Royce once owned by the late Shah of Iran.

Wetzel, who retired from the printing industry only five years ago with the sale of his company to Houston-based Consolidated Graphics, has spent 80-plus years as a commercial printer.

Arthur Wetzel grew up in the printing industry. His father and uncle founded Wetzel Brothers in 1885. As German artisans they settled in Wisconsin. Wetzel Brothers began providing printed letterhead and business cards, and eventually became a leading printer of multicolor sheetfed lithography.

Arthur worked part-time in the family business before heading off to college. "I worked part-time during the summer in the typesetting department and would start my day cleaning the floor with an oil mop to keep the dust down. I learned to set type by hand. I really learned the business from the ground up," he recalls.

Wetzel went to work for the family business as a sales rep upon graduation in 1926. In 1938, he began purchasing company stock with an initial investment of $7,000.

"I had a deal with the president of the bank that I would repay the loan at $100 a month. I always made sure that I paid a couple of days ahead so that my credit would be noteworthy."

But, as Wetzel assumed the responsibility of running the company, he realized that he needed help. Wetzel began meeting with other printers to share information on management practices and new technologies at meetings in Washington, DC. Wetzel would often take a "sit-up" train overnight rather than the more expensive Pullman service to Washington, DC, to meet with other like-minded printers.

The group was the forerunner of today's Printing Industries of America (PIA). "I even remember when they illustrated the concept of budgeting at a meeting by setting up milk bottles and dividing change among them," laughs Wetzel.

The networking and plant visits that grew from his interactions inspired Wetzel to grow his business.

At one evening session, Gaylord Donnelley of RR Donnelley told Wetzel, "Remember, when you stand at the end of a four-color press you are examining finished copy. You know at that time that the color is complete and in register." Wetzel was impressed with his analysis. "I went home and ordered the Miehle Co. of Chicago to convert my two-color press into a four-color press, the first in Milwaukee," Wetzel remembers. Always believing there was more to learn, Wetzel continued to attend PIA meetings, even serving as the association's national president in 1952.

Wetzel Brothers would also be the first to purchase six- and eight-color presses in its market. "I had an affinity for sheetfed printing. There was a fork in the road where I had to decide whether to invest in sheetfed or web. I had faith that the market would continue to sustain the sheetfed press," he reveals. "I also knew that the web market would take a considerable amount of capital. So we decided to differentiate ourselves in the sheetfed arena by offering high-quality lithography," Wetzel says.

Wetzel eventually sold his company to Consolidated Graphics at the age of 95 because he determined that the additional investment in building and equipment that was becoming necessary would be ill-advised at his age. "Although I had planned ahead and had a long-term lease at a very favorable rate, it had run out because I had not planned to live this long," he notes.

Wetzel said he decided to sell to Consolidated Graphics because he believed that Consolidated would keep the Wetzel Brothers name and continue to carry on Wetzel Brothers' tradition of quality and innovation. Since its purchase, Consolidated Graphics has expanded the operation, added staffing and moved the company into a new 75,000-square-foot facility adjacent to the Airport.

Although Wetzel visits the company from time to time, he now stays busy with his hobbies that include collecting Napoleonic memorabilia. Wetzel and Napoleon share the same birthday, which is what initially inspired him to begin his collection. He also indulges in his passions as a gourmet chef and still attends the Chicago Lyrical Opera on a regular basis with his wife, Heide.

As he sits in the new Wetzel Brothers plant and surveys how far his company and the industry have come in his lifetime, Wetzel continues to be amazed. "A complex point-of-sale program for a national company that would have taken me six weeks to complete just 10 years ago, Wetzel Brothers can now complete in just a couple of days."
 

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