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William L. Davis - Donnelley's Number-one Son

January 1998
AT&T's decision to hire John R. Walter away from R.R. Donnelley & Sons left Wall Street analysts puzzled. Walter seasoned himself in the commercial printing industry, they noted, not the field of telecommunications. For that reason, the experts deemed AT&T's president unqualified.

William L. Davis, Walter's successor at R.R. Donnelley, has faced similar scrutiny.

When R.R. Donnelley appointed Davis chairman and CEO, industry insiders scratched their heads. Davis had no prior experience in the graphic arts. What could Emerson Electric's former senior executive vice president possibly do for North America's largest printer?

The same thing he has done for other companies: pinpoint untapped potential in a mature market.

According to Davis, the consolidation and pricing pressures that permeate the printing industry are signs of maturity. And mature industries call for special strategies—strategies that Davis has skillfully developed for two decades.

"Frankly, in the past 20 years, almost all of the sales, marketing and manufacturing positions I've held have been in what you would call mature industries," he explains. "And all of the companies I have been with have done extremely well. There is a lot of opportunity in mature industries to differentiate yourself—to provide value to your customers and, therefore, provide value to your stakeholders."

Davis may possess the talents R.R. Donnelley needs in a chairman and CEO, but he admits that he didn't initially see himself as a likely candidate. A recruitment firm saw otherwise. Charged with finding an heir to Walter, the executive search company contacted Davis.

"My first reaction was surprise that somebody in the printing industry would be interested in somebody with my experience," he says. "Remember: I didn't understand printing very well."

The Right Man for the Job
Although caught off guard, Davis agreed to a preliminary interview. After meeting with the board, he realized his background would serve him well in the company's top spot.

The directors told Davis about the challenges associated with the position. Later, they would also candidly discuss the two discrimination suits filed against R.R. Donnelley.

"I was assured by the directors, who obviously looked hard at this subject, that these suits were essentially without merit," Davis says.

The lawsuits trace their roots back to 1993. That was the year Donnelley shut down the facility responsible for printing the defunct Sears catalog. The lawsuits came years after, from former employees who felt they were laid off unfairly.

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