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WOA 50th ANNIVERSARY -- Sowing The Seeds

May 2002
By Caroline Miller

In 1952, a handful of web offset printers got together in a hotel room in Chicago during the NAPL Expo. Those men were not only the pioneers that would help promote the then-fledgling web offset industry in the United States, they would also be the founding members of the Web Offset Association (WOA), the largest heatset offset printing organization in the world, says WOA Executive Director Tom Basore.

"It really was the early days of heatset web printing in this country," notes Basore, who himself remembers—during his days working in the heatset web offset department at McCall's Printing in Dayton, OH—being told by an old-time letterpressman "Young man, get out of the heatset business."

But the pressman was wrong because the industry soon took off and so did the organization.

The startup association held its first formal meeting in 1953, with just 18 people in attendance. At that time, the group estimated that there were only 50 heatset web installations in the country.

And the issues that the association tackled at its first meeting were surprisingly similar to today. Among the challenges discussed were labor issues, air conditioning in the pressroom, blistering on coated stocks, as well as moisture issues encountered during storage and handling. "It's really just fascinating to look over the old minutes," adds Basore.

Soon after the first meeting, the association became affiliated with the Printing Industries of America.

Getting Technical

The association also realized the need for more information on technical issues, so one of the first orders of business was to develop the WOA's now-famous annual conference to improve both education and networking opportunities within the industry. As the group continued to meet each year, attendance grew and the heatset web printing industry continued to supplant letterpress.

The first administrator for the organization was George Mattson, who served from 1953 through 1978. Then came Edward Hill as the association's executive director.

By May of 1970, the association boasted 500 conference attendees and 280 vendors. By then, there were also an estimated 680 web presses installed throughout the United States. Today, since there are no WOA membership dues involved, and since any heatset web printer or industry supplier may utilize any of the products and services offered by the association, there is no accurate count as to just how many members actually belong to the group.

Tom Quadracci, executive vice president of Quad/Graphics and in-coming WOA board president, remembers a story his father, Harry R., told him about the early days of the Web Offset Association. "It was during the time when web offset wasn't supposed to be able to print high-quality work. At one meeting, my father brought a copy of Arizona Highways (a high-end publication) and informed the group that the magazine had been produced on a web offset press.

"They didn't believe him, so he had to go back to the plant, get the printing plates and put them back on the web press," Quadracci continues.

"This way he could show them the untrimmed web signatures to prove that it had indeed been produced on a web offset press. It proved to be a milestone in the way people thought about the web offset industry and what could be done," he says.

While the WOA helped to move the industry toward increased acceptance of the web offset process, it also earned a reputation over the years as being a rather "wild and wooly" social organization, as well.

Social Club

"Quite franky, in the early 1970s the association meetings were quite social," admits John Tiffany, a past WOA president and a retired senior Banta executive. "There were a lot of attendees who never attended the sessions. All they did was socialize with each other."

Quadracci agrees, adding that during the '70s there were also numerous supplier hospitality suites and that the conference was strictly a men's affair.

However, its primarily social reputation was turning off some attendees. So, in the late 1980s, Basore, who had become the executive director in 1988, began to make some changes to the organization, accordingto Tiffany.

Basore asked Tiffany if he would accept a nomination to the board of directors. "I tried to politely turn Tom down because I felt like I didn't need another social commitment," recalls Tiffany. He also confided in Basore that he felt the organization did not focus enough on serious industry issues.

Basore agreed and told Tiffany that he was working to change the focus of the association, particularly the annual conference.

Basore soon encouraged vendors not to open their hospitality suites during seminar hours. He also improved the caliber of conference sessions and worked earnestly to strengthen the WOA's supplier advisory board. "That vendor advisory group has become absolutely essential to the association over the years," Tiffany adds.

Basore agrees. "The vendors have done a heck of a job over the past 10 to 15 years," he praises. "They've really raised the bar in the heatset industry."

Getting Stronger

The result is that the new and improved association came back stronger than ever. By the early 1990s the association's conference attendees peaked at 1,500 registrants. "We had a mild recession in 1991, and we dropped down some, but we've grown back up to about 1,100 participants," Basore says.

"We've seen a real growth in interest from European, South American and Japanese web printers. We are really seeing the growth of heatset web printing all over the world," he continues.

"The presses have gotten faster, the quality has gotten even better, and the technology, paper and inks are the best that they've ever been. Web offset printing's cost per page has dropped dramatically and made it competitive with sheetfed offset," states Basore.

In fact, Basore believes that the WOA and the web printing industry are in the midst of a second golden age. "Our first was in the late '50s and '60s when we took over letterpress. Now, we are in another golden age. The new technologies available are just phenomenal," he adds.

Today, the WOA is known worldwide for its world-class conference, its vendor advisory board, the honorary Web Offset Society and its smaller sister association, the WOA coldset association.

The Web Offset Society was developed in the mid-'90s by Tom Brinkman, formerly of Metroweb. According to Tiffany, it provides a place where retired printers can continue to be of service to the industry.

Although he jokingly refers to it as the "old geezer's club," Tiffany explains that the society and the WOA conference provide a wide cross section of industry knowledge and experience that are invaluable.

"It's not just about technical issues, but management issues, as well. And the networking that happens at these meetings should never be underestimated," he notes. "I often learn just as much at a breakfast with my colleagues as I do at an educational seminar."

Long-time Attendee

Frank Stillo, chairman and CEO of Sandy Alexander and past WOA board president, shares the same sentiments. "I've attended the conference over the past 30 years and they have always delivered something of value to me personally, to my peers and to other people in the industry. The association has been very helpful to me in my career. You always come away with new ideas to do your job a little better."

For Michael Winn, a WOA board member and a vice president of manufacturing at R.R. Donnelley, the biggest contribution that the association has made to the industry over the years is knowledge sharing. "It's a wonderful network of people across the entire industry—printers, suppliers and customers. We all have the same challenges, whether they be of a technical or economic nature. It's been a great learning experience."

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