2004 HALL OF FAME John Bell -- Ethics Really Matter
By Erik Cagle
Truth be known, many customers of The Ovid Bell Press in Fulton, MO, never enjoy the opportunity to realize just how honestly and fairly they're being treated.
And that's just fine with President and CEO John Bell—a third generation printer, a man of integrity and honesty, and a 2004 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee. While Bell prefers the problem-free experiences, it is those challenges that arise during the print production process that allow The Ovid Bell Press to showcase its abilities.
"It's that problem we often create in the world of printing that allows us the opportunity to display what we're made of," says the 53-year-old. "Nowadays, you don't hear many people stand up and take responsibility for their actions, but I think our customers appreciate our candor. Honor plays a big part in our company's business ethics. We want to be sure that we're very honest and fair with our customers."
The Ovid Bell Press is deceiving; it smacks of a small-town community printer, yet the 120-employee sheetfed and web shop is a publication printer with a national scope. Of the 200 regular short-run magazines and periodicals it churns out every month, only 20 customers are in-state. Associations, medical publishers and special interest magazines, journals and newsletters constitute The Ovid Bell Press' primary clientele.
The printing industry has the failed political aspirations of "Silver Dick" Bland to thank for The Ovid Bell Press' contributions in short-run publications. As some followers of late 19th century U.S. politics are well-aware, Rep. Richard P. Bland (D-MO)—a.k.a. Silver Dick or Honest Dick, who gained notoriety for the 1878 Bland-Allison Act that brought us the Morgan silver dollar coin—made a run at his party's 1896 presidential nomination. He ultimately lost to fellow Democrat William Jennings Bryan (who himself was to presidential bids what the Buffalo Bills were to Super Bowl bids: wildly unsuccessful). Three years later, Bland died.
Ovid Bell was the secretary to Bland and had high political aspirations himself. So when Bland's presidential bid failed and the candidate passed on, Ovid Bell's future in politics slipped away, as well. Ovid's father pulled some strings and landed him a newspaper job and, shortly after the turn of the century, the younger Bell bought one of the community's two newspapers. But Ovid soon saw a brighter future in printing publications for outside concerns, so he sold the paper and formed The Ovid Bell Press in 1924.
Eighty years later, John Bell finds himself at the helm of a staunch family tradition. During his youth, though, Bell didn't view commercial printing in terms of being his destiny.
Can't Fight History
"I rebelled against it," he recalls. "My plan was to travel to South America. I started working in earnest after school to get together enough money so I could go out and seek my fortune. Here I am, 31 years later, and I still haven't gotten the money together to go anywhere," he quips.
There was probably no escaping the commercial printing industry anyway; the day Bell entered the world, his older sister went around town announcing "John Ovid Bell Press had been born." But it would be 14 years before Bell would work alongside his father, Ovid H., cleaning the space bands on the Linotype machines.
After the desire to find riches in South America subsided, Bell nonetheless found himself challenged upon joining the family business in 1973. It soon became clear that The Ovid Bell Press was in need of more advanced equipment.
"It was an interesting and exciting challenge, making the transition from being a two-color flatbed letterpress printer to a viable sheetfed offset printer and, ultimately, a web printer," he says. "In my early years, I was pounding the pavement trying to sell flatbed letterpress printing, but no one wanted to buy that. I quickly recognized where we needed to go, but didn't have the capital reserves to make the transition."
Once the necessary capital was in place, The Ovid Bell Press enjoyed a technological growth spurt during the 1970s. Its sheetfed offset capabilities were then augmented in 1994, in the face of dwindling market share to its web brethren.
"During the recessionary period in the late '80s and early '90s, the market softened rather dramatically and many web printers, in desperation, were taking all the web work they could get," Bell recalls. "Therefore, we lost many of our larger customers in that soft period. We very quickly recognized, from a competitive standpoint, that we had to defend ourselves and make ourselves more marketable at the same time."
Bell became president of the company in 1989 and continued to grow the business with his father and mentor, Ovid, at his side. They endured the growing pains and changing technologies, adapting and learning together, until the elder Bell passed away in 1998.
Since they experienced the printing revolution together, it wasn't the X's and O's of printing that Ovid passed along to his son. What the younger Bell learned could be applied from one generation to the next without fear of antiquation.
"My father and I were blessed with a very good, solid relationship, which is uncommon in many family businesses. What he taught me about printing was not substantial...what he really taught me was how to conduct myself, how to conduct business and how to be honest and fair, not only with customers, but employees, as well.
"Honor is really the most important part of business and knowing, when you walk out the door, that you have done your best to serve your customers honestly and fairly. There is no greater reward than that feeling," he says.
This high degree of ethics is particularly apparent to those who do business with Bell, including Tom Fascetti, national account manager for paper vendor Unisource. "John brings great leadership, vision and ethics to the table," he explains. "John is one of the few still in the business to whom these words really mean something—he's that kind of guy."
Steve DiGiulio, vice president and general manager for fellow paper vendor Shaughnessy Kniep Hawe, sees Bell as a tough businessman, as well as a gentleman of high integrity.
"John's not a pushover. He gives you the information you need, but if you can't make it happen for him, he'll take his business elsewhere," DiGiulio remarks. "I like doing business with him because he's fair, but firm. He says what he's going to do and does what he says—and you can take it to the bank. He knows the true sense of partnership, where all parties profit."
Bell is quite fond of the people behind his success: the employees of The Ovid Bell Press. His favorite day is the monthly employee meetings, where the shift workers are divided into groups to sit down with their boss and discuss what's happening in the company.
Aside from kinship, Bell takes his obligation to make the right decisions seriously, as those decisions affect each of the 120 people that make up the company. But it's not just an issue of right and wrong or ethics. It's more a question of making the right equipment decisions, and the potential for dark paths down which printers can be led.
Smaller printers, Bell notes, cannot afford the type of mistakes that can be compensated for by their larger, national colleagues. "In the printing industry, technology is everything," he says. "I experienced what it was like to be technologically outdated when I began my career. That's the shortest route to disaster available to us in this industry. But, in today's industry, there are many different avenues that are available, and selecting that right avenue is critical. Smaller printers cannot afford mistakes; they must pick the right directions."
Bell is active within his local PIA affiliate, the Printing Industries of St. Louis. A golfer in what meager spare time Bell can find, he and his wife Jerrie have been married for 12 years. He has five children; a son and his future son-in-law already work within the family business.
"I don't get out on the links as often as I'd like," Bell says, citing the work and family commitments. "That's going to change."