2006 PRINTING INDUSTRY HALL OF FAME — A HOUSEHOLD NAME
IT’S HARD to decide whether Jesse Williamson is an amazing businessman or the everyday guy who shows up at your back door each Friday night for the weekly poker game. In the end, the president of Dallas-based Williamson Printing is probably a little bit of both.
A few years back, Williamson and another member of his company were on the road in New York City, eating at a “foo-foo” Vietnamese restaurant. Sitting at an adjacent table were a pair of strikingly beautiful women and a man whom Williamson assumed (based on his attire) was an airplane pilot. The two tables started chatting, inquiring as to their respective vocations, and Williamson learned the women were world-class fashion models.
Gesturing toward the man sitting with the women, Williamson asked which airline the man flew for, causing the ladies to laugh heartily.
“Don’t you know who Ralph Lauren is?” one of the women asked, outing the world-renowned clothing designer.
“Sorry Ralph,” a sheepish Williamson replied. “You don’t make big boy clothes.”
Williamson may be a good ol’ Texas boy, but he’s a big boy no longer, having shed more than 150 pounds since April of 2005. And his company is as lean and mean as ever, becoming a poster child for the anti-commoditization movement and a force nationally as a leading general commercial printer, with annual sales eclipsing $85 million.
While there may be less of Williamson to love, so to speak, his deft guidance has provided a lot to like about the man and his company. Thus, it is only appropriate that Williamson’s ticket as a 2006 PRINTING IMPRESSIONS/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee be punched.
Jesse is part of the one-two managerial punch at Williamson Printing, working alongside brother and CEO Jerry. The company boasts 70 percent of its business as coming from national accounts, and its technical proficiencies have produced several patents for printing processes that have been integrated by several major manufacturers.
A leading figure for the Printing Industries of America and Web Offset Association, Jesse Williamson is a household name in the industry. Yet, he is at once humble and self-deprecating, a man who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.
Still, Williamson, 58, takes his business and love for printing to heart, an aspect borne through working with his brother and father, Bowen, who purchased the Dorsey Co. in the early 1960s. Williamson grew up in McKinney, TX, about 30 miles north of Dallas. Bowen commuted into the city for 30 years, wanting his children to grow up in a small community.
“I started coming into work with dad around the age of six or seven,” Williamson recalls. “I’d get in everyone’s way and ask questions.”
Upon graduating high school, he enrolled at Southern Methodist University (SMU). He played football and baseball in high school and took to the gridiron at SMU his freshman year, where he lined up as an offensive tackle. An ankle injury derailed any hopes of playing in the NFL, though. “I had no aspirations, really; it was too much work,” Williamson chuckles.
After Bowen purchased the Dorsey Co., his son saw friends going into real estate and investment banking. But Jesse Williamson knew that his true calling was ink on paper. He worked at the plant from an early age, and garnered a wealth of knowledge there during summers while still in high school. Jesse started out in shipping, then migrated to the bindery, pressroom, plate making and stripping.
“I always enjoyed the creativity. It was just a neat business,” Williamson says. “I was lucky that I had the exposure to printing at a young age. I was making sales calls with my dad when I was around 10 or 12. And I was really lucky that my dad and my brother were not only partners, but also my best friends.”
Embracing technology was more than a philosophy for the Williamsons, as much of the printing equipment inherited after the acquisition was antiquated. Bowen immediately moved the company out of its downtown location into a single-story building and replaced a lion’s share of the press gear in the process. New two- and four-color sheetfed presses were obtained and, in the mid-1970s, the company was one of the first in the country to acquire half-web iron.
“It was a gamble back then because not many printers were going with half-webs,” he says. “The half-size really complemented sheetfed and gave us added momentum.”
Williamson has always looked toward the future. About 10 years ago, Heidelberg gave him a toy 13-unit press made out of building blocks, with an inscription that read, “Jesse’s Dream.” Sometimes reality exceeds dreams, as Williamson Printing is in the process of installing a 16-unit Heidelberg sheetfed press.
The company has not only taken advantage of the latest technology being offered, it also has created some of its own, including a patent for integrating metallics with process that allows in-line flexo- graphic printing in front of offset. Other patents include the manufacturing of a wooden puzzle and a magazine insert.
In recent years, however, the most daunting challenges haven’t revolved around keeping pace with equipment. The scourge of commodity pricing and offshore printing have proved viable threats. Williamson won’t back down from this challenge.
“We’re not a commodity printer; we’re a commercial, boutique shop,” he says. “We’ve invested in R&D and have reaped the rewards of the success with various patents. It’s given us a number of unique products that we’re able to sell to our customers, offering things that other printers can’t or won’t do.
“In other industries, even in advertising, they have to fight not to be a commodity. We’re partnering with these people, and we try to meet or exceed their needs. We strive to offer as good, or a better, printing product. And service has to be superior to our competition.”
Williamson idolizes his brother, Jerry—a fellow Hall of Fame inductee—whom he considers not only the smartest executive in the graphic arts business, but a great partner and friend. Jerry has taught his younger brother to focus on details, be it with handling jobs, problems or people. There is also a cosmic balance between the siblings.
“A lot of people say that I’m the gas pedal and he’s the brake,” Jesse quips. “It’s worked out really well for us.”
Don Clampitt, CEO of Clampitt Paper and a 30-year acquaintance, describes Williamson as being passionate, intelligent and innovative. Underneath the easy-going and practical-joking exterior lies a man who is intense, Clampitt notes.
“Jesse has a reputation that is unsurpassed,” Clampitt says. “I’ve always thought that I wanted to be held in the same regard with my customers as Jesse is with his customers.”
Fountain of Information
Lowell Gilbertson, a southwest regional sales manager for Heidelberg USA, feels perhaps Williamson’s greatest asset is his ability to listen to others, backed by a sound knowledge of the industry. “Jesse’s probably forgotten more about printing than most of us will ever know,” Gilbertson says. “He’s a very smart, very creative guy. And that’s why his company is so successful today.”
In addition to his work with industry associations, Williamson was named the 2005 Sheetfed Executive of the Year by the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL) and Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (PIA/GATF).
Williamson enjoys fishing and game bird hunting, the latter of which includes quail and pheasant. As for golf, he enjoys the sport far more than his mid-90s efforts. He has visited many of the world’s more exotic locales and counts Prague as one of his favorite cities.
Jesse Williamson has two daughters, Kate and Laura, along with two grandchildren. He also enjoys the company of his two Labs, Rudy and Bailey. PI
Related story: Williamson PI/RIT Hall of Fame Speech