Marty Liebert, Freedom Graphic Systems, Earns a Spot in the 2014 Printing Industry Hall of Fame
Marty Liebert's moment of clarity came around the age of 20. It was on the morning he had to rise before 5 a.m. to repossess someone's automobile. He learned a lot that day. Among the nuggets of wisdom was the realization that the deadbeat owner of that vehicle couldn't afford to make those car payments, but unfortunately he sure could afford the shotgun he was waving at Liebert as he chased the car down the driveway.
When the bullets started flying, Liebert experienced a full-blown epiphany. This particular job—as a collections specialist for renown high-risk auto loaner General Finance—wasn't cutting it.
"After the guy shot at me, I went back to General Finance and gave them my keys. I couldn't take it," Liebert admits.
The collections world's loss was the printing industry's gain. Liebert, the founder, president and CEO of Freedom Graphic Systems, has built his direct mail empire from scratch to the $145 million mark in less than 30 years. He dodged a few business bullets in the process, and it has earned him a place among the 2014 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame induction class.
The sales plateau also lands Freedom Graphic Systems into lofty company with direct mail heavyweights such as Quad/Graphics, RR Donnelley, Japs-Olson and IWCO Direct—all firms with much deeper histories than Liebert's business. Even more impressive is the firm's resilience; after losing upwards of 60 percent of its revenue during the 2008-2009 Great Recession, the firm rebounded 18 months later to have its best-ever performance.
"We had to look in the mirror and decide what we were doing right, and what was wrong," Liebert admits. "We needed to do something, quickly, and the challenge was to recreate ourselves. We closed our California plant, and we looked at our managers and our equipment. Companies generally aren't interested in buying equipment when they're struggling.
"The bad news was, we lost a lot of money, but the good news is, we recovered in 18 months and the following year was our best year ever. What we put into place, in that time, was the best thing I ever did. Our margins increased; actual production numbers went down, but profitability went up."
Drawn to the Country
During his formative years, Liebert was a child of two worlds. Reared in Chicago, the youngest of five children, city life didn't appeal to him. His father hailed from Louisville, KY, and the family would spend weekends in the country at an uncle's farm in Johnsburg, IL. It was also there that Liebert cultivated a love of horses, which he turned into a business after his family moved out to Dundee, IL. There, on the family's 12-acre hacienda, he bought and bred horses, which he would later sell.
After graduating from high school, Liebert tried his hand at program analysis courses in college. Outside of math and programming subjects, however, school failed to hold his interest. After the General Finance gig went south, he set his sights on becoming a retail store manager and became a training manager for a shoe store. But 80-hour weeks and low pay soon soured Liebert.
Liebert later sold one-time use carbon paper to the business forms industry, and it was during this time that several forms customers/business partners determined there was an increasing demand to provide cut sheets for high-speed laser printers. So he bought two four-color Didde presses and churned out roll-to-roll and roll-to-sheet product. When Liebert debuted Freedom Graphic Systems in 1986, his four partners in the business were previously his customers.
"Banks and institutions operated these machines, but they generated a lot of heat, and heat isn't paper-friendly," Liebert remarks. "It also melted the ink. We thought we could build a business that specialized in cut sheets for high-speed laser printers and selling to the trade, which were business forms distributors."
Two elements that helped spark growth for Freedom Graphic Systems in the formative years were electronic imaging and single-source production. On the latter count, Liebert wanted to be able to control cost, quality and turnaround times.
"We wanted to do everything under one roof, and under our control," he says. "The only time we failed to deliver on time was when we were relying on outside help. In 1996, I bought a lettershop and started developing an in-house operation. We let the industry dictate where they wanted us to go. All we did was listen."
Prince of Postal Savings
When Freedom Graphic Systems entered the world of commingling around 2003, it relied on a third-party provider and got burned. Now it's done in-house. That first year of commingling, Freedom saved its financial services clients upwards of $6 million in postage alone…which is a lot of stamps, so to speak.
Liebert notes the initial goal of the ownership team was to run Freedom Graphic Systems for 10 years and then find a buyer for the business. In his heart, Liebert knew that having four partners (one sold his share quite early) were four too many. Instead of following the group to a new venture, he began buying out each shareholder. The process started in 1997 and was completed in 2002.
"The company was young, and hadn't taken off," Liebert remarks. "I had to find some patient and conventional money from a financial institution and the balance from my remaining partners via personal notes. In six years, the notes and patient money were paid off, and it was the best thing I ever did."
As run counts continued to grow, Liebert sought to add more facilities in order to deliver in a timelier fashion. A plant was opened in Texas and another came on line in California to go with the Milton, WI, headquarters and Aurora, IL, facilities. And when the Great Recession transpired, Liebert had to look deep within to find the answers. Fortunately, his father had instilled self-sufficiency and survival instincts in him. The lessons were learned at a young age.
"When we moved out into the country when I was young, every weekend my dad and I worked together," he recalls. "He always said, 'You never quit until the job's done.' I'd say, 'Geez dad, it's 10:30 p.m.; let's call it a night.' But we had to get the job done that night. That's the kind of philosophy I still have; I work until it's done."
Liebert thrives off the challenges that accompany each day and loves the fact that he has two families—blood relatives and the "ones inside these four walls." He wants his employees to grow individually, in addition to contributing to the Freedom Graphic Systems team. Seeing new cars in the company parking lot reinforces the belief in that personal growth. That loyalty is reciprocated. Retirement is the No. 1 cause of turnover. The grass is greenest inside Freedom's fence.
Dennis Barnes, president of the KBM Group and a client for the past eight years, notes that the Marty Liebert that clients see is the same person in front of Freedom Graphic Systems' employee base. "He's the same person professionally and personally—what you see is what you get," Barnes notes. "He's a smart business man and a passionate family man. He's an all-around good person.
"I've talked to people who work for Marty, and they say he's like a father figure, a great mentor. I can see why they'd think that, too."
Carol and Marty Liebert have been married for 41 years. Their oldest son, Scott, works at Freedom. The Lieberts also have two daughters, one of which recently married, and three grandchildren.
Horses are still a passion for Liebert, who enjoys breeding and showing them. He currently owns six, and his children enjoy working with them, as well.
Liebert also enjoys the links. "I used to be good at golf, but now I stink," he confesses. "I'm under 100. Is that good? No." PI