DONALD ROLAND -- Accentuating Solutions, Not Processes
By Erik Cagle
Providing solutions, as opposed to letting processes define who he is and what he does, is the mantra for Donald Roland.
Roland, the chairman, CEO and president of Baltimore-based Vertis Inc., and a 2003 inductee into the Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame, is a fan of the cutting edge, be it technology or the ways and means of producing advertising product that will make his customers wildly successful. It is a philosophy that has enabled Vertis, which has seen about as many identity changes as the industry itself, to post sales in excess of $1.8 billion in 2002, making it the fifth-largest print solutions provider in North America, according to the most recent PI 400 ranking of top printers.
"One aspect that has sparked our growth is a very strong focus on the customer," Roland says. "It's a make-it-happen, can-do culture. Change has been the only constant we can count on, and we've always sought ways to do things better.
"Vertis is not a company that is tied to a process or to iron. I'm a printer; it's in my background. But I don't run a printing establishment. I run a company that prints because it is the most effective process to help our customers steer people toward their products in stores."
Printing may not rule Roland, but it practically raised him. His earliest childhood memory sees him as a toddler, playing with Linotype slugs in a printing plant while his father, Vernon, operated the Linotype machine.
Roland's father was a true journeyman printer—a news-paper/job shop veteran who bounced from plant to plant in search of an ideal situation. Vernon Roland was a fiery printer with a short fuse. Invariably, the elder Roland would get into a disagreement with the owner of the news-paper or job shop and walk out. His family, which resided in Texas when Donald was born, spent much of his first 14 years living throughout that state, as well as Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.
Donald and his brother, Philip, often worked alongside their father as early as elementary school. That's where he learned the printing business inside and out.
"My father was a real task-master—he would fire my brother and me when we had childhood fights," Roland recalls. "But he raised both of us with a strong work ethic. (Vernon) was an incredibly gifted printer in the classic, old tradition of journeymen who could literally do everything. That part of my childhood was rich in experiences, but lacking in stability and material wealth. We were like nomads, moving almost every year. But I certainly learned the printing business inside and out."
Tragedy struck the Roland family in 1956 when Vernon Roland died in an airplane crash. He had been returning to Texas from New Mexico with a newspaper publisher after having procured parts for a broken Linotype machine. Compounding the emotional loss was the absence of life insurance, leaving the Rolands in a tenuous position. But friends of the elder Roland came together and obtained enough equipment to allow Donald—a high school freshman—and Philip to open their own printing shop.
"We called ourselves 'Roland Brothers,' " Roland recalls. "We subtitled ourselves, 'The youngest businessmen in Texas.' "
The following year his mother remarried and the family relocated to Manhattan Beach, CA. By the time Donald Roland turned 16, he had gained full journeyman capabilities with hand composition, Linotype and all hot-metal applications.
|Don Roland relaxes at his home on the Severyn River in Annapolis, MD. He lives next door to the Naval Academy, and hosts a party every May to coincide with Academy graduation and the Blue Angels' tribute flight.|
"A journeyman Linotype operator could set a galley and a half in an hour," Roland says. "I could set as much as the machine could produce, which was usually two and a quarter galleys."
Journalism appealed to Roland—his uncle, Orville, was editor and publisher of a small-town newspaper in Texas—but he received a full scholarship from Times Mirror Press to take printing management at Cal State/Los Angeles. He graduated with degrees in printing management and economics before earning his master's degree in econometrics from the University of California/Riverside.
Despite the sheepskins, Roland couldn't find a management job; companies were offering trainees a half or a third of what he was earning as a journeyman. With a wife and young child, he couldn't afford the pay cut, so he answered a blind ad that turned out to be for Times Mirror Press itself. The position was for a third-shift Linotype operator, but he grabbed it and quickly worked his way through the company.
In 1967, Roland was asked to manage the transition from hot metal to photo composition. When Times Mirror closed its hot-metal operations, Roland was in charge of the closure as plant manager.
"It was kind of a bittersweet thing," says Roland.
After 17 years with Times Mirror Press, Roland joined Treasure Chest Advertising, an entrepreneurial venture owned by Robert Milhous that had posted sales of $350 million in 1983. Milhous, who had a passion for big boats, was in the process of building the world's largest sloop, according to Roland, and wanted to concentrate on that project. Roland was hired as part of the Treasure Chest transition to a professional management team.
"He's at the top of the list when it comes to leadership ability," Milhous says of Roland. "In a room full of executives, people look to him for answers. He's a remarkable man.
"He's a terrific data gatherer. . .it helps him to make logical business decisions."
Milhous later decided to sell the company to a group led by the late Ted Ammon and, in 1993, Treasure Chest, which had ballooned to 15 plants and $550 million in sales, became the flagship for a M&A concern called Big Flower Holdings. The CEO was Ed Reilly, who oversaw Big Flower and sister companies Webcraft and Laser Tech.
"Talk about someone with ink in his veins," Reilly says. "He lives this business and he loves it. He's great to the people he works with and is effective at mentoring them. Donald brings leadership, commitment and integrity to the table."
Roland continued to scale the mountain, becoming president in 1994, CEO in 1995 and chairman in 2001. The company, too, constantly evolved, going public in 1995 and reaching sales in excess of $2 billion in 1999 before going private again in 1999. The following year, Roland was asked to take over the advertising, printing, premedia and direct marketing assets of Big Flower, which divested itself of other non-core business. The new company, called Vertis Inc., was based on a single platform dedicated to marketing and advertising.
|Don Roland takes his boat, the Jenny Marie, for a spin on the Severyn River. This Boston Whaler is named after his youngest daughter.|
Switching Treasure Chest Advertising to a professional management platform—an entirely different culture from the founder's entrepreneurial philosophy—was one of the stiffest challenges Roland has faced. Another is currently playing itself out at Vertis—creating an integrated advertising products and services company in a downtrodden market.
"The Vertis challenge is a book that's still being written," he states. "We've got an incredible management team that understands our vision. We inherited more than 30 operations, all with people with great pride in what they did and not used to the idea that they would become part of a bigger company. We're working with a purpose to put it all together as one company, on top of which we're witnessing the worst advertising recession since the great depression."
Roland calls the Vertis integration the "Sistine Chapel" of his career. "At age 60, it may be the last major transition of my career. This is one more transition in the evolution of a company that has gone through multiple evolutions."
Donald and Kathy Roland have been married nearly 40 years, having met while she was a senior in high school and editor of the student newspaper and he was the printer responsible for producing the newspaper. ("She wasn't supposed to fraternize with the printer, but we fraternized anyway," he quips.). They have three children: Aileen, Donald Jr. and Jenny.