Former Printing Industry Leader and Trailblazer George Stephenson Passes at Age 87
George William Stephenson, who dropped out of high school in 10th grade while working nights and weekends as a pressman operating a small-format Multigraphics 1420 press to pursue his passion for printing — and who eventually would go on to build a nationally-acclaimed printing company in the greater Washington, DC, area — passed away April 13, 2022, at age 87.
With only a used single-color press, George launched a printing establishment, Stephenson Printing, in Georgetown in 1959. As the company began to flourish, he moved to a larger space and installed his first new press just two years later, a two-color Miehle Roland press, realizing that color printing was beginning to have a major impact on the graphic arts industry landscape. A 49˝, two-color Harris press followed in 1963, and a 50˝ four-color Roland came on board in 1969. He also had the distinction of being the first printer in the Washington, DC, area to install a four-color and then a six-color printing press.
"I always had a huge interest in color," he told Printing Impressions, as part of a profile in the publication honoring his 2004 induction into the Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame. "In the early '60s, I did my color separations with my own camera. As I grew the company, I would add additional equipment. I installed my first scanner in 1972, and became very involved in working with the design community, which also pushed the color side of printing."
This interest in high-quality color reproduction led to George printing his first annual report job in 1964, and the company also scored a major coup at the time by printing a six-color annual report for Fairchild Industries. By 1970, Stephenson Printing had secured a stranglehold for annual report work within the Washington, DC, area. As the business continued to grow, George relocated the company in 1980 to a new facility five times larger in Alexandria, Virginia, and installed his first web offset press.
Stephenson Printing Joins the 'Roll-up' Phenomenon
Fast forward to the 1990s and the printing industry landscape was changing to an era of industry consolidators, also known as "roll-ups," with the most well-known and successful being Consolidated Graphics, which was led by fellow Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee Joe Davis. George decided the timing was right for him to exit the industry. So, in 1998, he sold the company to Master Graphics. "Unfortunately, the company I sold to was a 'Johnny-Come-Lately' in the roll-up concept that tried to do too much too soon, and ended up with financial problems," he told Printing Impressions.
Master Graphics had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2000 and George found himself in a precarious position working on a contract basis for a company that bore his name — and concerned about the future for both the business he had painstakingly built and for his loyal workforce. So, in late 2000, he put together a plan to buy back the company's assets.
"I wanted to ensure the future of the company," he said. "It took a while to get over the stigma of being in Chapter 11. Buying the company back was the best solution to making it healthy and well again." It wouldn't prove to be an easy task, however, as Stephenson Printing struggled to overcome the economic slump that befell the U.S. economy during the early 2000s.
With the growth of the Internet, George also lamented how it was enabling print buyers to solicit excessive numbers of bids for print jobs from printers all across the country, rather than just within a given local market. "So instead of having a handful of bidders in a local market, you can have 10 or 20 across the country. That cuts into your profit margins really quickly."
In response, he suggested a novel way to combat that. When inquiring to have some commercial plumbing work done inside his plant, George found that all of the plumbers he contacted wanted $50 to $100 just to provide a quote, which in turn would be credited to the customer's bill upon receipt of the job. He argued that the printing industry should adopt the same practice to keep buyers from seeking bids from an unlimited number of printers.
Attracting the Next Generation to Printing
2022 marked George Stephenson's 63rd year not only still working, but mentoring others in the printing industry. For that reason, he became known to some in the area as the "Grandfather of Printing" and to others as the "Godfather of Printing." Training young people and his employees to achieve their highest potential was George's passion. Although attaining higher education was unattainable for him, he realized what a gift it would have been for him and what it enables for young people, Therefore, in lieu of flowers, his family is requesting donations be made in his honor to Camp Letts, PO Box 208, Edgewater, MD, 21037, or to a child's education fund.
George Stephenson is survived by his wife of 34 years, Sandy; two daughters, Sharon and Janet; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A memorial service celebrating his life will be held at 1 pm on May 15, 2022, at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. For directions and parking, contact the church office at (202) 393-3700 or email@example.com. His remains will be interred in Morgantown, West Virginia, a place he loved and wanted to be his final resting place.
Stephenson Printing — once a trailblazing technology adopter that bore his name — is now in the process of being shut down, with a handful of workers still on board to facilitate the process. If the printing industry could have informally stood hand-in-hand with George's novel idea suggesting all print providers charge a fee for working up estimates, as well as through other unified efforts, who knows where Stephenson Printing and the rest of the commercial printing industry might find itself today?