HOF 05 Groomed for Success -- Thomas Engdahl
By Erik Cagle
Though he didn't realize it at the time, a path was being laid for Thomas Engdahl that would eventually lead to the dual roles of president and CEO of Brown Printing in Waseca, MN. Obviously, short of a crystal ball, there was no way for him to foresee such a future.
But fate left an early calling card for Engdahl, a 2005 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame inductee, and he would later gain a friend who would show him the way to the top.
"It was totally coincidental that I happened to get into the printing business," Engdahl says, in reference to the fact that his grandfather, Charles, opened a bookbinding business in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Thomas Engdahl's father, Alfred, then took the helm of the company following World War II.
Engdahl's earliest memories of the bindery include watching female workers sew the backbones of the books together, and watching folders make signatures out of the flat sheets that came from the printer. As an early teenager, Engdahl worked the bindery on weekends.
However, this wasn't the road that led Engdahl into a career in the printing industry. Alfred died when his son was only 16 years old, and his mother sold the bookbinding business.
"There was never an opportunity for me to go to college, graduate, then come back and work in the family business to succeed my father," he notes.
The tragic loss of his father marked a childhood that otherwise featured a "Leave it to Beaver" quality in the suburbs of the Windy City. After graduating high school, Engdahl enrolled in the University of Michigan, where he went on to earn a BS in industrial and operational engineering. He followed that up with a Masters degree.
Engdahl's first job out of college did involve paper, but not quite of the printing variety. He joined the fold at Procter & Gamble Co., working various positions in the paper products division in Green Bay, WI, that manufactured diapers, toilet and facial tissue, paper towels and fabric softener. That began an 11-year stint, with responsibilities including shift supervisor, manufacturing department manager and operations manager.
The opportunity to move into the world of commercial printing came in 1984, when Brown Printing was looking for a pressroom manager. Engdahl was fortunate to have a contact at Brown, Dan Nitz, who had worked with him at P&G and called Engdahl when the Brown position opened. Engdahl got the post.
"There's a lot of similarity between managing a paper mill and managing a printing plant," Engdahl notes. "You have very expensive equipment that has to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are a lot of rollers and bearings. All of the technical and people issues are similar."
Still, Engdahl gave more than a slight edge to the printing experience. "Printing is a little more exciting than making toilet paper," he says. "The most exciting thing you do (with toilet paper) is change color about once a week."
From Waseca, MN, Engdahl took a circuit tour within the Brown Printing chain. He spent 11 years at the Franklin, KY, division as manufacturing director, followed by division vice president and general manager. After the division was sold in 1997, Engdahl took the post of vice president of sales for the central division, located in the Chicago area, where he stayed until 2001.
In January of 2001, Engdahl moved up the ladder again, first as COO for the entire organization out of Waseca, then president and CEO in 2002.
"I had the good fortune of being in manufacturing and sales, which is a good perspective for anyone," Engdahl says. "You can empathize with many people in different positions."
In hindsight, it's easy to sympathize with the hornets nest Engdahl walked into when he accepted the COO post in January of 2001, considering that the economy was starting to bottom out, exacerbated by the events of 9/11. Advertiser spending followed the economy down the well, taking with it precious ad pages and volume. Without volume, expensive equipment could not be filled to capacity.
"There was a tremendous amount of people issues associated with the slowdown," Engdahl remarks. "There are a lot of fixed costs in the printing industry, and if you don't have volume, there's no way to make up for that."
Despite the fiscal setback, Brown Printing has rebounded nicely in the period from 2001 through the midway point of 2005—growing 40 percent. Much of the growth came from added capacity in the Woodstock, IL, and East Greenville, PA, divisions. And earlier this year, Brown Printing's parent company—Gruner + Jahr—gave the green light for a $57 million expansion initiative at the Waseca facility. The project is aimed at increasing capacity and replacing older equipment.
As the company grows, Engdahl's perspective continues to evolve, buoyed by the wealth and diversity of his business experiences.
"I've grown to understand the importance of striking the right balance between the needs of the business financially—what they need to have good results—and get support for growth," he says. "At the same time, there's nothing more important than satisfying existing clients and attracting new customers. It's a real balancing act.
"We've learned that we need to apply the latest and greatest technologies in order to be successful over the long term. It's really not a business for the timid investor. There are companies that will run equipment into the ground. We see that as a trap."
The biggest influence on Engdahl's career, not surprisingly, is Dan Nitz, the man who preceded him as the top executive at Brown Printing, and the person who ushered him in from P&G. Engdahl believes Nitz helped shape his leadership and management style, one he describes as inclusive.
"I like to have people involved in the decision making and in building effective teams," Engdahl says. "I make it clear to them what the objectives are, but cut them loose to make it happen. I don't micromanage people; I give them the resources they need, any encouragement and applaud them when they're successful. I let them figure out ways to accomplish results without being prescriptive about it."
Popular With Publishers
Engdahl's versatility has made him an attractive asset to publisher Crain Communications, notes Bob Adams, group vice president of technology, manufacturing and circulation at Crain. His relationship with the publisher dates back 10 years.
"Tom is one of those unique individuals in our industry who is a knowledgeable manufacturing guy, with an understanding and talent for marketing and sales," Adams remarks. "Tom is a very forward strategic thinker, with a sound pulse on all aspects of the industry. His appointment to CEO is a valued asset not only to Brown Printing, but also to its customer base and the broader printing and publishing industries."
Barry Meinerth, senior vice president, production and fulfillment for Time Inc., calls Engdahl a "solid leader" for Brown Printing, someone who has excelled at not only investing in new equipment, but is an effective case builder when it comes to justifying financial outlays to the parent company.
"With Tom, there's no ego. He's very down to earth," Meinerth states. "He's very much the gentleman, a real pleasure to do business with."
Away from the office, Engdahl enjoys spending time with Cindy, his wife of 21 years, and their daughter, Claire, 14. A boxer canine named Rosie rounds out the household.
When he finds leisure time, Engdahl and his family spend summers at their cottage on Lower Herring Lake, near Trevor City, MI. But Engdahl considers himself "too antsy" to spend all day fishing, so he likes to work in a little sailing and water skiing. On land, golf and tennis are his favorite pastimes.
Of his less-than-Woodsian 23 handicap, Engdahl confesses, "I wish I was a better golfer, but I still love to play."