John Spenlinhauer III, Co-Owner of Former Web Offset Printing Powerhouse Spencer Press, Passes at Age 78
Printing Impressions learned from Stephen Spenlinhauer today about the passing of his brother, John Spenlinhauer III, on Feb. 12, 2019, at age 78. John and Stephen took Spencer Press, a once small, handfed letterpress business started by their father in the basement of their home and expanded it — first into a successful web offset printing operation in Hingham, Mass., and eventually moving to Wells, Maine — to become at one point the sixth largest privately-owned printing company in the U.S. with more than 700 employees.
I recall John Spenlinhauer III as one of the true titans in the web offset industry and one of the major drivers, and a board of director member, of the once powerful Web Offset Association (WOA). The Spenlinhauer family was also very close to the Bush family due to the time the two families vacationed and boated together in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the Spenlinhauers played a prominent role in getting former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara to serve as the keynote speakers at a WOA conference. In its heyday, the WOA conference was by far the largest and most well-attended industry conference.
Catalog printing specialist Spencer Press was acquired by Chicago-based RR Donnelley in November 2005, but was then subsequently closed in 2009 by Donnelley during an economic downturn, laying off 374 then-remaining employees.
John Spenlinhauer III was also a 1998 inductee into the Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame. At the time, we published the following profile about him:
In May of 1972, Spencer Press, then a sheetfed operation, took its first step into the world of web offset with the installation of a Heidelberg Harris M-1000A press. For John E. Spenlinhauer III — chairman, CEO and the driving force behind Spencer's equipment investments — it was a pivotal moment. He realized his Hingham, Mass.-based company needed web equipment to remain in business.
"There was not a full-size web in the metropolitan Boston area," Spenlinhauer says, "and there was a lot of web offset printing leaving the Boston area."
With the arrival of the M-1000, Spenlinhauer was upbeat. Then tragedy struck. In November of 1972, Spenlinhauer's father — founder of Spencer Press and John's inspiration — passed away.
"When my father died in 1972," Spenlinhauer shares, "I lost my father and my best friend."
And Spencer Press lost its leader. Competitors in Boston predicted that the elder Spenlinhauer's death would mean the end of Spencer. "They said, 'With the old man gone, these boys will never make it,' " Spenlinhauer recalls.
The competition was right about one thing: Spencer Press was in the hands of boys. John was 32 when his father died. His brother Stephen, Spencer's president, was only 25.
What the brothers lacked in age, however, they made up for in tenacity. The more the competition put Spencer Press down, the more John wanted to succeed.
"That made the hair on the back of my neck stick up," Spenlinhauer says. "I said, 'Not only will I make it, I'll blow you away."
While the competition was clinging to sheetfed, Spenlinhauer was committing his company to web printing. Before long, the boy whom the competitors never took seriously was stealing their business.
In 1975, Spencer Press added its second and third web presses, a Heidelberg Harris M-110 and another M-1000A. Installed at the dawn of in-line finishing, the M-110 became a gold mine after Spenlinhauer added in-line plow-folding capabilities — a service practically unheard of at the time.
Therein lies John Spenlinhauer's strength: Not only can he recognize value in up-and-coming services and technologies, he can predict the best time to invest in them. The direction he has given Spencer's manufacturing process has earned him a much-deserved spot in the 1998 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame.
"John is unquestionably one of the smartest guys in the printing business," says Tom Romano, vice president of CRT Associates, a company specializing in retail mail order catalogs, and a longtime customer of Spencer Press. "John has the ability to know when to purchase capital equipment, but more importantly he knows how to pay for it. He's not afraid to grow his business by adding new equipment."
No Fear to Invest in New Printing Equipment
This lack of fear is evident. In 1978, Spenlinhauer shut down Spencer's last sheetfed press. Today, the company operates Heidelberg Harris web presses exclusively, outputting catalogs, inserts and direct mail. The heavy machinery whirring on the shop floor includes an eight-unit M-3000 "Sunday" press, an eight-unit M-1000B, a five-unit M-1000A, a four-unit M-850 and two five-unit M-110Bs. Next year, Heidelberg Web Press will deliver another eight-unit M-3000, and another eight-unit M-3000 will arrive in the year 2000.
Spenlinhauer's foresight has not been limited to presses. In 1984, years before anybody thought to describe prepress as "electronic," Spencer added a Crosfield electronic page makeup system. "We were right out on the front edge with that one," Spenlinhauer boasts.
Spenlinhauer's plans for the future should keep his company on the front edge, but naturally he isn't too keen to share his strategies. He is willing to drop a few hints. He claims that he has signed a confidentiality agreement with four vendors to create a never-seen-before product by June of 1999.
"Two of the vendors will be supplying what they normally supply, it will just be adapted to something new," he says. "The other two vendors are doing $150,000 to $200,000 of engineering work. If it all comes to pass, I may have a patent."
This type of forward thinking, typical of Spenlinhauer, has given Spencer the strength to grow over the years. Landlocked and burdened with taxes, Spencer phased out its Hingham plant in the early '80s and relocated to Wells, Maine. Today, the Wells facility employs 650 workers and is growing to 400,000 square feet.
Bob Feige, director of direct mail for the National Geographic Society and a Spencer customer for 25 years, commends Spenlinhauer for the move to Wells. "The transition between leaving Massachusetts for Maine was a big undertaking," he explains. "Through his leadership in the manufacturing end, I've just watched that place grow."
And the growth hasn't just come in the form of a larger facility. Spencer has expanded its business beyond the Boston area. Nowadays, the company's accounts pepper the U.S. coastlines. "We don't do much in the middle of the country," Spenlinhauer says. "We're either West Coast or East Coast it seems."
Spencer Press will generate $85 million in sales this year, but Spenlinhauer would never take credit for those figures. As chairman and CEO, he oversees the manufacturing. President Stephen handles the sales and marketing.
Stephen points out that John complements him well, and vice versa. John focuses on manufacturing and the research necessary to buy equipment; Stephen is skilled in handling the accounts..
"We've been very fortunate to be two brothers who work together and get along as well as we do," Stephen says.
"We have a third member on our board of directors who casts a vote when Stephen and I don't agree," John adds. "He's never had to cast a vote."
A Creature of Habit
Stephen describes his brother as a "creature of habit." One habit is wearing his boat shoes and yellow socks to work on most days, attire that has earned John some razzing — particularly from his brother.
"We had a meeting with a bank one day, and John didn't go," Stephen tells. "When we got out, we got everything that we wanted. I called John and told him that the bank would give us everything, but only under one condition. He said, 'What's that?' I said, 'They don't want you to wear those yellow socks and boat shoes to work anymore.' "
John didn't like the ultimatum. "He got absolutely mad and said, 'I'm still wearing them,' " Stephen continues. "I said, 'Well, then they aren't going to give us the money.' He went into a tirade for two minutes before I told him, 'Hey, John, calm down. I'm only kidding you.' "
Once you understand John's love for sailing, you can understand why he likes to wear his boat shoes. Spenlinhauer has been a sailor for most of his life. His passion for the sport is infectious, and he never hesitates to share stories and advice.
"John helped me buy my first boat," says Jack Hobby, vice president of marketing for Heidelberg Web Press.
In the winter, Spenlinhauer sails around the Caribbean. In warmer weather, he drifts along the New England coast. "I spent my summers growing up either sailing or playing golf," Spenlinhauer says. "Sailing won."
Spenlinhauer does golf on occasion. Enter his office and you'll see a brass golf ball on his desk. However, the ball, a gift from Romano, bears testimony to Spenlinhauer's negotiating skills, not his golfing ability.
"I said, 'Here, put this on this desk to prove you really do have brass ones,' " Romano remembers.
Romano is quick to add, however, that Spenlinhauer's heart is made of pure gold: "He comes off kind of stern and gruff sometimes, but he is a good guy."
Lou Gaspari, corporate vice president for Sun Chemical in Philadelphia, shares the same opinion. Gaspari has been selling Spenlinhauer ink for over two decades, and during that time, he has developed a great deal of respect for Spencer's chief executive.
"He's a man of his word," Gaspari says. "When you make a business deal with him, it is a deal. And after he went through hard times, he never forgot his friends when the good times came back."
Hobby has similar feelings. "John is more than just a customer," he says. "When the relationship goes beyond business to friendship, that's when business really becomes a lot of fun."
Michael Donnelly also watched his business relationship with Spenlinhauer foster into friendship. The vice president of Starcrest Products of California, a direct-mailing company in Perris, Calif., Donnelly ordered his first job from Spencer three years ago. He quickly hit it off with Spenlinhauer, noting that Spencer's chief executive runs his company with integrity.
Donnelly not only admires Spenlinhauer's professionalism, but also his personality. "I'm very much a direct, straight shooter," Donnelly says. "And he's the same way. So our communications are always very comfortable."
Spenlinhauer's dedication to his friends is perhaps only overshadowed by his dedication to Spencer Press. In an age where mergers and acquisitions occur commonly, Spenlinhauer has vowed to keep the company independent. In fact, he is already helping to train Spencer's next generation. John has a 25-year-old son, Eric, in the business, and Stephen's 23-year-old son, Michael, also works for the company.
Investing in Education
Michael and Eric aren't the only young adults Spenlinhauer has encouraged to enter the printing industry. A member of the Web Offset Association's board of directors, Spenlinhauer chairs the association's scholarship committee.
"Next year, the Web Offset Association has set aside $40,000 in scholarship money," Spenlinhauer says. "I hope the registration form for next year's meeting will have a place for companies to make a donation to the scholarship fund, and maybe we can raise another $40,000 or $50,000 from the various web offset printers.
"I believe we need to help young adults come into this industry."
Michael and Eric are living proof of that belief. One day, Spenlinhauer hopes to pass the torch to his son and nephew — with Brad Pelletier, Spencer's COO, there to aid in the transition. In the meantime, selling out is not an option.
"If you talk to any independent printer today," Spenlinhauer says, "you'll find an entrepreneurial spirit who will say, 'If I'm going to sell, I need to get out.' "
And John Spenlinhauer isn't ready to get out just yet.
According to an obituary provided by his brother Stephen, John loved numbers and was an early adopter of computers and spreadsheets. He developed new systems and integrated new technologies streamlining the process from press to mailbox, putting Spencer Press at the forefront of catalog printing for decades.
John’s truest love was boating and he named all his boats Tivoli, which spells “i love it” in reverse … and he did love it. With a 200-ton captain’s license, John was always planning the next adventure or holiday on Tivoli, which he loved sharing with others. Many holidays started and ended in Antigua, and he was known as the unofficial Mayor of English Harbor. His other love was the coast of Maine and he belonged to the Arundel Yacht Club for many years.
He was the son of Georgia Mangiaracine and John Edward Spenlinhauer Jr. from Belmont, Mass. He will be remembered by his wife Paula Sheehan Spenlinhauer of 17 years; his brother Stephen (Alicia) Spenlinhauer; four children: Sepp (Brian Fassett), Meg (Peter Bergendahl), Eric (Tania) and Emmy (Jesse Wychules); two step-children: Jennifer (Jeff Lloyd) and Rachael (Todd Croce); 11 grandchildren: Tyler, Brooke, Spencer, Brady, Tia, Cole, Calvin, Andrew, Audrey, Quinn and Jolie; and nieces and nephews.
A private ceremony was held in Maine and John is resting next to his father in Belmont, Mass. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the National Sailing Academy in Antigua, based right next to English Harbor. Visit www.NationalSailingAcademy.org and include Tivoli under the Yacht name field.
Visit www.spenlinhauer.com in the coming weeks for more information about the “Celebration of Life” to be held in late spring or June.
As the obituary states, boat shoes and yellow socks are optional …