A Remarkable Career Lands Geographics' Hagan in Printing Industry Hall of Fame
Perhaps there are tales of greater woe waiting to be discovered but, in all honesty, it is virtually impossible to find a company that failed more miserably on its first day of operation than the sad story behind Geographics Inc.’s debut.
Had the phone not rang once on its opening day, and nary a solitary customer knocked on the front door, that would have represented a rousing success story compared to the fateful day when Norvin Hagan first hung his printing shingle.
The year was 1976, and perhaps in an unconscious tip of the cap to the nation’s bicentennial, Hagan was ready to declare his independence from the employ of the banking industry, which he’d recently escaped to commandeer Geographics, a commercial printing operation. He’d obtained the assets of an Atlanta firm, Ferrell Enterprises, from bankruptcy court for $32,000. Hagan forked over eight grand in cash as a down payment. The future was Hagan’s. Nothing could stop him.
Well, except the FBI agents who surrounded his building on opening day … they stopped him. The G Men threw a wet blanket over Hagan’s high hopes, like a phonograph needle being dragged quickly across a record. Even the Titanic needed several hours before going under. But it appeared Geographics would be retired without having filled out a single work order.
The FBI wasn’t after Hagan, per se, but rather the mailing equipment in his new digs that was tainted. The former owner had been jimmying the postage meter, paying postage on just one out of every five or six mail pieces. Hagan didn’t end up in the slammer—that honor, and a seven-year stretch in prison, went to his predecessor—but the equipment was confiscated.
Hagan’s dad, Frank, was taken aback. “When I told him what happened, he said, ‘Damn, son, going out of business in one day, that’s got to be a record.’ I couldn’t sue the government to get my equipment back because I’d put my last eight grand down on the company.”
Pounding the Pavement
Standing in a deep hole and with no money to wiggle out of the predicament, Hagan started knocking on doors, taking to the streets to sell as best as he could. Nearly 40 years later, he has turned the company into a $37 million a year performer by providing commercial work, catalogs and direct mail, among other products. Aside from organic growth, Geographics has become active in the merger and acquisition theater, adding three companies to the fold since last November. That remarkable turnaround and record of endurance has earned Norvin Hagan a spot in the 2015 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame induction class.
Hagan was born into a big Catholic family in Atlanta, the third of five children. His home was that haven of fun and good times that made it the mecca for neighborhood kids wanting to play with the Hagans. The city was relatively small then, about 350,000 during his childhood, and would prove to be fertile business ground in the near future.
Upon graduating from Marist High School, Hagan attended the University of Tennessee on a wrestling scholarship. He’d finished second in the state championships twice while in high school, toppled twice by a future Auburn star grappler. At Tennessee—where he wrestled at 157 and 167 pounds—he befriended future Vols football coach Phil Fulmer, who coached the team to a national championship in 1998.
After graduating with a degree in business administration, Hagan coached wrestling at Tennessee before returning to Atlanta with First National Bank. Hagan was later hired by Tom Cousins—former owner of both the Atlanta Flames hockey team and Atlanta Hawks basketball team—to be a mortgage broker for Cousins Properties. But when the bottom fell out of the real estate market around 1975, a phone call led him to the opportunity to purchase the assets of Ferrell Enterprises.
Sans the mailing equipment, Hagan had to make do with two Multiliths and an old Lum press, and the customer list wasn’t exactly brimming with opportunities. With Hagan pounding the pavement, the road to prosperity was a gradual, but tough, journey.
“I was knocking on doors, selling what we could do, which was mostly business cards and medium-quality work,” he says. “Over a period of time, we reinvested every nickel we made in technology. We took good care of our customers and just kept improving our marketing offers and enhancing the overall customer experience.
“The accounts receivable and customer lists both got better and we reinvested more in new equipment. As technology got better, we improved.”
Atlanta was kind to Geographics, which continued to grow as many of its competitors fell by the wayside. Hagan credits much of the success to his quality employees and loyal customers.
One of the watershed moments for Geographics was when it installed a half-web offset press. Area printers were predominantly sheetfed providers. That was followed by a full web and then a 24-page press, which enabled the company to stay one step ahead of its competition.
“Customers are still looking for high-quality work,” he says. “People say that quality is a given, but that’s a bunch of horsefeathers. There’s plenty of bad printing out there. Our customers come to us because [bad printing] is not what they’re looking for.”
That half-web turned into a bit of a headache and a challenge. Two years into its run, the press was discovered to have been engineered incorrectly, and the manufacturer (Harris) had to pull the press off Geographics’ floor for six months. Customer patience and the plant workforce helped to minimize the pain.
Perhaps the biggest move made by Hagan was to shore up his presence in the south with the acquisition of three companies from Nationwide Argosy Solutions: Offset Atlanta, McQuiddy (Nashville, Tennessee) and Jones Printing (Chattanooga, Tennessee). Hagan had been talking to the Nationwide people for more than two years.
But another suitor became involved in talks at various levels, which stalled the M&A process. When nothing materialized on that end, Hagan and Nationwide were able to put the deal together relatively quickly.
Hagan counts a number of key influences during his career at Geographics: Ozzie Brito, a 25-year customer service manager; Bill Mills, a partner with their Selling Solutions venture; and his father, Frank, who spent much of his career as a textile salesman before joining Geographics.
“Papa used to say that sales is really all about people and having a genuine concern for them,” Hagan notes. Having his own salespeople demonstrate that same sincerity has helped to forge lasting customer relationships.
One of Hagan’s biggest admirers is David McGhee, a merchant distributor with Mac Papers out of Jacksonville, Florida. McGhee has known Hagan for 20 years and is a big fan of his back story, as well as his business acumen.
“Norvin has an astute financial business mind,” McGhee says. “He’s built a strong reputation throughout the south. He gets personally involved with customers in all facets of the business. He’s a man who is very compassionate and yet very competitive.
“Norvin is a southern gentleman in every sense of the term. He’s a well-rounded person with many activities.”
To know Norvin Hagan is to know the impact that his mother and father has left on him, an influence that continues to this day, notes Glenn Brotemarkle, who has known Hagan for more than 30 years during his time with Harris, Heidelberg and Goss. Brotemarkle now owns Printing Equipment Services, where he consults and sells used web gear.
“One of the major reasons Norvin has become what he is today is his family background. His father taught him everything—respect, being honest with your people, taking a leadership role,” Brotemarkle says. “He’s followed his father’s footsteps. Norvin talks about his father every day.”
Brotemarkle points out that Hagan was a pioneer of sorts, one of the first southern printers to install a web press in the early 1980s, and was among the early adopters of the “wide-body,” 57˝ press a decade ago. Hagan, he says, takes a deliberate approach to embracing technology.
All Things Considered
“When Norvin makes a decision, he takes his time,” Brotemarkle notes. “He reaches out to his employees, takes their input and adds it to the decision-making process. When he makes a decision, it’s not fast; it’s thorough.”
Hagan has held nearly every office with the Printing and Imaging Association of Georgia (PIAG) and is currently on the Printing Industries of America’s national board. The PIAG presented him with the 2002 Ben Franklin Award and in 2013 he was inducted into the Ben Franklin Honor Society by the PIA. He’s on the board of directors for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. He chairs the Frank Hagan Memorial Coaches Award at Marist. Hagan also belongs to the University of Tennessee Letterman’s Club and the Piedmont Driving Club.
Away from the plant, Hagan is a cooking aficionado and an ardent wine collector; he has sponsored High Museum’s wine auction the last 24 years. He has a wide-ranging palate that doesn’t discriminate between wine-making regions. He also counts himself as an amateur landscaper and a college football fan.
On the family side, Hagan has a daughter, Kelly, who is currently studying music at Belmont University in Nashville. She is a fiddle player in a group called South Bound. His son, Knox, is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior at Woodward Academy prep school, and a defensive end who is on a number of collegiate football watch lists.
Hagan calls Liz, his partner of eight years, the love of his life. They enjoy traveling and recently spent some time in Italy, sampling some of the best wine that country has to offer.
“Like many printers, I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany,” he says. “We’ve enjoyed going down the Rhine and the Danube Rivers.” PI