2012 Hall of Fame: Volker Petersen - Smooth Sailing to Success
For someone who craves control in his/her life, the very thought of spending a great deal of time on a sailboat, in the ocean, in the middle of nowhere and at the mercy of Mother Nature, has to be more than a little disconcerting. That the president and CEO of a multimillion-dollar concern is able to let nature call the shots is most curious; after all, chief executives need to maintain command in order to guide a firm.
Volker Petersen doesn't spend a lot of time pondering the psychological correlations between business and sailing. The president and CEO of Brown Printing, a magazine and catalog producer based in Waseca, MN, just enjoys being at the whim of the water.
"I go wherever it takes me," Petersen says. "Whenever I have the opportunity to find a crew and a boat, that's usually where I go. Sailing gives me the opportunity to be grounded again. Mother Nature is in control, and you quickly understand that within five minutes on a sailboat."
He does see a parallel with business. "If you are five minutes ahead of what happens, then sailing is very easy," he notes. "If you're five seconds behind something that happens, you're too late."
Petersen spent part of this past summer sailing across the Atlantic Ocean—an impressive feat in boating circles—but it pales in comparison to the job he has done staying a few steps in front of the competition during the past five years. While the magazine and catalog printing markets have shrunk 40 percent since 2007, Brown Printing has nearly doubled its market share during that time frame. That Petersen has guided such growth during the most repressive economic atmosphere in modern history—making his firm the No. 3 industry provider behind only RR Donnelley and Quad/Graphics—well qualifies him as a 2012 inductee into the Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame.
While magazine advertising pages have been drastically reduced and many publishers have witnessed the sometimes-drastic declines of their circulation base, Brown Printing has managed to grow. It posted sales of $421 million according to its most recent fiscal year sales, or 8 percent growth over the previous campaign.
"The challenge is to find the right balance to satisfying the needs of customers, employees and shareholders," Petersen notes. "The past five years have made that focus even more important. Because the market is shrinking, you have to figure out how you can gain share to remain relevant and successful in a changing landscape."
Silver Anniversary on the Horizon
Petersen is all too familiar with operating under difficult circumstances; challenges confronted the firm almost from the day he interviewed with Brown Printing, which is owned by Gruner + Jahr of Hamburg, Germany. Next April, in fact, will mark his 25th anniversary with the company.
Printing wasn't on Petersen's radar when he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in 1984. Wanting to discover a world outside of Germany, he attended Iowa State and received an MS degree and PhD in industrial engineering in 1988.
"When I came to the states, I wanted to get another perspective on life, to see what life in other cultures was like," Petersen notes. Ironically, he would interview with a German firm, then take a job based in the states.
Petersen's final interview with Brown Printing almost didn't happen. He'd flown out to the West Coast, where the printing company operated a retail insert division. He was met by a plant manager who told Petersen that he'd have to fly to Brown's headquarters in Waseca, MN. The person who was going to interview Petersen was unavoidably detained, and for good reason. The roof had caved in at the headquarters, killing two workers.
"Instead of canceling, they still brought me to Waseca to have the interview, despite the fact that the roof collapsed and two employees died," Petersen remarks. "The company was so focused on fulfilling the catalog location opening, despite all of that, they still found the time to interview me. That showed me the company understands the importance of hiring good employees, and valuing their contributions. Ultimately, that was a decision-maker for me."
Petersen has certainly boosted his frequent flyer miles while with Brown Printing. His first assignment in 1988 was to participate in the startup of prepress facilities in Franklin, KY, and Riverside, CA. In 1996, he transferred back to Hamburg to take responsibility as the manager of controlling for the Gruner + Jahr printing division. When the company acquired Graftek Press in 1997, Petersen whisked back over the Atlantic and took the helm as vice president and general manager of the new Woodstock (IL) Div.
"In 1997, we made the decision to focus on the magazine and catalog markets," Petersen remarks. "We sold the insert division on the West Coast, sold our Franklin, KY, plant and made some acquisitions—all in the same year. We bought Graftek, added the printing arm of Kendall Publishing and entered into a long-term agreement to print their products. The whole realignment and strategic focus really brought Brown to where it is today."
On the Move Again
After spearheading the integration of Graftek Press, Petersen was on the move again, returning to Hamburg, Germany, as the managing director of the Gruner + Jahr printing division, with leadership responsibility for all printing operations, including Brown Printing. He provided oversight in 2005 when Gruner + Jahr merged its rotogravure printing operations with Axel Springer and Bertelsmann Arvato to form Prinovis. Two years later, Petersen was able to settle into his current role.
Having shuttled between Germany and the United States, Petersen finds that he has more of a global view of the industry. It's also afforded him the opportunity to observe how executives take different roads to the same planned destination.
"Working in both the U.S. and Europe has allowed me to see different approaches for similar challenges and to recognize that each facility is unique, with different cultures," he says. "Maintaining those cultures are important to the success of those facilities. There's not always a 'best' way of doing a job, and the only way to be successful is to build strong teams."
Dan Nitz, president of Clear Lake Press in Waseca, MN, has known Petersen for 25 years and initially saw him as a great talent with unlimited potential. "During the course of his career, he has not proven any of my initial impressions wrong," Nitz says. "Volker is an exceptionally quick study, assimilating and processing information rapidly to feed his great analytical thinking capability. He has a very thorough knowledge of the printing industry, both here in the U.S. and in Europe. Brown Printing is in good hands."
Guy Gleysteen, senior vice president for production at Time Inc., feels Petersen combines a keen analytical approach to problem solving with a grasp of the practical, thus boasting that rare ability to understand whether an idea will actually work.
"Volker is a fountain of ideas, and he's able to do that, in part, because he's willing to let the ones go that don't get traction with customers or that don't seem to make sense once the conversation progresses," Gleysteen remarks. "But, he also displays the relentlessness that's needed in today's business world. He's constantly thinking about what could be done differently, what needs to change and who might have the next idea—that's what drives innovation and success. And that is what allows his organization to compete as well as they do."
Petersen resides in Lakeville, MN, with his wife, Kim, and daughters Nicole and Krista. PI