Economics & Research Blog
Thirty Years Ago This Date
Today is a special day for me,
By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: June 5, 2008
Today is a special day for me, my first day at work in the graphic arts industry, thirty years ago. Pardon the length of this posting... there is so much to remember from that day and week, some amusing, some mildly profound. It was a Monday, and started with a business trip, with the Friday to be the beginning of yet another new life, with the marriage proposal to the still Mrs. Webb, at Woodlawn train station in the Bronx. That story, is for another time, and will stay private.
I was still living at home, and my father drove me to LaGuardia airport in time for a 9:00am flight on TWA to St. Louis. I was to meet my boss, Ed Haggerty, the National Sales Manager for graphic arts film for Agfa-Gevaert at the TWA ticket counter. We would be getting a quick breakfast. When I arrived, I remember seeing Broadway star Carol Channing ("Hello, Dolly") in the ticket area, her bags being brought in by a red capped luggage attendant.
I waited and waited for Ed, and he never came. I had met him twice before, so it wasn't like I had missed him somewhere in the terminal. I dutifully boarded the flight to St. Louis, alone, not knowing exactly where I was going other than it was a trade show. I figured I could call the Teterboro office once I arrived. I later learned that Ed had done this before; he was known for cutting things close when it came to traffic, and not to take it as a snub. Every weekday, around that time, he was toughing out the commute from Syosset, Long Island, to Teterboro, New Jersey, still finding time to run in the morning prior to this daily adventure across the Throgs Neck and George Washington Bridges (he told me he took “Martha,” using an old New York area commuter joke, because he always found the GW's lower level to be quicker to work). Since LaGuardia was a regular destination for him, this wouldn't be a problem, he probably thought, but that morning, traffic worked against him. Somehow, at age 51, he still managed to look 41 despite the horrors of the commute.
Ed was a graduate of Manhattan College, as I was. When he worked in sales for Burroughs' office equipment division in the early 1950s, back when single men were paid $55 a month and married men were paid $88 a month, an employment policy unthinkable today. To pick up some extra money his tall and slim stature helped get him some gigs as a model in a few print ads. That moonlighting ended one day when his boss saw him in one of the ads, picking him out of a group picture of executives that was a dress shirt ad, showing that they would stand out when they wore a premium dress shirt. Ed was in a back row, the only one in the picture who was smiling.
The time in Burroughs sales seemed to be formative for him, and loaded with anecdotes about his family. He loved to tell the one where his wife made him an extra special meal because he had gotten two orders that day. She didn't speak to him for a couple of days after, he claimed, because he broke the news after the wonderful dinner that the two orders were from one customer and they were “get out and stay out.” Ed would eventually become Atlantic Region Sales Manager for Agfa until his retirement, and then would have a second career as VP of Sales for Superior Ink, a loyal and upright company man to the end, but always with the intent of creating good and long term customer relationships. There's nothing like having six kids in the family, with four born in the space of 47 months, as an inspiration to keep your job.
I wouldn't learn those things about Ed until much later, as I sat alone in a packed plane to St. Louis on my uneventful flight, still wondering where he was. I had only been on a plane two other times before, so the experience was still rather new to me. I arrived in St. Louis, got my bag, and luckily saw someone with an Agfa-Gevaert business card as their luggage tag. It was Fred Schoenbachler, the National Technical Manager for graphic arts film. Fred was one of those executives industry suppliers like Agfa-Gevaert had always needed. He had worked a while at World Color, leaving Agfa, but then returning, and was one of those codgers who could follow the company line but made it rough on the bureaucrats when toeing the line would jeopardize a customer. Fred was at ANPA for two reasons. First, to help get a new company product launched, with others, and to get a steak dinner one of those nights at Stan & Biggie's a well-known steak house in town, founded by Stan Musial, one of the past stars of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, and regarded as one of the real class acts in sports and humankind. Evidently, Stan knew something about steak, too. I told Fred what had happened, and muttered something about Ed Haggerty's skill to be the last person boarding a plane. Fred took me under his wing, and it wouldn't the last time, as he'd look for ways to include me in things where I could learn about graphic arts films and the industry in my two-year stint at the company. He got me to the Breckenridge Pavilion hotel, and settled in. The rooms weren't ready, but there was an Agfa-Gevaert contingent having lunch in the restaurant, so we went there.
They were having an ad hoc meeting, chatting about the business, the show, customers, and personal things. I sat next to Ed Manielli, who admired my selection of open turkey sandwich with cheddar cheese sauce and bacon bits. We chatted a bit, and about a year and a half later, Ed would become one of my bosses, and more like a mentor, even after I left the company, and he would move to GAF. He had served many roles he served in the company. I would later see that Ed was deep into the culture of the old Manhattan printing industry, one of the post-WWII executives who never went to college but was more innately astute than you would have been had you attended. There was a street smarts to the generation who worked in the trade and sometimes ended up in corporate positions. Agfa-Gevaert had many of them. Jim Massa, was one of them. He was a National Technical Manager based in Chicago, and started his graphic arts career in New York City. Out of high school, someone told Jim that you could make good money making camera color separations (the idea of a scanner hadn't even been considered much less invented). Jim went into a color trade shop and lied when they asked him if he had experience. They threw him out by noon. He went to another shop that afternoon, figuring when they asked if he had worked some place making separations before, he could say with a straight face that he had. He supposedly worked in ten separation shops that week, a number embellished with time, I'm sure, staying in the final one two whole days before they caught on. Somehow he became a real expert in the science of color, and was of immeasurable value to sales representatives and their customers, with a keen understanding of the new color scanners that were coming to the market. This was a common story among the field personnel I met, and opened my eyes, despite my love of education that would result in the alphabet after my name, had me gravitate to them whenever I wanted to understand something about the business. I would later learn that many of them would have trouble articulating what they knew in their hearts and guts in the form or language of the executive organization, but they could always be depended upon for deeper insights into the practicalities of the print business and the psyche of print business owners.
I would eventually get to the show floor, escorted by some of the Agfa-Gevaert sales people who learned about Ed Haggerty's stranding me with my itinerary. I had never been to a trade show before, and had never seen a trade show booth. The massive displays of company logos, other than Kodak, were of companies I had never known before. Harris? Compugraphic? What do those companies do? The Agfa booth was rather small, but contained a big vertical camera, with all kinds of attachments, to convert it to making color separations. It was a Frankenstein's monster of a creation, in retrospect, but was created to support a new color separation process created by Agfa, called Transferlith. Somehow, the making of color separation positives, rather than negatives as used in the US market, was going to be a selling point. (Not!) The system was hard to use, and needed this patchwork of equipment to create the best selling opportunity. At the time, color scanners were usually $500,000, in 1978 dollars, though the price was heading down, it would still be out of reach for the great majority of newspapers who were, only then, experimenting with color.
That was the technical theme of the show: more color in newspapers. The idea was outlandish, but newspapers were heading in that direction, when Gannett's grand USA Today experiment was nearly four years away. Newspaper color was bad, perhaps worse than that. The fact that it was usually out of register distracted one's eye from the poor color reproduction. Some newspapers wouldn't even run black ink in their process color, either because their presses couldn't accommodate it for some reason, or the newsprint couldn't handle that much ink. You ended up with browner blacks and blurry images, but like a child who just discovered the big box of Crayola crayons and was intent on using every one, they were just thrilled to have color images on the front page. Things have obviously changed since. Transferlith, it was hoped, would catch the process color wave (it didn't; low-price color scanners did, just a few years later).
I walked the show floor a bit, learning about things like classified ad systems, something called “phototypesetting,” which was still pretty new then, and laser direct-to-plate, which would spend the next fifteen years being “only three to five years away” from really working.
On the days I was there, I felt more comfortable and took the shuttle (school buses) back and forth from the hotel to the convention center. I heard the driver talking with one of the passengers that he and his wife had finally completed their goal of visiting all fifty states. Most of the travel was done by car. Living in the near-center of the US in St. Louis made it easier. A few of the Agfa personnel who were unassigned to the booth made it over to the Gateway Arch for the ride up to the top to get a view of the city. I remember a man and his high-school age son in one of the elevator cars as he told him he helped build the Arch, and his son explaining that carrying cement bags around the construction site or something like it wasn't really like building it, but it was no matter, as the pride of being involved in something so noteworthy couldn't be diminished by the small nature of the task.
I'd like to think it was my idea that we take in a ballgame Tuesday night. After all, the ballfield was right across the street from the hotel. It was Busch Stadium, the old one, one of the multi-sport abominations with the Astroturf that ruined athlete careers and made eighty-degree days forty degrees higher if you were on the field. It's since been replaced for the good of the fans and the players. Luckily it was a night game. The Reds were in town, and it was the era of “the Big Red Machine,” who were still worth seeing. I always thought it was strange visiting a ballpark that did not pay homage to my beloved Mets, almost like I was a stranger who interrupted a close family event. The Cardinals won.
The Wednesday night the show was all done, and in process of being torn down. I remember Myles Adler, the ad manager, who would later work at Panasonic, and Diane Cielo, who was his assistant, bringing me along with some others to a Mississippi riverboat for dinner. I was struck by how small the Mississippi seemed, as I grew up with the Hudson River and New York Harbor, a great expanse of water that seemed to define what a river was. Little did I know how narrow the Hudson was at various points north; what a sheltered life. I had a lot to learn.
Thursday was the flight back. Most of the Teterboro crew headed to Newark Airport while I was alone, again, on my way to LaGuardia. I saw Ed Haggerty in the morning, and we checked out of the hotel together. I had no idea I needed a credit card when I was traveling, and had assumed the company had arranged payment with the hotel. Ed pulled out his Diners' Club card and put my hotel charges on it, reminding me that getting a card like American Express would be a good idea when I got back. We said goodbye and that I would see him on Friday morning.
When I got to LaGuardia, my parents and my unsuspecting girlfriend, Annie, waited for me at the gate. I could see them through the window as they watched the plane pull up to the terminal. It's amazing how much air travel has changed in these 30 years. The Ed Haggertys of the businessworld can't time their airport arrival to be 15 minutes before their flight, and now no one can meet you at the gate without extenuating circumstances. It was always nice to see spouses and family members, significant others, friends, and associates meet travelers at the gates, something that's just not the same when they meet in baggage claim. There's more built-up anticipation actually seeing the plane pull up to the gate and seeing the first passengers emerge.
The next day was Friday, and because Teterboro was on flex time (a still marvelous idea) the day was to end at 1pm. I left and headed to Manhattan to pick up the engagement ring. That evening, at around 6pm, in my car at Woodlawn station, she would say “yes,” just as her parents said she would two weeks before when I requested their blessing.
Since June 5 of thirty years ago, the industry and I, and Anne Nikl and I, through all the changes, challenges, and time, have been inseparable.
P.S. Here are some additional items related to my trip. Among the people staffing the Agfa-Gevaert booth were:
Ed Manielli (we still exchange Christmas cards), Pete Becker, John Sisson (who is now at Day International), Shelby Weinstein, Turner "Bill" Reid (who would later work for Dupont), Bob Topping, Barbara Richards, Dave Ditallo, and Dick Kashner. Perhaps some of the oldtimers remember these folks.
Al Coenen was the VP in charge of Agfa-Gevaert's graphic division. His father set up the Gevaert Company of America during the Great Depression. He was always called “Mr. Coenen,” and we suspected even Mrs. Coenen called him that. When I announced I was leaving the company in May 1980, he was sincerely disappointed that I was going and we had a number of private chats about the industry and his experiences. One of them was about the Nazis marching in and taking over their production facility while he family was here in the U.S. People didn't understand supply disruptions like that, he said, chuckling and somber at the same time. He retired from the company in 1980 and may have set a record for retirement dinners. He could still speak his native Flemish, but some executives in the European facilities had forgotten, so when they would huddle to discuss things when they thought he was out of earshot, he would know what was going on. He claimed to have never really told them that he wasn't as perceptive about their actions as they thought. When I joined the company, they were putting in a new forecasting system, which was a real disaster. It nearly killed their business. He was a quiet man, and I only saw him dress down an executive once, and the rigid adherence to sticking with a broken system threw him over the edge that day. I never saw it done so well.
Though I was there only two stormy years, many lessons stick with me to this day. Some silly things do, too. Agfa ended each month on the 26th for some convenience of the European financial departments. Whenever I realize it's the 26th, I still think it's the end of the month. Being there at the time of the silver crisis, when it hit $80 in January 1980 taught me more about marketing and competitive strategy, good and bad, than I had realized at the time. It all started thirty years ago, this date.