Last month, Xerox celebrated the 25th anniversary of launching one of a tiny handful of products that genuinely merit being called game-changers for graphic communications: the DocuTech 135 Production Publisher. Before this all-in-one electrophotographic printing system made its first appearance in 1990, the manufacturing method now known as digital print-on-demand was more an engineering aspiration than a market reality. Once DocuTech made the dream doable, however, the technology, workflow, logistics, and economics of printing would no longer resemble what they had been.

A post at Xerox’s Digital Printing Hot Spot blog tells the story in thorough technical detail, cataloging the many innovations that Xerox built into the world’s first “print shop in a box.” But, as sterling as the technical achievements may have been, there remained the task of selling the print market on a concept and a device the like of which most producers and buyers of print had never previously encountered.

That part of the story can lay claim to its own share of innovations, and the person best qualified to tell it is the former Xerox executive who led the sales and marketing team responsible for DocuTech’s groundbreaking commercial success.

Frank Steenburgh had been working for Xerox as a senior sales manager for about 20 years when, in 1987, the company put him in charge of bringing DocuTech to market. He’d become involved with the project four years earlier as a member of a group that wrote a white paper about the kind of device Xerox would need to build in order to make the leap from analog copying to digital production printing.

As the Hot Spot post relates, the DocuTech platform transformed graphic reproduction by making it possible to print and finish complex documents from streams of digital data—a capability born in experiments at Xerox’s famous Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) laboratories. Also unique for the time, says Steenburgh, were the DocuTech’s fast printing speed; the high resolution of its monochrome imaging; the broad range of substrates it could handle; and its compatibility with bookletmakers and other inline finishing solutions from third-party providers.

Seven years from ideation in a white paper to product in final form is a long gestation period for a printing machine. Steenburgh emphasizes, however, that Xerox was always committed to releasing the device only when it was fully ready, even if that meant postponing the launch date. There were technologies to perfect, but there were also a marketing strategy and a corresponding sales approach to develop almost entirely from the ground up. This is where the ingenuity of Steenburgh and his team came in.

What Xerox did not have at the time was a market focus for DocuTech: a sense of who might buy it and what uses those customers would want to put it to. The DocuTech team created a focus by identifying likely end-user segments such as colleges and universities; aerospace; pharmaceutical; financial services; and publishing. Then they established industry councils consisting of high-ranking figures from each segment—for example, the manager in charge of Harvard University’s in-plant printing center within the academic group.

Steenburgh says that in meeting semi-annually and annually with these delegations of experts, he had one purpose in mind: to understand their key business processes so that Xerox could be absolutely certain that the product it was developing was the one the experts wanted to see. So tight was the focus on customer requirements that maintaining it added two years to the launch timetable, according to Steenburgh.

He and his team used some of that time to stay just as tightly coordinated with Xerox engineering. Steenburgh’s sales and marketing cadre met with the DocuTech technical development group every other Saturday for two years, hammering out details and making certain that every spec and feature of the evolving product was customer-driven.

The pace was slow and scrupulous, but it paid off. Steenburgh says that by the time Xerox was ready to unveil the DocuTech 135 Production Publisher in 1990, all of the industry councils were singing its praises. This carefully cultivated influence played no small part in persuading all 28 beta customers to purchase their test machines, a sales coup that gave DocuTech powerful market momentum straight out of the gate.

Steenburgh kept it going by setting a tough but effective regimen for his sales reps. Everyone had to follow a 10-stage sales process for each of his or her prospective customers. Progress reviews took place weekly, and a rep who couldn’t show customer movement from one stage to the next was at risk of losing the account.

It was a new kind of sales discipline for Xerox, and Steenburgh acknowledges that it wasn’t easy on those who had to carry it out. But again, the results would speak for themselves. Steenburgh says that his DocuTech sales team consistently beat their annual projections, once bringing in $70 million worth of additional profit in an especially productive year. Ultimately, he says, the DocuTech series would come to represent a more than $2 billion annual business for Xerox.

Steenburgh—known by now to his Xerox colleagues as “DocuFrank”—would go on to direct the market launch of another landmark product for the company, the DocuColor iGen3 Digital Production Press. He retired from Xerox in 2005 as senior vice president for business growth. These days, he stays connected with the industry as a partner in an investment banking firm specializing in print-related mergers and acquisitions and as a consultant to graphic technology providers.

Looking back at DocuTech, Steenburgh sees a transformative product for Xerox and a disruptive technology for the printing industry. DocuTech was not the only solution of its kind, but it was the first to demonstrate on an industrywide basis that printing did not have to be mass-produced in order to be profitable. It also clarified the industry’s understanding of what print-on-demand could be and how digitizing the production workflow from end to end made short-run, fast-turnaround production not just possible for printers, but desirable for their customers as well.

Also in Steenburgh’s silver-anniversary retrospective are thoughts of team members whose contributions to the DocuTech launch he deems equal in importance to his own. The honor roll includes Chip Holt, leader of the technical development group; Tony Federico, second in command of development and later in charge of the group that gave Xerox the iGen3; and Barb Pellow, who headed up the DocuTech marketing effort.

It might be thought that in a résumé as lengthy and accomplishment-rich as Steenburgh’s, a high point would be difficult to find. Not so. He declares that even after all of this time, DocuTech remains “the number one achievement of my business career.”

“It was a phenomenal experience,” he says.