February 2004
What should presidents do?
Many things, but first,
they must move out from
behind their desks
Company presidents often assume diverse responsibilities that fall outside their areas of expertise. We’ve all seen successful owners who progressed through the production side of the business and who decided that they could bring printed material to the marketplace more efficiently and competitively and decided to open their own shops.
We also all know successful sales professionals who believe that, given the chance to run their own operation, they could produce work more quickly and with better margins, and earn more money than they had been earning as employees.
The person who leads a new organization will face a steep and lengthy learning curve. If he or she takes over an existing firm, having some processes in place gives him or her a huge advantage over others who start an organization from scratch.
But, however easier it may be to take over a company that’s already operating, there can be huge challenges in getting employees to buy into a new leader’s vision for the organization. Every small win under a new leader will help those who didn’t completely buy into the new vision commit to the new goals.
I believe it’s easier to set goals and objectives when you start a new business because people would only join a new firm if they liked the new challenges and opportunities. Naturally there are many potential land mines facing every new start-up and these are hopefully dealt with before they wreak havoc on the new business.

Whatever the scenario, the presidents of most printing companies have many duties and responsibilities, and if they had not developed the skill of multitasking before they assumed the helm, then they certainly must develop it fairly quickly. The reasons are well known to everyone who has ever worked in our industry, but I would like to review several.
1. The cyclical demands of the industry do not generally allow us to hire the necessary line and staff personnel and the expertise that each could bring to a position. For example, even when we had more than 150 employees at Arthurs-Jones, we did not have a human resources manager on staff. A skilled person in this area could have made life much easier in dealing with hiring, health and welfare, union negotiations, and other issues.
2. Banking and financial issues are generally complex and very time-consuming. It’s unlikely that presidents at most printing companies are skilled in this area. The president must then familiarize herself with the demands of this discipline so that the company can be represented properly in all negotiations and financial dealings. I suggest hiring an outside accountant to help you in any complex financial matter.
3. Presidents almost always get involved in buying equipment to grow the organization. While this is generally considered a fun part of the job, it can be very time-consuming. Showroom demonstrations and trips to companies with similar equipment are sometimes necessary and take time away from the plant. Occasionally, some of this preliminary work can be done by the staff, however, my experience is that most presidents are very involved in this process.

Grow the shop
These are just three examples of the various duties and skills we expect from the people in charge. While I wouldn’t diminish the importance of these roles, I suggest that the singular most important role of a president is to define a strategy for securing business that allows a company to grow and prosper. This is essential and it cannot be done by sitting behind a desk, articulating the vision to the sales reps and telling them to go get the business.
Presidents of printing companies must spend a considerable amount of time out of their offices seeing customers and finding out what they need. They must decide if and how their organization can participate in the future plans of their customers. This intelligence, gathered from a large percentage of the customer base, enables some serious planning about the direction the company is to go.
It’s also necessary that presidents be involved in pursuing new accounts. How else could they have an accurate knowledge of the current state of the industry and an understanding of how their company is viewed in the marketplace? Obtaining this information any other way than first-hand will diminish its relevance.

My guess is that presidents who spend all their time managing the company and very little time in front of customers will say that they are just too busy and cannot get out of the office. If this is the case, they have got their priorities confused and they will be less and less effective as time goes on. It should also be noted that when the president is out of the office seeing customers, the staff has an opportunity to make informed decisions. This fact alone can have a positive impact on how presidents are perceived within the company.
In summary, the top priorities of a company president are to understand the needs of customers, recognize growth opportunities in the market, understand the state of the industry and how the company is viewed within it, and assess the strengths and weaknesses of competitors. Very little of this can be achieved from behind a desk.
Duncan McGregor was president of the former Arthurs-Jones Inc., a Toronto-based, award-winning commercial printer. He led the $5 million-a-year firm to a five-fold increase in sales. He is now a consultant to the printing industry and can be reached at (416) 487-7666.
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