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An Interview with New SGIA President Ford Bowers

Did he find print, or did it find him? What's next for the Expo? Will screen printing disappear?

In February, SGIA welcomed a new leader as Ford Bowers took the helm as president and CEO, succeeding Michael Robertson, who had served in that post since 2001. Bowers was named the successor at the SGIA Expo last November, following Robertson’s announcement that he would be retiring after 33 years with the association. Bowers brings a nontraditional perspective to association management, coming to SGIA from the leading retail graphics firm Miller Zell, where he was VP and general manager of the printing operation.

A native of Augusta, Georgia, who paradoxically prefers tennis to golf, Bowers has been a member of the SGIA board of directors since 2012. We caught up with him in early February, just a few weeks after he started his new role.

SP: Looking over your LinkedIn profile, it appears that you have gotten into this industry by accident, just like most of us.

FB: Actually, my brother-in-law was working at Miller Zell as a project manager (and now leads the graphics division). He started there in 2006. He said, “Hey, this is a good company and there is another opening for a project manager. You might want to look at it.” I had a lot of operational expertise and a project management background as well. I had been in about a half dozen different industries, so at that time, I was kind of industry agnostic. It just turned out to be a really good fit. I was a project manager there for about two years, and when the head of the print division moved on, the COO asked if I would be interested in running the graphics division and managing the print process. I was shocked. I said, "You know that I’ve never worked in a printing company before, let alone run one.” [Laughs.] She said, “I understand that, but I have a feeling you’re going to be really good at it.” For the next seven years, I essentially ran the graphics division for Miller Zell.

SP: Miller Zell has been a very forward-thinking company in concentrating on a niche in retail graphics and evolving its business to be much more than a printer. I think that’s a mindset that will be helpful to other SGIA members.

FB: That’s Sandy Miller’s particular genius in seeing that need and really investing and building a company around the notion that you should vertically integrate into this market. It started, I believe, with beefing up the creative [services], but over the years, they added a number of other things, such as shopper insight and consumer strategy at the front end, even before the creative development. How do you design environments that make people want to shop and create the best possible space for your brand? They added installation services, with staff in just about every state. They do thousands of full-store implementations every year. Digital signage is one of the more recent add-ons, and they have also added single-source provider services. I think I can say that they are still a print company to a large extent, but they’re really a retail services company. That’s how they’re seen, that’s how they bill themselves, and what ties all of that together is that they have really good project management. Having been on the printing side of their business, I’d say they still consider themselves as having a screen-printing heart with a lot of digital appendages. It’s been an interesting transformation for them.

SP: A lot of your members are going through similar transitions now. Through the 2000s, we tended to see a production split of about 70/30 between screen and digital in high-volume P-O-P printing companies. That ratio seems to be flipped today.

FB: The majority of the revenue on the print side does come from digital now. But because Miller Zell has a lot of national accounts, the company still has some lengthy runs. One of the last things I did there was an analysis of what the future will look like. We weren’t able to predict a time when [screen] would go away. It’s too far out into the future and they see it as a solid part of what they do. And there is so much it can do that digital can’t yet, and not just from an economic standpoint. They don’t see screen going away completely; they see it as a very viable part of the spectrum of services they do.

SP: And that’s coming from the market sector that has been most affected by the digital transformation. Just about every market segment now is at some stage of that process as well. SGIA has done a good job of rebranding itself to support both the screen and digital communities. Is that a direction the association will continue to go?

FB: Yes. Some of our markets at SGIA are still predominantly screen. I have yet to get to know them all intimately, but we have garment, printed electronics, and industrial applications. There is still a very high presence of screen in those industries, and they are growing.

It’s a challenge for us because we serve so many different types of printers and market spaces. How do we create a coherent brand? Of course, we came up with the moniker “specialty graphics” to encompass what are really a lot of different marketplaces using numerous technologies and serving multiple industries. It’s very difficult to wrap your mind around how to message for that – how to be inclusive, and develop each of those sub-communities, and do it fairly without treating any segments as though they aren’t driving the bus. It’s a challenge.

I have not looked at it from an industry-wide perspective until now because I did have that background [in retail graphics]. Now I’m tasked with doing that, and the plan is to have a lot of conversations in the next year, to go out and meet folks in each of these industry segments to ask them what their horizons look like, where they are heading, and what they see affecting them. There’s a tremendous blurring of the different sectors. Technology has changed who prints what kinds of stuff and people can move in and out of different market sectors. The barriers to doing that aren’t negligible, but they aren’t considerable either at this point. I think it’s a fascinating time.

SP: To your point about the growth in many market sectors, it’s been interesting to watch how the SGIA show has grown so successfully when virtually every other major printing exhibition has declined.

FB: It took a great deal of foresight. The challenge now is to really look at the next 10 or 15 years, because I think people are now starting to feel that maybe’s it’s not as obvious as it was when [wide format] digital started to blossom, but technological change hasn’t stopped. We may be at another crossroads with single-pass printing, for example. That could be equally as disruptive. So what do we want to be looking at 10 years down the road? How do we want to position the association? How do we want to support the members? What do they see that they’re going to need as support moving forward? Everybody is taking a deep breath and talking about these things.

SP: Getting back to the show, it has always been perceived as being stronger in the graphics sectors than in the garment or industrial fields. It seems, particularly over the last three or four years, that the association has worked to break down that perception and create an event where graphics printers can walk the aisles with T-shirt printers and companies involved in printed electronics and all will get value from being there. Is that a direction that will continue moving forward?

FB: I think so. I don’t think that we’re going to purposefully pare down the communities that we serve. What we want to do is look at the ones that we have now and figure out how to deliver more value to each of them. When you go to the show, you see digital textiles all over the place. You see screen-printing equipment for garment decoration. It does feel like the smaller part of a larger whole, so when you have something like the Expo that brings multiple communities together, there will be perceptions that have to be looked at.

What does that mean for the association? I think part of it is to explore what we can do the rest of the year. What can we do over the balance of the year that creates opportunities for different types of members to improve their businesses and increase their understanding and knowledge? I think we can really start to build separate tracks outside the show – having the show be the place where everyone converges, but also build member value for each of those communities outside the show. We don’t know what shape that will take, but that’s my current thought now, subject to change of course as reality dictates. [Laughs.] After a month on the job, I’m not wise enough or visionary enough to say that I understand everything. That’s why I want to have a lot of conversations with each of these communities, both on the printer side and the supplier side, to see what’s possible.

SP: Do you have any other shorter-term priorities that you’ll be focusing on?

FB: Well, I’m having to adjust my thinking a bit, to be honest, because in the print world, my priorities were what was going to happen in the next 24 to 72 hours. In the association world, the timeframes are so radically different that I’m not even sure what “short term” means. We’re planning 2017 now; we’re looking at event space for 2021. It’s just a different look at how we do things.

I would say that in the short term, because I’m not entering the association business or looking at the industry with 30 years of experience, that the short term for me is to go through a process of re-envisioning with the staff and the board of directors as to who we are, what we want to be in 10 years, and what it will take to get there. All the while getting more and more input from the members of the association and trying to figure out what some of the forces are that we need to be cognizant of. Over the next few months, we’ll start to have an understanding of how some of these things are starting to congeal and we’ll have a strategic plan in place sometime before the end of the year. And of course, that strategic plan will be a working document – it won’t be anything set in stone. We must have flexibility.

This is an opportune time to have a lot of conversations. I’m open to those conversations and I want to have them – structured or unstructured, formal or informal, with a wide variety of folks that are a part of this industry. Members or nonmembers – it doesn’t matter to me at this point. I’m not a blank slate, but I’m educable.

Read more from our February/March 2016 issue.
 

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