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Meet Jeff Jacobson, Presstek's new CEO

Aug 1, 2007 12:00 AM


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In May, Jeff Jacobson — formerly CEO of Kodak's Graphic Communications unit — was named CEO of Presstek. During my career in this industry, I've encountered hundreds of vendor executives and have considered myself a talent scout for potential top-performing CEOs. When I meet an up-and-coming executive, I usually ask myself whether I'd hire that individual to run my own company.

Over the years, I've compiled a “Top Ten” list of those CEOs. One of the first on that list was George Carlisle, whom I first met in1986 at Drupa. At the time, he was a vice president for Scitex, which was going through financially tough times. I was immediately impressed by Carlisle's confidence and commitment, and when he became president and CEO of Scitex America, he was the first to make my list. Several years later, he explained the success he had in turning Scitex into one of the major players in this industry. He postured, “This industry is a sea of management mediocrity, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to focus on the customer and to communicate with him.” Fortunately for the heads of many industry vendors, the 1980s were prosperous times for the printing industry, and even I was able to be successful during that period.

But back to Jeff Jacobson, who now tops my list. After receiving his undergraduate degree at Buffalo, he earned his MBA at Cornell and, in 1987, joined Polychrome as corporate employee manager responsible for the human resource function. He worked during the days and went to law school at Pace University at night, eventually receiving his degree and passing the bar in both New York and New Jersey. But another of my Top 10, Ed Baar, then chairman of Polychrome parent company Sun Chemical, convinced him to eschew a law career and stay with Polychrome.

Going places

I first met Jacobson in the early 1990s. He was leaving a local Fort Lee, NJ, restaurant as I was arriving. He was with a couple of other Polychrome managers, and one of them whispered to me, “Keep your eye on this guy. He's going places.”

A couple of years later, I was having lunch with Thomas Bittner, the president of Polychrome. Bittner had decided to return to Europe and we were talking about his successor. He told me he had a candidate for the spot, but his boss thought the candidate needed more seasoning. “Don't tell me. I'll bet it's Jeff Jacobson,” I interrupted. I was right.

In 1994, Jacobson was sent to Canada to manage Polychrome's company up North. But, unhappy with his progress, he left the company to work for Bowne Printing in the fall of 1997. In January of 1998, Polychrome and Kodak's Graphic Communications unit were merged into a joint venture, Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG). With Baar as the first chairman of the operation, he named Jacobson president of the company's U.S. and Canadian operations. Jacobson was later named CEO of KPG, as he grew sales from $1.3 billion to $1.7 billion. When Kodak eventually bought out Sun Chemical's stake in the joint venture, Jacobson moved up the ladder to become president and COO of what is now Kodak's Graphic Communications Group — one of the best and most profitable businesses in the industry. During that period, Jacobson grew sales from $1.3 billion to $1.7 billion and had one period of 18 quarters of profitability growth.

Hiatus interruptus

After seven years of constant travel and time away from his family, Jacobson decided to take this summer off. In March, he announced he would be leaving Kodak on April 30th. After his summer hiatus, he planned to explore his future. But on May 1st, Presstek Chairman John Dreyer, who had led Pitman's explosive growth during the 1980s and 1990s, entered the picture. (By the way, Dreyer's performance at Pitman makes him the prime candidate for the No. 1 spot on my “Top Ten” list.) Dreyer began a concentrated and effective campaign to recruit Jacobson and convince him to scrap his summer plans. On May 10th Jacobson conceded and was named Presstek CEO. After the announcement, Dreyer told me, “There was no question that Jeff was the guy to grow our company.”

During his first couple of months with the company, he has visited each of the company's plants and facilities. He has established quarterly leadership meetings with about a dozen of his managers. He also has monthly operations business reviews with Jeff Cook, another former Kodak executive, who was named Presstek CFO his year. He's planning to extend Presstek's marketing reach to Europe and Asia. “Two-thirds of the worldwide market for printing supplies is outside the United States,” he explains. “We're planning on greater penetration in foreign markets, and we're going to give all of our customers the kind of responsiveness, peace of mind and reassurance that they expect from a leading vendor. Our 52DI press is one of the best-kept secrets in the industry, but the reviews have been terrific. Current customers say the press has been reliable and cost effective, and we have a lot of room for growth,” he adds.

Unfortunately, Jacobson's plans for a long summer of fun and sun seem to have gone out the window. It's his family's loss and Presstek's gain.

M. Richard Vinocur is president of Footprint Communications. E-mail him at mrvinocur@aol.com.