Culture of Change

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Q&A with Sandy Alexander’s Mike Graff

Mike Graff is not shy about speaking his mind. With 30-plus years under his belt, the president and CEO of Sandy Alexander has earned that right, and has mastered the art of venturing through both good and not so good times. Through the years, his leadership record includes successfully charting restructuring courses, strategic acquisitions and overseeing portfolio mixes involving myriad digital technology/output devices. In his spare time, Graff even found time to be a volunteer fireman for more than 25 years in New York City, where he also served as the chief. We sat down with Graff to get his take on the industry and where it is heading.

Give us a snapshot of the industry today.

As time has passed, we have collectively gone from a narrow scope of work—when there was a plethora of it—to a more complex landscape. Specifically, there is a mirror-like dynamic between the supplier and client sides. The clients now have a smaller pool of talent that is trying to execute on a more complex marketing spend. And we have a smaller pool of printers, but because there are more channels, there is less concentration within that narrow band. So for those who want to persevere, they must widen their band.

How do you do that?

It does not happen by going to a trade show and buying a new piece of technology. You cannot buy a piece of equipment and go out and sell it. There could not be a worse recipe for success. First, you must have a solid reputation because you are going to be asking for some goodwill. If you are a shaky company—and I do not just mean financially—getting new technology is not going to help you.

Second, you must find out what clients are doing. While many companies say they listen to their clients, there are countless that do not truly understand them. If you do not understand your clients on a intimate level, they will guide you off a cliff. They will have you investing in all sorts of fancy stuff they may never utilize. So again, it is two sides of an equation here. It is not binary.

How do you get the right people on the bus all moving in the right direction?

It is a cultural change. When I give people a tour of my facility, they see print. But they also see a welding shop, a wood shop and a paint booth you could drive a bus into. We are building things that are exciting and complex, but they are what the clients need. This is all presented internally as opportunity, as opposed to a threat.

So the offering has changed, but how has getting to the customer changed?

It is tougher and tougher to canvass and cold call. This is my 40th year. I remember when I could walk into a building, take an elevator up and down, and search for a business that was target rich. You cannot do that anymore. The barriers are too high. So you do it through education and reputation. You must commit to a value proposition and then adopt the mantra that there is something in it for your customers, whether it is factual or perceived. If we are not intimately engaged with our clients and provide them something that is actionable and usable for them, they do not need us.

You must commit to a value proposition and then adopt the mantra that there is something in it for your customers, whether it is factual or perceived.

Where did this mindset come from?

My career has always been on the sales side, so it is important to me that our company knows the day-to-day struggles of our clients intimately. Having visibility in the market and into the mind of the buyer is essential. I feel very strongly that leaders in a company should have sales experience. I hire that way, too. Even people that I hire for technical roles should have some sort of customer-facing experience.

What keeps you up at night?

Getting the right people. The next generation does not see this as a glamorous business. They think it is a smokestack category, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have 21 computer programmers in the building. The reality is that our industry has a brand problem and it leaves me challenged to replace the people who are aging out of the business.

What is your advice as we move into a new decade?

We hit two recessions in a technological revolution, so everyone’s been focused on survival. Nobody was able to invest in a new strategy and personnel. But prosperity is rooted in a need for intimacy with the marketplace. My whole job is based on what is next.