Remembering Fred C. Wikoff Jr.


From developing an employee-owned company to empowering colleagues, Wikoff Color’s founder was ahead of his time.

Remembering Fred C. Wikoff Jr.

From developing an employee-owned company to empowering
colleagues, Wikoff Color’s founder was ahead of his time.

By David Savastano, Editor

In 1956, Fred C. Wikoff Jr. formed Wikoff Color Corporation with the idea of creating an ink company that was based on producing inks, coatings and varnishes with the “highest degree of perfection known.”

However, Mr. Wikoff also stressed the individual, which was a unique concept at the time.

“We are not only keenly aware of the importance of high quality and efficiency, but also the deep, personal values held by the individual that will be tremendously potent in affecting the success of our business,” Mr. Wikoff wrote as part of the company’s first mission statement.

Forty-seven years later, Wikoff Color is the sixth-largest U.S. printing ink manufacturer and the largest employee-owned company in the industry, with an estimated $81 million in sales annually and 31 plants in the U.S. and Canada. Perhaps most importantly to Mr. Wikoff, the company he founded remains dedicated to its people, who are employee-owners thanks to his decision to develop an employee ownership plan among many other benefits.

“He was really a unique individual,” said Phil Lambert, president and CEO of Wikoff Color. “He was very forward looking in everything he did. He was definitely ahead of his time.”

On Jan. 28, 2003, Mr. Wikoff died in his sleep. While his colleagues have lost a real good friend, they are poised to lead the company, in Mr. Wikoff’s words, “onward and upward” into the future.

A Career of Innovation

For Mr. Wikoff, the ink industry was the natural place for him. Born in 1921 in New York, Mr. Wikoff’s father’s aunt was married to Frank Sinclair, a founder of Sinclair &Valentine, and his father and his uncle worked at S&V. After Mr. Wikoff graduated from Union College and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he went to work for S&V in Manhattan before being sent to North Carolina.

“He was transferred down south, he said, to get rid of him because he was asking too many questions,” Mr. Lambert said.

The transfer proved to be beneficial, as Mr. Wikoff called on printers throughout the region and made countless contacts. By 1956, Mr. Wikoff had grown tired of internal politics at Sinclair & Valentine, and decided to strike out on his own. After raising $60,000 from family and outside investors, he formed Wikoff Color Corporation.

Mr. Wikoff quickly drew a number of talented employees to his new company. Because of his leadership, Mr. Wikoff was able to keep many of these people with him for many decades.

“Our company reflects his basic integrity,” said Mr. Lambert, who joined the company in 1973. “He was an extremely honest person who would say what was on his mind.”

“He was a fine man, and probably one of the most unselfish men I’ve ever met,” said Jim Bell, who joined Wikoff Color in 1966 and is now Southeast regional vice president. “He never faltered from his integrity.”

“My wife and I first met Fred in Detroit, and he won our hearts, because as far as my wife and I were concerned, he was an honest guy who told it like it was,” said Roger Leonard, Wikoff Color’s Midwest regional vice president, who joined the company in 1973. “Fred was my mentor. What I know, he taught me. He was almost like a second father to me.”

One reason people stayed and the company continued to thrive was because Mr. Wikoff believed in employee initiative.

“He was a believer that if you want to improve a job, you should ask the person who is doing it how it could be done better,” Mr. Lambert said. “He held this belief long before the idea of empowering employees was advocated by others.”

Perhaps the most unique characteristic of Wikoff Color is that it is nearly 80 percent employee-owned, an offshoot of Mr. Wikoff’s beliefs in sharing success. In addition, the company has a profit sharing plan and a scholarship fund.The scholarship fund was personally funded by Mr. Wikoff.

“The most outstanding thing about Fred as a leader was his basic integrity and his willingness to share ownership and allow our people to share our success,” Mr. Lambert said.

In the first 10 years of the company, stock options were granted on a limited basis to a few key employees. During the second 10 years, stock options were given to many more. Employee ownership has expanded greatly since, and employees have held majority ownership of the company since 1985.

Today, all employees may invest a portion of their profit sharing account balance in company stock and all employees are given stock options after three years of employment.

“Fred has always believed that those who contributed to the profitable growth of the company should share in its success,” Mr. Lambert said. “Our company established a profit sharing plan about 45 years ago, and every year we’ve been contributing 10 percent of our pre-tax earnings into the plan. In 1979 we started moving significantly toward employee ownership, and since 1985 our employees have owned the majority of our company.”

“Some of the things that he did, such as setting up the scholarship program for children of employeesout of his own pocket, helped a lot of people in our company,” Mr. Bell said. “He started the stock program for us so we were part owners, and that meant a hell of a lot for my family and me. It pays off because everybody takes a little more pride in what they are doing.”

“He was a generous man,” Mr. Leonard said. “He took care of us.”

Mr. Lambert said that the employee ownership gives Wikoff Color a major edge over its competition.

“An employee-ownership attitude, with which we all think and act like owners, should continue to give us a big edge over our competitors,,” Mr. Lambert said.

Characteristically, when Mr. Wikoff was told by the government that he had to begin withdrawing his money from his own profit-sharing plan upon reaching age 70, he found a way to help employees by setting up a scholarship fund.

“He set up our scholarship fund out of his own profit sharing money,” Mr. Lambert said.

Mr. Wikoff’s friends said that whatever he was doing, Mr. Wikoff always had a sense of urgency.

“He was extremely impatient – he couldn’t just stand around,” Mr. Leonard said.

“He had an unbelievable energy level and his sense of urgency was off the charts,” Mr. Lambert said. “In the days when he was flying his private plane, he once left an employee at the Rock Hill airport because she arrived only 10 minutes early to fly with him to Michigan. On more than one occasion, Fred would arrive at the destination airport ahead of schedule when flying to visit one of our branch plants and begin walking to the plant a mile or two away rather than waiting to be picked up. His impatience was due to an unbelievable sense of urgency, which drove our company to having the shortest response time in our industry.”

Life Outside Wikoff Color

One of the first impressions Mr. Lambert had from his initial job interview with Mr. Wikoff was how important it is to enjoy life outside of work.

“He told me, ‘If you come to work with us, you’ll be working for yourself. And if a man works for himself and he works all the time, he’s a damn fool,’” Mr. Lambert recalled.

These were words that Mr. Wikoff lived by. Outside of Wikoff Color, he had numerous interests, including flying his own plane. In 1995, Mr. Wikoff crashed his plane when it ran out of fuel. He wasn’t expected to live, but he made a full recovery. Even after the crash, Mr. Wikoff remained active, serving as chairman of the board of Wikoff Color, and went to work daily at the Fort Mill, SC headquarters through Jan. 10, 2003.

Mr. Wikoff also believed in participating in the community. Mr. Wikoff was involved in many philanthropic activities, including donating $468,000 from his stock sale to employeesin 1978to form The Family Center in Charlotte, NC, which helps abused and neglected children.

The Family Center has grown in the past 25 years, and served 8,904 children and families in 2002. Last year, Mr. Wikoff donated 624 acres of land, including a 17-acre lake, to the center to form a sleep-away camp called TreeTops.

Mr. Wikoff is survived by his wife of 40 years, Valerie Brown Wikoff, son Steve, daughter Chris, stepdaughters Cheryl, Chris and stepson Jay; seven grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Onward and Upward

Mr. Lambert said that Mr. Wikoff’s values made him a special man.

“Fred closed his autobiography two years ago by writing about his life that ‘I just hope to hell that it adds up to something worthwhile,’ Mr. Lambert said. “If you judge a man’s life by the values he instilled in a company and the opportunities he helped give to so many people to better their lives, Fred’s life didn’t just add up to something worthwhile. It added up to something great.

“The people who make up Wikoff Color Corporation have lost a great friend,” Mr. Lambert concluded. “We will miss him; but we will carry on strongly as he would have us do, always striving to go ‘onward and upward.’”