“It’s hard to believe that this is my 31st year with Flint Ink,” said Mr. Walle. “I was very honored to receive the Pioneer Award. I had no idea when I entered the ink industry that it would lead to this. I feel especially humble when looking at the list of past recipients. I certainly think that working for Flint Ink has provided opportunities and visibility that may not have occurred otherwise.”
His colleagues noted Mr. Walle’s strong technical and business background has given him the tools to succeed in the ink industry.
“In recent years Len has focused on new business development,” said Dr. Joseph Raksis, senior vice president of research and new market development. “He has been successful due to a broad knowledge of the printing and related industries, an intense curiosity in new product concepts and business models and a great intuitive sense of what’s important.”
“Throughout his career, he has been in NAPIM and other industry organizations, and he has developed a large network of professional colleagues,” said H. Howard Flint II, chairman and CEO, Flint Ink. “His current position as director of new business development is an excellent niche for him to effectively utilize his technical background, his business expertise and his wide-ranging contacts.”
After working as a chemist for DuPont, Mr. Walle went back to school to obtain his MBA. He got his start at Flint Ink in its technical center, but ultimately his goal was to focus his energy on the marketing and business side of ink.
“I found a position at Flint Ink in their technical center, where I started out as manager of the chemical laboratory,” Mr. Walle said. Mr. Walle’s career aspirations were in marketing and business, and, according to him, he could see that this was a company that was ready to grow. At the time, Flint Ink was a relatively small company, with annual sales of approximately $25 million.
Working in the labs was a great opportunity for Mr. Walle to learn the ins and outs of the ink company. “Starting out in the lab was a perfect opportunity to learn how inks were formulated and why,” explained Mr. Walle. “Eventually, as the company grew, two product manager positions were created and I was fortunate to be chosen to fill one of them, focusing on web heatset and sheetfed offset inks. This allowed me to spend a great deal of time calling on printers, going into pressrooms and gaining first-hand experience on how inks are applied. Again, it was an invaluable opportunity to learn about the business.”
Mentors and Influences
Mr. Walle has been fortunate to work with some talented people throughout his career at Flint Ink. He cited three people as having the most influence on him.
“Three people stand out in my early years at Flint Ink: Dr. J. Bertram Bates, Robert H. Flint and Edgar B. Flint,” said Mr. Walle. “Dr. Bates was technical director and hired me. He was a friend and mentor, reminding me of some of my professors in college. You would go into his office and discuss technical ideas,” said Mr. Walle. One of those discussion led to Dr. Bates proposing using conductivity as a more accurate means of monitoring the concentration of fountain solution. “A project was started at Flint Ink as a result of that discussion and today conductivity is the standard method used in our industry for measuring fountain solution concentration. Dr. Bates’ expertise was in surface chemistry. He had a very active mind and was a very fine person.”
Robert H. (R.H.) Flint was vice president and treasurer of Flint Ink when Mr. Walle started at the company. “In contrast to Dr. Bates, who had a quiet leadership style, R.H. was very dynamic. He was a U.S. Navy captain in the Second World War and had high expectations both of himself and of the people who worked for him.”
At that time Mr. Flint was responsible for operations – manufacturing, purchasing, technology and finance. “He would walk around the technical center, the Detroit plant and headquarters, talking to everybody by their first name and, in doing so, he really knew what was going on in the company,” said Mr. Walle.
Mr. Flint could be a challenging leader. “He could be a real taskmaster, but he also made you feel that you were a valuable member of the company team,” said Mr. Walle. “R.H. was also a solid businessman who carefully watched accounts receivable and recognized the importance of R&D and process engineering. He was a strong leader with great integrity.”
Edgar B. (E.B.) Flint, president of the company at the time, taught Mr. Walle the importance of developing relationships and keeping the lines of communication open. “E.B. showed me how important personal relationships are in our business,” said Mr. Walle. “He really enjoyed communicating with people and took great pride in the quality of our products and our commitment to service them. It was E.B. who positioned Flint Ink in Mexico with a joint venture called Flint Mexicana. Then, during a trip to the plant in Mexico City, he rolled up his sleeves and showed the workforce how we made news black ink.”
This was Flint’s first joint venture outside the U.S. and, according to Mr. Walle, it set the foundation for their expansion into Latin America. “E.B. was fearless when it came to business competition. E.B. was a man of action with a ‘can do’ approach to life.”
Mr. Walle also noted that working with the Flint family has been a very positive experience. “I should also mention the Flint family. They are ‘real’ people who have taken an active interest in the business, reinvesting revenues back into the company. Howard Flint, chairman and CEO and David Flint, executive vice president, remain active in running the business on a daily basis. I have met and worked with members of the Flint family, knowing them both as owners and as friends. To me, that is pretty special.
“There are fourth generation family members today who have significant positions in the company. There has been a smooth transition of responsibilities and leadership as the company has grown over the years. Today, Dave Frescoln is president and COO. Dave has excellent vision and is a solid fiscal leader. It has been an amazing experience to have participated in and witnessed first hand the growth of the company into what it is today.”
Through the Years
Throughout his years at Flint, Mr. Walle has seen many changes. “There has been a lot of changes over the past 30 years, especially with the consolidation that has occurred both in the ink industry and with our customers,” he said. With today’s global market, Mr. Walle noted, there have been changes in every aspect of the ink industry.
“Certainly today there are much greater demands for professionalism and stronger business skills,” Mr. Walle said. “Environmental issues, higher press speeds, automation, quality requirements, demands for total solutions, faster communications and electronic CTP, all require a more sophisticated approach to conducting business.
“Today you have multiple decision-makers at many levels involved with the ink purchasing decision, whereas previously the decision was usually made in the pressroom. There has been a transition from web letterpress printing to web offset; now digital printing is coming into play.
“On the other hand, our industry is still based on service and customers still must have confidence in you, your product and your company,” said Mr. Walle. “From that standpoint, there remains a personal aspect of doing business in spite of the changes just cited.”
Keys to Success
Mr. Walle identified some keys to succeeding in this industry. “In my mind the number one key is honesty, which ties into personal communication. Next you have to have the ability to understand your customer’s needs and the ability to provide a product and answer for those needs. And those needs go way beyond ink. In the printing environment, the one thing a person sees on the printed page is the ink. You don’t see the plates or the press or other elements in the printing process.
“Because of this, the demands placed on the ink maker go well beyond the ink,” he said. “You need to understand all the elements in the process that can affect the end result of how the ink is printed, so that when your customers come to you with a printing problem you can help provide a solution. That can be very demanding; however, that is how the ink maker can stand out. Although our business can be very challenging, there is a lot of personal satisfaction to be gained because you really do see the result of your effort, day in and day out.”
Mr. Walle heads up new business development at Flint Ink on a corporate basis, which involves developing strategic alliances and identifying new business opportunities.
“This includes working with people whom I have met in the industry over the years as well as meeting new people around the world, evaluating new technologies and considering new business models,” said Mr. Walle. “Because of confidentiality a lot of this work is done behind the scenes and cannot be discussed. However, it is very satisfying to be able to influence the future course of the company so that it can continue to grow and prosper in the years to come.”