Succeeding on His Own Terms

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 10.14.09

Ink Systems' founder Urban S. Hirsch III Receives NAPIM's Ault Award

The Ault Award, the most prestigious honor given by the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM), salutes an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the progress of the industry.

Urban S. Hirsch III, the founder of Ink Systems, Inc., this year’s recipient, definitely exceeds these high standards. Under his leadership, Ink Systems has become the 20th-largest U.S. printing ink manufacturer with more than $38 million in sales in 2002, and is the leader in the high-end inplant segment.

He has also been a major supporter of NAPIM, having risen through the ranks to become its president in 1997, where he effectively combined his informal approach – he much prefers to go by his first name – with his willingness to succinctly speak out about the needs of the industry. He continues to serve NAPIM as a member of its board of directors.

Urban said he was surprised that he was chosen for the Ault Award. “It felt great to receive the honor,” he said.

While Urban may have been surprised, it’s fair to say that people who are familiar with all he has done for the industry know he is truly deserving of the Ault Award.

“Urban is a man who has lived ink and the ink industry, and we are all real proud he has been recognized for his contributions,” said John Jilek, president of Ink Systems.

Joining the Ink Industry

In 1960, Urban moved to Chicago to join his stepfather, Mel Pfaelzer, at Bowers Printing Ink. Starting as a trainee, Mr. Hirsch moved up through the ranks of production, color matching and formulating offset inks in the lab. By 1964, he was managing the technical lab.

By 1967, Mr. Pfaelzer had decided to open a West Coast facility for Bowers Printing Ink with Martin J. Paul, and Mr. Hirsch moved out to his native California shortly after. “The opportunity came up in 1968 to go to California, and I went out to be the technical guy,” Urban said.

Early on, Mr. Hirsch showed his deep commitment to industry affairs, as during the late 1960s and early 1970s he represented ink companies and printers before the Southern California Air Quality Management District and played a significant part in the drafting, implementation and enforcement of air quality regulations. By doing so, he expedited the permitting process for heatset web presses and greatly assisted in the rapid growth of heatset web installations in Southern California.

In 1973, Bowers Printing Ink had $7 million in annual sales, and Mr. Pfaelzer sold the company to Malinkrodt, a pharmaceutical company. Mr. Hirsch remained with Bowers, which grew to $30 million in sales when it was acquired by PPG in 1982, and he realized that PPG and the ink industry were not a good fit.

“I stayed until June 1985, but I just did not fit into the large corporate structure,” Urban said. “Within a month, I found a building to rent, and by October, we had a factory and our first $3,000 in sales. We started with myself and two others, and within the first two years 40 people had left the old Bowers West Coast operation to come to Ink Systems. We were sort of a family.”

In starting Ink Systems, Urban went back to his roots at Bowers Printing Ink, concentrating on the need for high-end inplant operations.

“Bowers specialized in high-end ink rooms, and Ink Systems just does more,” Mr. Hirsch said. “This is a continuation of the basic principles of Bowers. We wanted to be strictly a high-end company and our niche is the commercial ink side. We write our own software, make our own mixers, rebuild our mills and train our people in ink and printing. Our biggest ink rooms have 12 to 14 people, with nickel-polished mills, mirrored image stainless steel and state-of-the-art equipment and software.”

Today, Ink Systems has 250 people, and the company continues to grow.

“We’ve never bought a company, and all of our growth has been internal,” Mr. Hirsch said. “We have a strong group on the technical and sales sides and more technical people on the West Coast than anyone.”

It’s a testament to his leadership that Ink Systems has many of the people who have worked with Urban from the Bowers Printing Ink days. They speak of his vision and loyalty.

“Urban is an extremely loyal manager and the longevity of our people here at Ink Systems shows that,” said Mr. Jilek, who is also president of Ink Solutions, a new specialty varnish manufacturer in which Mr. Hirsch is part owner.

“Urban is able to combine his vision, anticipation and his sense of what’s happening in the marketplace,” said Tim Van Scoy, Ink Systems’ vice president of technical sales, who started with Bowers in 1972. “He is tuned into our customers. He’s just an incredible man.”

“Urban’s a great guy to work for,” said Al Nieman, president of Ink Systems’ Portland, OR branch, who has worked with Urban for more than 34 years. “He’s a fair man who has a good perspective on life in general. He’s really concerned for his employees. You’re not just a number here. He’s also a fun guy to be with. He’s built Ink Systems on his philosophy of delivering the best quality and value as well as respect for our customers.”

Mr. Hirsch’s two sons are also involved with the company.

“Carl works with us and has been deeply involved with our inplant startups as well as our UV technical side,” Urban said. “Paul also started working for us in the factory and in inplants, although he is writing scripts right now.”

Supporting the Industry

In receiving the Ault Award, Mr. Hirsch spoke at length about the contributions of Mr. Pfaelzer, himself a 1978 Ault Award and 1974 Printing Ink Pioneer Award honoree.

“Mel was a great role model,” Mr. Hirsch said. “Mel was a wonderful man – a very good technical person and probably the best ink salesman I ever met, plus he also ran a wonderful company. He was involved in NAPIM forever, and everyone knew him well.”

Mr. Pfaelzer’s belief in the importance of NAPIM as well as local organizations also impacted Urban’s career. When Urban founded Ink Systems in 1985, he applied for NAPIM membership immediately, and joined the NAPIM Board of Directors in 1989. In 1995, Mr. Hirsch was elected NAPIM’s treasurer, and after a year as vice president, he was elected president in 1997 for a two-year term.

Outside of NAPIM, Mr. Hirsch was the founder and first president of the Los Angeles Production Club and was twice elected president of the Los Angeles Ink Manufacturers Association.

He also has been active in the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF), taught classes on printing ink at Cal Poly Tech State University and was the founder of the Melvin A. Pfaelzer/Ink Systems Scholarship Fund to support the education of talented young men and women pursuing a career in the printing ink and graphic communications industries.

“I try to put something back into the industry that feeds me,” Urban said. “That’s what drives my work for NAPIM, GATF and the L.A. clubs. The single most important side of this industry is relationships, and not enough people build them.”

That level of dedication to the industry has led to Ink Systems having had five members receiving Printing Ink Pioneers Awards: Mr. Hirsch (1987), Michael Loiacono (1988), Mr. Nieman (1993), Mr. Van Scoy (1996) and Robert Hardwick (2000).

Industry Reaction

Urban has earned countless friendships and the respect of his peers through the years, and they are unanimous in their belief that he is a most deserving Ault Award recipient.

“It is a well deserved recognition for a good renegade,” said James Coleman, NAPIM’s executive director. “He’s taken the inplant concept and run with it and the industry has benefited. He’s a very innovative, creative thinker, which belies his laid-back style.”

Ron Barry, chairman of Color Converting Industries and 2000 Ault Award recipient, credits Mr. Hirsch for his dedication to providing quality.

“If we are talking about value, who can you better choose than Urban, who has effectively demonstrated that if you do it right, the customer will recognize it,” Mr. Barry said. “He’s a model of how to provide value.”

“Urban is a very special person in our industry,” added Harvey Brice, managing director of Superior Printing Ink and 1998 Ault Award honoree. “He promotes our industry in a very important way. He’s been very successful by delivering quality and service.”

Other Ault Award honorees spoke of Urban’s straight-forward approach and dedication to the ink industry.

“Urban is kind of a new breed,” said H. Howard Flint II, chairman and CEO of Flint Ink Corporation and 1999 Ault Award recipient. “He’s not traditional, which is a nice change. He’s real informal and frightfully honest. He’s done a lot to lighten this business up. I think he makes it more fun.”

“Urban’s a unique guy, and he is very devoted to the industry,” said Cal Sutphin, 2002 Ault Award honoree and president of Braden Sutphin Ink Company. “He’s a modest guy who cares about his business and built his company into a Top 20 company in a very short time.”

“Urban is a dynamic, creative, dedicated ink man, and well deserving of the Ault Award,” added Ronald Baker, president of US Ink and 1990 Ault Award honoree.

Future Plans

Outside of Ink Systems, Mr. Hirsch has some interesting collections, from his antique motorcycles dating from 1899 to the present. He also has been collecting art, mainly engravings and lithographs, for almost 40 years, with some engravings dating back more than 400 years.

Urban has no plans to leave the ink industry. “I’m very fortunate to be working with a wonderful group of people,” he said.

Considering his beliefs in quality and his leadership abilities, it’s no surprise that Ink Systems has grown so much in its first 18 years, and continues to flourish today.