Phil Lambert Reflects on 39 Years at Wikoff Color

By David Savanstano, Editor | 11.27.13

In 1973, Phil Lambert was a CPA and working with Ernst & Ernst (E&E), a large public accounting firm.

In 1973, Phil Lambert was a CPA and working with Ernst & Ernst (E&E), a large public accounting firm. However, he wanted to use his experience in industry. After an interview with Fred Wikoff, the iconic owner of Wikoff Color, Mr. Lambert decided that the ink industry would be an interesting place to try.

It proved to be an excellent decision. At the end of 2012, Mr. Lambert retired from Wikoff Color, although he remains chairman of the company’s board. Among his accomplishments, Mr. Lambert set the path for expanding the company, through organic growth and acquisitions, into the seventh-largest North American ink manufacturer, with estimated sales of $165 million. He also played a key role in transitioning the company into an employee-owned operation. He did all of this while maintaining his sense of integrity and loyalty to his employees.

“I had the honor and pleasure of being the company’s president for 17 years and chief executive officer for 15 years,” said Mr. Lambert. “During this time we expanded our footprint and broadened our capabilities, building on the strong foundation laid by Fred Wikoff in the years he preceded me in these roles.”

Joining the Ink Industry

The idea of bringing his accounting skills to industry was key to Mr. Lambert joining Wikoff Color, and his interview with Mr. Wikoff proved to be a fateful one.

“Fortunately for me, one of my first job interviews was with Fred Wikoff, and we hit it off from the beginning,” Mr. Lambert said. “Fred had such a high energy level and sense of urgency that he seemed like a whirlwind in our initial meeting; however, his excitement about the industry and especially about Wikoff Color Corporation was contagious. He had such a frank and unguarded personality that I was able to correctly read him as a person of integrity who was passionate about his work and the company he founded. The good gut feeling I had about Fred Wikoff made it an easy decision for me to join Wikoff Color in August 1973.”

The decision proved to be a good one, as Mr. Lambert fit right into the Wikoff team.

“It feels very good to have been part of the leadership team for 39 years of a company that consistently strived to do things the right way,” Mr. Lambert said. “Our success has been driven by our company culture throughout our history. Before we became an employee-owned company, the key components of our culture were already in place – teamwork, responsiveness, integrity and a commitment to all employees sharing in the profits of the company.

“The highlight of my career was helping lead Wikoff Color from being a company owned mostly by its founder to being a successful, financially-strong company owned mostly by its employees,” Mr. Lambert added. “Employees have owned the controlling share of the company’s stock since 1985. Since that time, we have enhanced the previously strong company culture by transforming it into an ownership culture in which all employees have opportunities to become owners, and most employees truly feel a pride of ownership and are motivated to work harder and smarter in order to assure the company’s success.”

Learning from Fred Wikoff

Mr. Wikoff proved to be an ideal mentor for Mr. Lambert.

“Fred had a very unusual personality,” Mr. Lambert said. “In addition to his characteristics I have already mentioned, he could be described as aggressive, loud, impatient and not a good listener. He was the type of person that people told stories about and quoted his sayings, sometimes needing to filter the language. Yet he recognized the need to use others with strong, independent personalities as sounding boards on all important business decisions and, consequently, independent leaders of other companies have always made up the majority of our board of directors. He believed in giving a high degree of autonomy to managers and he respected the work done by employees at all levels of the company.

“Shortly after I joined the company and many times thereafter, I heard him say, ‘If you want to improve the way any job is being done, ask the person doing it how it could be done better.’ This was about 20 years before the idea of empowering workers became popular in industry,” Mr. Lambert added.

“He was practical, frugal, unpretentious, honest and always tried to be fair with people,” Mr. Lambert said. “He had a lot to do in life and an urgent need to get on with it. He believed business is important, can be exciting and should be fun. He also believed people should have a life outside of work. He recognized the need for me to often serve as a buffer between him and others in the company who had difficulty communicating with him. He had no problem admitting he had been wrong or, to paraphrase his words, a ‘darn’ fool about something.

“Fred and I worked closely together for so many years that it’s difficult to delineate between what I learned from him and beliefs that I already held which he reinforced,” Mr. Lambert added. “Although I never emulated his personality, he was a great mentor to me, and helped shape my business beliefs and practices.”

Transitioning to an Employee-Owned Company

It is rare that any company becomes employee-owned, and Mr. Lambert helped lead Wikoff Color’s transition to employee ownership.

“Although there may be a few ink companies that offer ownership opportunities to a select group of employees, I’m not aware of another ink company that offers ownership to all employees,” Mr. Lambert said. “We are not an ESOP company, so our employees have a choice about ownership.

“Our continued success has been driven by our culture, with employee ownership as its cornerstone,” Mr. Lambert said. “In order for ownership to be meaningful and a motivation for employees, we have been very mindful that the risks and responsibilities of ownership cannot outweigh the rewards and rights of ownership.”

One of the key tenets for an employee-owned company is that everyone is treated equally. Mr. Lambert made sure that rule is followed.

“If management is going to talk about all of us ‘being in this together,’ it’s important that management not set itself apart from other employees,” Mr. Lambert said. “We do not have separate benefit programs for management and we do not have management perks. For instance, the company never provided me with a car or a club membership.”

The employee-ownership structure allows Wikoff Color to choose a different approach in its decision-making.

“Being an independent company owned primarily by our employees has allowed us to have a long-term emphasis in our planning and decision making,” Mr. Lambert said. “We believe comprehensive information sharing with our employee-owners is essential, that questions deserve answers, and all are capable of contributing ideas to improve job performance and to make us a better company.”

Integrity and Loyalty

In speaking with many of Mr. Lambert’s colleagues, they all talk of his integrity, intelligence and loyalty.

“I have known Phil since the summer of 2006,” said Geoff Peters, Wikoff Color’s president and CEO. “We spent a number of months getting to know each other, with me learning about Wikoff while Phil and other members of the Wikoff management team were determining whether I would be a good fit for the company.

“Phil’s accomplishments were numerous and it is hard to point to just a few,” Mr. Peters noted. “Certainly his ability to more than double the size of the company in his 15 years as CEO was a major accomplishment. I also believe his role in helping Wikoff become a major ink and coating supplier to the lottery and security market has to be on the list. His leadership while the company completed three acquisitions during a two-year period also has to rank toward the top. But above all, Phil’s single biggest accomplishment has to be his leadership in establishing the unique and very strong employee-ownership culture that has been the key to Wikoff’s success and his ability to attract and develop a management team that embraces that culture.”

“Phil has an innate ability to process and comprehend an amazing amount of information and use that information to make sound business decisions,” Mr. Peters observed. “He is extremely good with numbers, a talent that allowed him to analyze information better than anyone with whom I have ever worked. He is also a great storyteller. He is compassionate and thoughtful and every Wikoff employee was important to him, regardless of his or her role with the company. Phil was a great mentor to me, always providing me with candid feedback where it was needed. He is passionate about our employee-ownership culture and promoted it whenever he could.”

Daryl Collins, vice president sales and marketing, has known Mr. Lambert since 1977.

“Phil ran our company for a lot of years, transitioning the company into a full employee-owned company, which I am sure he would say is his greatest accomplishment,” Mr. Collins said. “Also, I would say the growth of our company through three significant acquisitions – Merit, Frontier and Century Color – was impressive. These fit with what we do well, as we do a lot of custom formulating.

“His strength is loyalty – he is loyal to our company and our people,” Mr. Collins said. “Everybody has different levels of integrity, but a lot of leaders talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. I never saw Phil compromise on his integrity. He led by example. The door was always open, and his financial understanding was great.”

“I met Phil in mid-1996 as I was interviewing for a position with Wikoff that would ultimately report to him,” said Dr. Don Duncan, director of R&D at Wikoff Color. “This was some time after Fred Wikoff’s plane crash, and Phil was president and CEO. Fred had recovered enough to come into work a few hours a day, but the management of the business was Phil’s.

“Phil accomplished a lot at Wikoff, including leading the company during our founder’s near-fatal plane crash,” Dr. Duncan said. “He supervised a period of great growth for our company, and he guarded our culture and the company qualities that got us started and kept us going.

“However, the greatest single accomplishment was managing every detail of the process to woo and win our largest customer,” Dr. Duncan added. “He was completely immersed in every detail of the business, the products, costing, pricing, relationships and every other aspect. Completing this brought a large piece of business to the company in addition to opening the doors to our first corporate acquisition, our first manufacturing plant in Europe, our first manufacturing plant in Asia plus significant new business in Latin America.”

Buck Rorie, vice president of finance and administration at Wikoff Color has known Mr. Lambert since 1976, when Mr. Rorie was an outside auditor for the company. He joined Wikoff in March 1985, and considers Mr. Lambert’s honesty, integrity and ethics as his greatest strengths.

“Phil’s greatest accomplishments were growing the company into a financially strong leader in the ink industry, successfully integrating three acquisitions and his emphasis on employee ownership,” Mr. Rorie said.

“I have known Phil for more than 23 years,” Greg Burch, Wikoff Color’s Southeast regional manager, said. “Phil was the first person I met at Wikoff during the interview process after I graduated college in 1989. During the interview, it was obvious he believed in and was fully dedicated to what the company was all about. His attitude was the main reason I joined Wikoff.

“Leading the company through a successful period that covered so many years was quite an accomplishment,” Mr. Burch said. “Phil worked closely with Fred Wikoff. As Phil worked his way up through the company, he helped Fred and others build and maintain the responsive, employee-ownership culture, which makes our company work. During his tenure, he had the foresight and judgment to see opportunities where others might not have been looking. I can remember saying to myself on one big occasion, ‘What is he thinking?’ But, like it almost always did, it worked out.

“One story that will tell you a lot about Phil: Right after I accepted an opportunity to move to another location in the company, my daughter, who was in fifth grade at the time, chose to write Phil a letter as a school assignment,” Mr. Burch said. “She used the letter as an opportunity to tell Phil that he really should consider the feelings of all members of the family when offering moves to employees. After she delivered the letter to Phil (without me ever knowing about the letter), Phil took the time to write her a nice response assuring her that sometimes parents do know best. As busy as he was, he took the time to help a little girl understand. Recently, his thoughtfulness was returned as my daughter, now a freshman in college, wrote Phil a congratulation letter upon his retirement and thanked him for his help along her way.

“Phil and I were both hired in 1973 and we worked together until my retirement,” said Roger Leonard, retired Midwestern regional manager. “I used Phil as a sounding board on things I wanted to present to Fred. Phil always had good advice and the ability to approach situations with an open mind. I enjoyed working for Phil, and he was a great leader. Phil and I always had a good working relationship, and I always enjoy our private time together too.”

Jim Bell, retired Southeast regional manager, has known Mr. Lambert for 40 years, both as a friend and leader of Wikoff Color, and spoke of his loyalty and honesty.

“Phil has always been honest and resolute in dealing with our customers and employees,” Mr. Bell said. “I think this is hard to find these days. He has always been loyal and faithful as a leader and friend. His record speaks for itself; just take look at Wikoff Color’s history since 1973.”

Enjoying Retirement

Now that he has stepped away from his day-to-day activities at Wikoff Color, Mr. Lambert is enjoying family life as well as having the time to develop new interests.

“My wife, Beth, and I have been married for 42 years; so she has influenced me more than I normally acknowledge, but not as much as she would have liked,” Mr. Lambert noted. “Seriously, being happily married to a supportive spouse who has had positive feelings about the company that employed me for all these years has made it much easier for me to be successful in my career.

“My family has been central to my life and, after living in Charlotte for 42 years, Beth and I have recently moved to Raleigh, NC, to be closer to children and grandchildren,” Mr. Lambert said. “Retiring and moving a week later means I am starting over in many areas of my life.

“I have always enjoyed learning about a variety of things, so reading and travel are strong interests,” he added. “I read fiction and nonfiction, but mostly nonfiction. Our most recent big trip was to Peru and Bolivia. I hope to travel more now that my schedule is not so full. I also enjoy being physically active. I played tennis in USTA leagues for many years, but two surgeries on my right shoulder have kept me out of tennis for the past couple of years. I work out several times a week and have not yet decided if I will get back into tennis. We have always been active in church and have already joined and become actively involved in a church in Raleigh. We have also begun to investigate new charities for volunteering and to support financially, and I recently joined the board of one nonprofit.”

All in all, Mr. Lambert feels he made the right choice when he met with Mr. Wikoff more than 40 years ago.

“I am very thankful I joined Wikoff Color at such a young age and, in many ways, was able to grow up with the company,” Mr. Lambert concluded. “I have been able to share in a common cause with a lot of great people, and I have derived much satisfaction from helping build something worthwhile that has had a positive impact on many people and their families.”