A commitment to helping people – H. William Lurton

Albert G. Holzinger

William Lurton, chairman and chief executive officer of Jostens, Inc., took his first step up the corporate ladder in California, but Wall Street is where you’ll find appreciation of his performance as a business leader.

Under Lurton’s 20 years of leadership, Minneapolis-based Jostens has grown from what was essentially a family-run purveyor of class rings and yearbooks for students, with sales of $98.2 million and profits of $5.8 million.

In recession-plagued 1991, Jostens posted a 9 percent sales increase for its varied lines of business. They include school photos, rings, yearbooks, and caps and gowns; products for teaching, motivating, and recognizing students and employees; and insignia merchandise designed to enhance individuals’ ties to schools, companies, and other groups.

With a record $860 million in sales last year, Jostens increased profits by 7 percent, to $60.2 million. In fact, the company’s sales, earnings from continuing operations, and cash dividends to stockholders, 80 cents per share last year, all have increased in each year of Lurton’s tenure in the executive suite at Jostens.

The firm’s diverse operations now support more than 1,500 independent sales representatives and employ more than 9,000 people in 46 plants across North America, from Attleboro, Mass., to San Diego, and from Denton, Texas, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada.

In addition to running a company of that size, Lurton has taken on another major business role–1992-93 chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In light of his close business ties to educators and students, it is not surprising that Lurton’s principal goal in this assignment is to advance the education-related initiatives of the business federation’s 1992 National Business Agenda. (See “Building The American Future,” the cover story in the March 1992 Nation’s Business.)

Lurton’s year of service as chairman of the U.S. Chamber began at the recent National Business Action Rally, in Washington, D.C., where the entire business agenda was presented to President Bush.

Education efforts this year by Lurton and the Chamber staff will be twofold: continuing the work of the Center for Workforce Preparation and Quality Education, a Chamber affiliate, and working with officials of the Bush administration in gaining widespread acceptance of the president’s America 2000 plan.

The Center for Workforce Preparation and Quality Education was established two years ago to provide business leadership in mobilizing, recognizing, and publicizing the leadership role of state and local chambers of commerce in efforts to lift the level of education in America.

The center already has enlisted more than 600 chambers and thousands of their member businesses in support of America 2000, the name given to the six national educational goals set in 1990 by President Bush and the nation’s governors.

With the start of the next century as the deadline, America 2000 envisions that all children will begin school ready to learn; at least 90 percent of all high-school students will graduate; all children promoted from grades four, eight, and 12 will have demonstrated competence in challenging subject matter; and the U.S. will have re-established itself as the world leader in math and science. America 2000 also calls for all adult Americans to be literate and capable of competing in the global economy and for every school to exhibit an atmosphere conducive to learning.

“Our country’s economic health depends on continued investment in plants and equipment, research and development, and infrastructure,” Lurton said in a recent speech at Kansas’ state chamber of commerce. “But even more so, our ability to compete at home and in world markets depends on the most vital capital investments of all: the one we make not in things but in people. We must upgrade the quality of education in this country, and business must continue taking the lead in this crucial effort.”

Softspoken and self-effacing, Lurton, 62, is a man who lists “family activities” among his hobbies. His own experience supports the value of lifelong learning, self-discipline, and determination.

Lurton says his father, a “semiskilled handyman and carpenter” with not much formal education, lost his job at an amusement park in New York state at the onset of the Great Depression. The employment outlook in the Northeast was bleak, so Lurton’s parents moved the family back to their childhood hometown, Dow, Ill., just north of St. Louis. The move soon paid off: Lurton’s father was hired as a carpenter by tiny Principia College in nearby Elsah, Ill.

Like his six siblings, Lurton attended school in Jerseyville, Ill., but his football career outshone his academic record. At that time, Lurton says, he lacked the discipline to concentrate on his studies.

But his grades did gain him admission to Principia, and his father’s employment provided for free tuition. Lurton played tackle on the football team and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. He graduated during the Korean War and enlisted for a two-year hitch in the Marine Corps.

Lurton thrived under the discipline of military life, he says, and he was promoted to sergeant even though he never drew combat duty.

Upon his return to civilian life, Lurton became a delinquent-loan collector for a St. Louis bank, with some of his territory in the rural Ozarks. After a year or so, he went West to find better-paying, less-hazardous work.

In California, Lurton became friends with Bob Vordale, a sales manager for Jostens. The company had recently branched out from the class-ring business into yearbook sales and was looking for product representatives. At Vordale’s urging, Lurton applied, and he was hired in December 1954.

Over the following 15 years, Lurton climbed to the ranks of director and executive vice president, the title Jostens then gave its chief operating officer. In his characteristically modest way, Lurton attributes his meteoric rise to “circumstances that developed for me.”

Lurton also credits his success to an eagerness to learn Jostens’ sales philosophy, approach, and strategies inside out and the discipline to apply those principles faithfully and consistently. “However, I really had no choice,” he says. “I had no other sales or business background” to draw on.

Lurton was promoted to CEO of Jostens in 1972; the responsibilities of chairman were added three years later. Don C. Lein, a 30-year employee of Jostens who now serves as its president, offers this widely quoted observation: “Bill took over at as stressful a time as there has ever been at Jostens.”

A major source of that internal stress was the slow withdrawal from Jostens’ operations of company patriarch. Daniel C. Gainey. The firm’s first salesman, hired in 1922, Gainey was chairman and president of Jostens from 1933 until the late 1960s. From then until Lurton’s appointment, Jostens named and fired three chairmen.

Demographic trends also were signaling possible problems for Jostens. In the mid-1970s, the last of the post-World War II baby-boom children were entering high school, where Jostens was selling what then was its entire product line: class rings, yearbooks, diplomas, caps and gowns, and student awards. High-school enrollees–and potential customers of Jostens–have been declining since, though this year they will begin increasing again at about 1 percent annually.

Lurton’s demeanor of quiet confidence, discipline acquired from military service, and competitiveness honed on the football field proved to be a formula for success. His early actions as CEO stabilized the management team at Jostens, decentralized day-to-day decision making, boosted the sales force by almost half, re-emphasized the training programs that Lurton attributes to his own early sales success, and enhanced product lines in order to generate more revenue per sale.

And because Lurton could do nothing about the size of the high-school market, he sought to build market share. By the end of the ’70s, Jostens’ share of school-product sales had increased from about one-third to almost 40 percent, about where it remains today.

Realizing that he could not overcome adverse demographics indefinitely just by fine-tuning business practices, Lurton began diversifying–with what he admits were “mixed results.”

In its first aquisition, in 1977, Jostens purchased Artex Enterprises, a supplier of custom-imprinted sportswear, which Jostens now sells at retail, college, and military outlets. The strength of that purchase, Lurton says, was that it nicely complemented Jostens’ traditional school-products line. So did some subsequent successful acquisitions, such as two school photography companies and a direct-mail firm that sold recognition products to college students and alumni and other groups.

Other acquisitions that were somewhat more removed from the core market in which Lurton and Jostens feel so comfortable were less fruitful. They included an office-supply operation and a chian of private vocational-education schools.

But Lurton admits not every decision can be right. So when his business instincts signaled him tha an acquired firm might not be integrated successfully into Jostens’ business culture, he resold it. Lurton’s quick, decisive action in this regard allowed Jostens significant gains even on the missteps.

The decidedly correct foray into new lines of business includes educational computer products. In 1985, Lurton bought Borg Warner’s audivisual-aids division, an acquisition that he says inspired “little enthusiasm around Jostens at the time.”

Soon afterward came the purchase of Prescription Learning Corp., a developer of software for schools. Then, in 1989, came the acquisition of Education Systems Corp., another learning-software firm. Also that year, Lurton organized the three technology-based learning firms into Jostens Learning Corp., headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz. The results have been spectacular.

In 1989, Jostens Learning posted total sales of about $85 million. A year later, the firm already was the market leader in the high-tech education field with products in more than 4,000 of America’s schools. Sales increased by 41 percent, to about $121 million. Last year, Jostens Learning products could be found in more than 5,500 schools, and revenues reached $160 million, up about one-third.

The U.S. has about 100,000 schools for children in kindergarten through the eighth grade and an additional 20,000 or so secondary and high schools, notes Lurton. Thus, he says, the sales potential “is huge” for Jostens Learning products.

Only 10 to 12 percent of schools use technology-based learning systems now, he estimates, “and new software offerings and changes in technology will provide continued opportunities even in those schools” that already are customers.

“We’ve ended up with a business that is close-knit,” Lurton says. “I think of it as a business that facilitates in the lifelong development of people through educating, training, motivating, and recognizing them. We sell products in our learning area for preschoolers to adults; our recognition division sells products to honor people’s achievements all the way to retirement. And all of this brings about change for the better in people.”

Lurton’s commitment to helping people improve their lot is long-standing. “Bill Lurton’s dedication to service and giving is legendary,” notes Ellis Bullock Jr., Jostens’ vice president of public affairs and executive director of The Jostens Foundation. Created about five years after Lurton became Josten’s CEO, the foundation has contributed millions of dollars for scholarships and youth programs. Much of the giving is directed by committee made up of Jostens’ employees.

A second foundation, the Renaissance Education Foundation, created in 1988, recognizes and rewards teachers and students who excel. Typical rewards for excellence are free school lunches and admission to athletic events, discounts at school bookstores, and reimbursement of achievement-test fees. Jostens funded this innovative program to the tune of $700,000 last year.

Lurton supports a family foundation, Bullock says, and has given tremendous amounts of time to organizations ranging from the Minneapolis YMCA to the Minnesota Private College Council.

William Lurton’s already substantial efforts in education reform are part of a broad business effort to ensure U.S. industrial competitiveness in the next century, when today’s students will be America’s workers. As Lurton says: “The evidence is pretty well there that Japanese students are ahead of American students, as are European students. Our objectives must be ‘catch-up-and-get-ahead objectives,’ which won’t be easy to achieve.

“But we have identified the problems, and we are mustering the business community and others to combat them. With the help of technology, I think we can prevail.”

COPYRIGHT 1992 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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