by Katy Ibsen, managing editor, PostPress
In April, the Foil & Specialty Effects Association (FSEA), honored Nelson Stevens, of Finisher’s Exchange, LLC., Grove, Illinois, as the recipient of the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. Much of Stevens’ career has been on the forefront of the finishing industry, being an integral part of the growth for major international equipment brands. Stevens has been a member of FSEA since its inception in 1992, contributing to the association’s success.
When asked about his feelings of being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award, Stevens quickly replied with a bit of laughter, “Total shock! I didn’t even know the award existed!” The response is indicative of his humility regarding a celebrated career in the finishing industry, as well as toward the ongoing support of the FSEA, an association he helped build.
With a storyteller’s tone, Stevens recalls a pivotal moment in FSEA’s history, as well as his own.
The Foil Stamping & Embossing Association (now FSEA) began back in the early ’90s. “The association didn’t have many members because it was too early for a lot of finishers to be involved,” said Stevens. “So budget was a delicate subject. John Tinnon was instrumental and so was I – at that time, we were members of the group – but it was a pretty small group. So we went to a meeting in Chicago, and we each donated (money) to get the organization to a better footing.”
Today, the association has grown tremendously and has served its membership over the last three decades with networking, continuing education and a connection to the industry’s evolution.
For Stevens, it is the enrichment and joining of small and large finishing companies that continues to give him great pride in the FSEA.
“You meet many entrepreneurs and family businesses, and there’s enrichment which FSEA brings to them about a number of subjects – everything from investment strategy to technical applications of embossing or diecutting and stamping,” said Stevens of the association’s benefits. “It’s FSEA that helped small businesses grow. There’s a number of finishers that I’ve come to know who have done extremely well. The FSEA also has enriched the knowledge of the major companies, like Hallmark Cards, American Greeting and so on… I enjoyed the little guys being there at the same time. I’m continuing to call on little guys, hoping that I can help them make the right choices as they try to expand.”
The BOBST years
Stevens’ career began in 1967 with BOBST. At the time, there were only six BOBST salesmen in North America. Stevens went on to be the sales manager, working out of New Jersey. Stevens helped place machines in both major corporations and small family businesses, providing great service to the company that gave him his start.
Stevens fondly reflected, “I’ll never forget the time – if you wanted to show visuals, a machine operating, BOBST had tapes. These tapes were on reels that were 12 or 14 inches wide and I carried a 16-millimeter projector with me on the plane so I could show these movies to people. Things have changed a lot!”
During his 13-year tenure, Stevens witnessed firsthand the competitive environment of finishing machinery – sparking the next chapters of his career.
“Over the years of having been with BOBST, up until ’81, they were challenged by a company called a IIJIMA, a Japanese die cutter producer. That was the primary challenger to BOBST, and the first generation machines at that time were running at 4,000 to 4,500 sheets per hour, rated speed. And so BOBST decided to up the ante,” he explained.
Stevens was at the center of BOBST’s race to develop the most efficient machine for the print finishers, and with that development came higher costs to printing firms. The market changed right before Stevens’ eyes.
“For all those early years, printers had been using a Miehle flatbed diecutter, and they wanted to get a first-generation BOBST but could not because the prices were too rich,” Stevens said. “So the better firms, that could afford the $7,500 SP102-e flatbed diecutter machine, started to let their first-generation machines become sold on the market. So when I left BOBST, it was to market and sell this first-generation machine to the small firms that could not afford the more expensive higher-speed machine.”
Stevens formed Independent Machinery, Inc., in 1981 and focused his efforts on selling refurbished BOBST equipment and machines.
“He saw an opportunity,” said Joyce Porter, Stevens’ daughter. “He had a lot of his clients say, ‘Geez, you know I really can’t afford a BOBST, but I like the technology.’ So he kind of put two and two together and said, ‘Why don’t we offer a refurbished BOBST, and I’ll have people work on the equipment, give you peace of mind and have you save on your investment but have the technology that you want.'”
The company saw significant growth during this time and equipped many small printers with the technology they needed to propel their own businesses. Eventually services expanded to include Stevens acting as a sales agent to, and eventually representing, seven international manufacturers.
Stevens’ company worked with Keck Machinenbau, selling its machinery for forming CD cartons and X-ray boxes; Vega Group, selling folder-gluers; TUENKERS, selling litho-laminators; Gietz, selling hot foil stamping equipment; Billhofer, selling laminators; Heiber and Schroeder, selling window machines; and in 1999, SANWA, selling diecutters. All the while, Stevens built a network of trained technicians who supported all of the machinery, maintaining parts and providing repairs.
When Gietz called
A pivotal moment for Stevens and his company was when he was approached by Heinrich Gietz in 1991 during a tradeshow. “He said, ‘I have a good feeling. Let’s talk a little further about your becoming an agent,'” Stevens recalled.
He flew to Switzerland and struck an agreement with the international printing and packaging manufacturer. At the time, Stevens said, many firms wanted to replace their presses that ran 1,200 to 1,400 sheets an hour with a Gietz that could produce 2,500 to 3,500 sheets an hour. He, along with his sales team of seven, tackled the North American market.
The Gietz agreement and tenacity of his team placed more than 60 Gietz foil stamping machines in print finishing companies throughout the country, many of which were sold for the purpose of foil stamping and embossing wine and spirits labels.
Of course, to Stevens, this was business as usual.
“There were quite a few Gietz running on the West Coast with private family firms, and some with a major firm out of Peoria, Illinois. They enjoyed the Gietz. It was a major player in the wine label business at the time,” said Stevens. Part of that major player role was the fact that firms liked the Gietz, and at the time they could afford it, so they were able to optimize their business into the wine and spirits industry.
Going strong by the mid-2000s, Stevens’ company succeeded at selling another innovation: a 40-inch Gietz foil stamper, superseding the BOBST 34-inch machine.
“The new Gietz would run as high as 7,000 sheets an hour, so there was an interest,” he explained.
Stevens’ daughter, Porter, sold the first one to RockTenn Company (now WestRock) for cosmetic packaging, and Stevens sold the second to Hallmark for greeting cards.
Unfortunately, Independent Machinery was affected by the Great Recession and closed its operations in 2009. That doesn’t change the amount of pride Stevens had for the company’s success or the livelihood it provided his employees.
At one point, his company maintained seven technicians and six salesmen. He knew he’d have to face darker days when the market declined, and Stevens didn’t take that sentiment lightly, as he sees himself in every one of his customers.
“The takeaway for me was the fact that, every single day, he did all he could to improve his customers’ capabilities in the most honest way with the best solution and operating at the highest level of integrity,” said Porter. “I think anybody in the industry will tell you that this man is all about integrity. He is as honest as the day is long. He genuinely cares for people’s well-being and wants their businesses to develop and flourish. He loves to educate, loves to coach and would take the time to get in the car and drive somewhere just to go talk to somebody – not necessarily with the sale in mind, but wanting to be of help. And that’s who Nelson is. He’s that type of person – he cares about people first and foremost, and the sale is second.”