A Lifetime of Customers, Generations of Friends – FSEA Remembers Fred Isler

By Reneé Varella, Foil & Specialty Effects Association

Former FSEA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Fred Isler passed way July 12, 2020. Regarded in high esteem by his colleagues, he was an inventor who revolutionized the paper, packaging and printing industry. His stories and his vision of the world lifted and enlightened anyone who had the grand opportunity to converse with him. According to his son, Sebastian, Isler loved being a source of inspiration and being inspired to constantly challenge himself. He had the ability to bring out the best in people and to always try to see the world from as many different angles as possible. The following article was written in 2008 when Isler was honored by the FSEA.

When someone has been in the foil stamping and embossing industry for close to 50 years, you’d think taking it easy would be a top priority. Not for Alfred ‘Fred’ Isler, an industry veteran who passed the 45-year milestone at Bobst Group in 2005. Although Isler officially retired as vice president and general manager of Bobst Canada in the spring of 2006, he continued to handle one major account for Bobst – Ling Industry of Warwick, Quebec – and did so until that company’s general manager, Raymond Beaulieu, retired in 2009.

“We’ve known each other for 30 years, or more,” Isler said. “I’ve worked with Raymond on the training of his people, kept him informed of what was new in the industry and have given him the best service he could expect from any supplier in the industry. We had a personal agreement that I would continue to service his account until his retirement next year.”

For Isler, 20- , 30- and 40-year relationships in the industry are standard operating procedure. In fact, Isler has been such a fixture in the industry that the Foil Stamping & Embossing Association (FSEA) is proud to present him with its 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award. The honor recognizes Isler for his commitment to the growth of the foil stamping and embossing industry and for his leadership in introducing revolutionary technologies, especially in the areas of large-format stamping, embossing and diecutting

Beginnings at Bobst

Isler was born outside of Zurich, Switzerland, in the German-speaking part of the country. After high school, he attended a four-year technical school, then began to work for Bobst S.A. in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1960. Ninety years earlier, Joseph Bobst had opened a printing supplies shop in Lausanne, and in 1915 the company began producing its own printing machine equipment. Despite the threat of another World War, the company decided that the paperboard industry needed a complete line of machines, especially a press with an automatic platen, and began industrial-scale production in 1938 with its Prilly-Lausanne plant. Two years later, the company unveiled the first Autoplaten® diecutter.

Bobst broke into the American market with its folder-gluers and diecutters prior to the 1960s. Initially, Thompson National Press in Franklin, Massachusetts, represented Bobst in the US; then in 1965, Bobst acquired the Champlain company in Roseland, New Jersey, a manufacturer of large-size rotogravure printing machines. That same year, Bobst was renamed Bobst Group USA Inc.

In 1966, Isler transferred to Bobst Group USA as a field service technician, based out of Ohio and Kansas. He soon spent a good deal of time in Topeka, Kansas, on a special assignment for Bobst at Hallmark Cards, Inc. Three years earlier the giant greeting card company, with headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, had expanded its manufacturing facilities in Topeka and Lawrence, Kansas. The company had been printing greeting cards 1-up on a small clamshell-style press, and Isler and other team members were tasked with implementing hot foil stamping technology, which also would enable the company to print 6 or 10 cards on a sheet.

The partnership between Hallmark and Bobst Switzerland to develop a 49″ hot foil stamping prototype, called SP 1260 BM, meant that Isler spent months traveling back and forth to Lausanne to work with technicians, who periodically worked on site at Hallmark. While living in Topeka, Isler took business administration courses at night at Washburn University, also polishing his English skills. In addition to English, Isler speaks French and German fluently. Bobst eventually delivered two of the hot foil stamping units to Hallmark – one to its plant in Kansas City and the other to Topeka. Isler was in charge of installing the machines, training Hallmark employees on how to use them and fine-tuning the units for production.

“Until then, most hot foil stamping had mainly been done by small, family-owned entrepreneurs with 6 to 10 employees, like Graphic Converting in Chicago or JC Stamping in Baltimore,” Isler said. “Hot foil stamping was done 1-up on a small press, which was rather expensive. Our selling point was to tell companies to do a larger sheet size and it would be more cost-effective.” Isler noted that Bobst began selling its 49” hot foil stampers to companies it knew well, such as to folding carton manufacturers that for years had purchased diecutters like the SP 1650, a behemoth weighing 40 tons.

Isler said he benefited from the knowledge and assistance of others in the industry in his early days, like Glenn Hutchison, who owned a hot foil manufacturing and stamping engraving company in Kansas City. “I worked with Glenn on the Hallmark installation,” Isler said. “He was extremely helpful in developing foil for high speed and large format. He also improved the quality of hot foil stamping dies.

A year after the Hallmark installation, Isler installed a Bobst 49″ hot foil stamping machine at Alford Packaging in New Jersey, a division of Revlon. “There was a great demand by Phillip Morris and Revlon for more sophisticated packaging,” Isler said. “Alford Packaging was the first company that produced cigarette and cosmetic packaging on a large-format machine.” With the Bobst SP 1260 BM, the company went from producing 1- or 2-up on cigarette packages to 30-up.

Realizing that Bobst had gone “from one extreme to the other” with its hefty hot foil machine, Isler said the company introduced a 40” press for smaller-sized companies 10 years later. Isler installed a 28″ x 40″ BMA at Apex Die Corp. in San Carlos, California – a machine that “put us into the ‘big time,’” said company founder Tom Cullen. “Up until then we were basically a ‘half-size’ shop.” Cullen relied on Isler for everything it took to get Apex Die capable of operating and maintaining the press, saying, “Freddy’s expertise greatly contributed to increased levels of craftsmanship in the industry in the United States.”

Other trends in the late ’60s and early ’70s included the use of hot foil stamping on expensive folders that companies used for their annual reports and new-product packaging like camera film and toothpaste boxes. “When Colgate introduced a new toothpaste, it would put hot foil stamping on the package for the first two or three years,” Isler said. “Folding carton manufacturers didn’t have hot foil stamping at the time, so they’d send out the work to small finishers.”

Building communication

Isler’s passion opened the door to many opportunities.

Early in his career, Isler saw the need for strong communication between machine manufacturers, materials suppliers and end-users. “It was a big step for small companies, with 5 or 10 employees, to go to large-size presses, and planning was extremely important,” Isler said. He devoted himself to training individual operators on the new machines and helped to develop workshops that could reach 10 to 12 operators at a time.

“I also knew the importance of having an excellent relationship with the people who made the foils, embossing plates and dies,” Isler said. He worked with suppliers to develop the special foils required to run on faster and larger presses. “The FSEA developed because of the relationship between manufacturers, suppliers and end-users, and better communication was the end result,” he added. Isler also liked how FSEA events, such as the national conventions, gave him the chance to see friends and reach lots of customers over two or three days.

What’s more, such meetings allowed Isler to do what he does best: strengthen relationships that last for decades. At one meeting, Isler met the owner of a small-format finisher company in Montreal, Quebec, and stayed in contact with the man for 15 years before he sold him a machine. Isler remains patient with such pacing by comparing it to that of a “new married couple starting out, buying a small house; then when the kids start to come along, they buy a bigger house. It’s a slow process,” he said. “Communicating is the key to everything. When you’re in sales, it doesn’t matter what you’re selling, what matters is when the customer is ready to buy.”

Listening and learning

In 1973, Isler was promoted to Bobst’s technical staff and moved to company headquarters in Roseland, New Jersey, where he was instrumental in introducing Bobst folder-gluers in the North American market. Three years later, Isler was promoted again – this time to product manager of the Technical Services Department, overseeing special projects involving SP diecutters and folder-gluers. For the next 20 years Isler would be involved heavily in customer training, starting with the development of a training program for the North American industry in 1973.

“We’d do two- to three-day training seminars all over the country,” Isler said. “Bobst was unique in going to customers. We got excellent feedback from customers and developed excellent relationships with them. In three or five years, those operators would move into management and there was a lot of respect, both ways. We developed a certain camaraderie.”

In his interactions with numerous customers over the years, Isler perfected his ability to pay attention, picking up many skills and short-cuts from operators. “I’ve always been a good listener, interested to learn from customers how to improve our products so they will be better for them,” he said. Isler constantly shared customer feedback with Bobst’s engineering department and management to offer a better product. “We were continuously improving small things on our machines – in the machine industry, it’s an evolution, not revolution.”

Isler’s passion for communication has served him well – and opened the door to many possibilities. “Communication is about training, passing along knowledge, listening to the problems of customers and coming up with answers,” he said. One example of creative collaboration came out of discussions with a customer who wanted to save money by ‘rewinding’ a portion of foil after a specific application. Isler worked with the user and Bobst technicians to develop a foil rewinding unit.

Another collaboration involved American Bank Note Company, a customer interested in developing holograms as a security feature on currency. According to Isler, Bobst had been in the hologram game early on – and may have been ahead of its time. Although the demand for holographic technology never reached anticipated levels in the US, it did take off in Europe.

When asked for his insights on the future of the industry, Isler holds firm in his belief that good customer service will prevail. “Personally, I believe even more manufacturers will move from North America to India and China, but I’m a firm believer that small, entrepreneur-type companies in North America are going to grow much faster than they did 20 years ago,” Isler said. “I see great opportunities ahead. Because of my belief in giving quick service, we’ll go back to small companies, where good personal service is key.”

Transitioning to the top

Isler was named senior manager of Technical Services in 1983, overseeing technical matters for all product lines distributed by the Bobst division in the US. Three years later he was promoted to director of Technical Services and was responsible for mechanical and technical matters related to the diecutting, foil stamping, and folding and gluing product lines the Bobst and Bobst Champlain divisions sold and serviced in the US.

Isler recognized the value of a strong team and recruited shining stars, like Peter Witzig, who’d transferred from Switzerland in 1983 to join Bobst’s Field Service Group in North America. Three years later Isler convinced Witzig to join the company’s Technical Services Department in New Jersey. “The biggest influence Fred had on me was to listen and to respect customers – always thinking about how to improve the equipment,” Witzig said. “Reducing makeready time and improving net production was big on his mind. Discussing new ways to do the job and improve customers’ production was his goal.”

Witzig also credits Isler for influencing him to network with many people in the foil stamping area, noting how “instrumental” Isler was in developing the market. “Working directly for Fred gave me great experience,” Witzig said. “He was very demanding and, at the same time, a great mentor.” Witzig, who now is product line manager in Bobst’s Folding Carton Business Area, worked with Isler for six years, until Isler transitioned to Bobst Canada.

In 1992, Isler became director of Special Technical and Sales Support, responsible for all customer demonstrations and training courses for customers and Bobst Group USA technicians and sales staff. Isler also was in charge of special productivity improvement programs for SP diecutters and folder-gluers and the technical marketing aspects of tradeshows.

On Jan. 1, 1993, Isler became vice president and general manager of Bobst Canada, and settled in Quebec a few months later. “We were happy to move to Quebec because my wife is Canadian,” Isler said. He and his wife, Jeanne, met in Chicago, Illinois, and married in 1967. They have two grown children: a son who’s a musician in New York and a daughter who’s stationed with the United Nations’ World Food Programme in Rome, Italy.

Today Bobst is a worldwide supplier of equipment and services to packaging manufacturers in the folding carton, corrugated board and flexible material industries. With close to five decades in the industry, Isler has witnessed dramatic changes at Bobst and in the field. Some of the biggest changes include the shift to off-press makereadies to reduce set-up times and the pervasive use of computers in the design of machines, freeing operators from certain tasks.

When asked what part of his career means the most to Isler, he’s clear – and succinct: “The respect and friendship of my customers,” he said. Bobst colleague Peter Witzig sums up Isler’s contributions this way: “Fred is simply a great person and a friend to many in this industry.”