Fit to Print

Bowne’s Robert Johnson

February 1 2000 by Peter Buxbaum


Bob Johnson describes himself as an “ENTP,” shorthand for one of 16 personality profiles of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: an Extroverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiver. Myers-Briggs reflects Jungian teachings that human behavior is directed by preferences which influence attractions to people, tasks, and events. The ENTP is “a ‘big picture’ person who finds it challenging to fit…the various pieces of the whole together,” according to Type Talk by Otto Kroeger and Janet Thuesen.

Over the last three years, Johnson has presided over Bowne & Co.’s metamorphosis, through 23 acquisitions, from a stodgy 225-year-old financial printer, albeit the world’s largest, to a multi-faceted provider of information management solutions. Johnson’s challenge has been to explain his Olympian perspective—externally, to Wall Street, and internally, to his division chiefs.

Nesbitt Burns Securities values the aggregate of Bowne’s components at around $30.00 a share. But the Bowne stock has hovered in the mid-teens of late. Johnson seeks to dispel the notion that Bowne’s whole is worth less than the sum of its parts.

“The financial printing business historically has been cyclicality,” he explains. “The stock has also fluctuated. Our new business ventures are designed to take some of the cyclicity out but they have not yet effected earnings flow.” Johnson sees reducing transactional printing from 52 percent to 25 percent of revenues.

Bowne’s diversification may have thrown off some investors because the company no longer fits into any particular niche. “We have been told to simplify our message,” says Johnson. “But you can’t do that with a company that is knitted together complexly.”

Bowne’s investments in digital printing enabled it to migrate from the traditional ink-on-paper business to the mass customization of documents to printing and document management outsourcing. From there, Bowne stretched to develop capabilities in the dissemination of customized and localized information over the Internet. In short, the new Bowne was not cobbled together haphazardly, says Johnson.

What ties together these sundry ingredients is the vision of delivering information through any medium, anywhere in the world, at any time. “It is a business proposition that is global in nature,” says Johnson. “We do bits and pieces for different customers with financial services representing our primary client base.”

Wall Street regards favorably the company’s long-term prospects but not necessarily the short-term share price. John Reucassel of Nesbitt Burns sees Bowne as “attractively valued given the growth potential of the new businesses” and assigns the shares a target price of $21. CIBC’s Rudolf Hokanson, on the other hand, while recognizing “exceptional growth potential,” recently reduced his rating from Buy to Hold, pointing to higher thanexpected acquisition expenses. “Visibility at Bowne remains elusive,” he adds, “as do confident earnings forecasts. Some changes are taking longer than expected.”

“We initially underestimated global cultural differences,” Johnson admits. “At first we let the entrepreneurs tap dance around each other and run their own businesses. It turned out that this didn’t work because we were not getting best practices.”

Johnson resorted to some forcefulness in order to resolve that problem. “I had to go in and crack some knuckles,” he says. “I let everyone understand that changes had to be made.” To the end, no doubt, of arranging for “all players to get the best and most out of life,” one hallmark of the ENTP style, according to Type Talk.

“I try to make people the best that they can be,” acknowledges Johnson of his management style. “I lead by example. I am not a detail person,” again in keeping with the ENTP mode of avoiding “sticky details or dull routines.”

Johnson’s ardency emerges in his hobbies as well, as a golfer who has played everywhere from Hawaii to Ireland and as a scuba enthusiast who plans to dive the Seychelles and the Red Sea. As Kroeger and Thuesen say, “ENTPs’ enthusiasms lead them to a variety of activities, vocational and avocational.”

Johnson came by his current position serendipitously. He started out as a corporate lawyer before becoming publisher of New York Newsday. “When I was a lawyer I did not foresee going into newspaper publishing,” he says. “When I was a publisher I had no plans to go into financial printing. My success has been brought about by being at the right place at the right time.”


ROBERT JOHNSON

CHAIRMAN AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER

BOWNE & CO.

“I HAD TO GO IN AND CRACK SOME KNUCKLES. I LET EVERYONE UNDERSTAND THAT CHANGES HAD TO BE MADE.”

Age: 53

Birthplace: Joliet, IL.

Education: J.D., University of Michigan; B.S. Louisiana State University, business administration.

Family: Wife, Susan; daughter, Stephanie, 21; son, Chad, 19.

Hobbies: Golf and scuba diving..

Last book read: Personal Injuries, by Scott Throw.

On Bowne’s Internet Integration: “You need a combination of gray hairs and ponytails. Many of the entrepreneurs have great and lots of verve, visions, and skills, but they don’t have the discipline to knit all of the pieces together. You have to hold on to what is exiting in each while working to make them part of the whole.”

Public Life: New York State Board of Regents, elected term expires May 2000.