In the 60’s, geeks were geeks and computers were large, slow, and clunky. Working in the high-tech industry was hardly the hip career choice it is today, but Jim Roemer, chairman, president, and CEO of Bell & Howell Co., was one of the pioneers who saw its potential. Right out of high school, the Cincinnati native jumped into software development for an insurance company and experienced first-hand the Dark Ages of computing, climbing to top posts at Lexis/Nexis and Mead Data Central once the light began to dawn. “I got the best education you could get writing software for all those businesses in the ’60s, where, if you didn’t get it right, you lost your job,” he says.
That education has helped Roemer navigate the 91-year-old Skokie, IL-based company into the information age. When Bell & Howell chairman Bill White, who Roemer worked for at Mead, convinced him to come aboard in 1991, the company—-a former manufacturer of popular movie cameras and projectors-had become a victim of its own brand. Unable to shake the image its obsolete photography equipment had rendered as it tried to fit disparate new acquisitions together, the company finally went private to restructure after a 1988 leveraged buyout spearheaded by financier Robert Bass.
Given the task of reviving its PSC auto parts catalog division, Roemer used the expertise he had gained from his years at Lexis/Nexis to build an electronic process control system for customers. The product became the cornerstone of a new direction that tied the mini-conglomerate’s loose ends together: information distribution. Going public again in ’95, Bell & Howell reemerged from its cocoon as a provider of online research for libraries and schools; financial services for banks; and scanners for companies to convert paper documents into electronic form. Roemer says its second largest unit, which produces mail processing devices for the U.S. Postal Service and other companies, is headed in that same direction as electronic billing becomes more prevalent.
“A lot of companies talk about restructuring and downsizing; we needed rebirth,” says Roemer, who took the helm in ’97. “We are a company that has great information resources…but we had to bring them alive.”
With its new focus and concentration on niches that have little competition, Bell & Howell has risen to the No. 1 or No. 2 slot in the markets it serves over the past three years, and its profits have followed suit. Net sales in the first quarter of ’98 increased 5 percent to $210.4 million, and total revenues for ’97 were up 4 percent to $857 million.
But making the transition into a software and information company hasn’t been easy.One reason fourth quarter ’97 earnings were lower than expected was that Bell & Howell rolled out so many new products in its mail-processing and scanner units that customers delayed orders to figure out the best way to upgrade their systems.
Despite the dive the company took, Roemer believes generating new products every six to eight months is essential to get a quick cycle of return and stay “two years ahead of customers’ imagination.” To achieve this ideal, he has had to radically alter Bell & Howell’s archaic hierarchical management structure into one that fosters a more collaborative, and hence, creative environment. “You need a chairman, but in today’s world, that title’s less important than how he gets 6,000 people to work together,” says Roemer, who prefers sales calls to trade shows. “If we have to rely on the creativity of my ideas alone, we’re probably in trouble.”
Bear Stearns analyst Kevin Gruneich says the company has turned around the ’97 dive with management changes and financial control upgrades. “They put in a really poor comparison in the seasonally important fourth quarter, but it seems they’re back on track,” he says. “We think they’ll return to the consistent earning and cash flow growth we became accustomed to.”
Roemer says the company will stick close to its markets nationally and internationally, but look for possible adjacencies, such as the marine and aeronautics parts industries for its electronic catalog business. He also plans to pursue acquisitions more aggressively and continue to roll out more software applications at a modern pace (PSC released 30 products last year, and UMI, the on-line research branch, averages 50 a year).
Meanwhile, re-educating the public about Bell & Howell’s new face is an ongoing crusade. Roemer tries to think of the legacy as a gift, not a curse. “People look at something you get from Bell & Howell as lasting forever,” he says. “So that name has really helped us in some of our companies. We even license our name for cameras. We do the control and they do the quality. They’re selling like hotcakes.”
JAMES P. ROEMER
Chairman, President, and CEO
Bell & Howell
Birthplace: Cincinnati, OH
Family: Wife: Patricia; children: Susie, 30, Kimberly, 27, Shelly, 25, Shelli, 24, Michael, 23.
Education: University of Cincinnati; Executive Program at the University of Virginia; Program for Management Development at Harvard University.
Favorite books: “I like the Clancys and the Grishams. I’ve read them all.”
Cars: Cadillac, Mustang convertible
Major influence: Bill White, former chairman and CEO of Bell & Howell.
Leisure activities: Reading, golfing (handicap fluctuates between 8 and 9), and powerboating on a 25-foot cabin cruiser. “It’s big enough.”
Last book read: Living a Life that Counts: The Keys to Making a Difference in Your World, by Melvin Chatham, M.D.