A young CEO takes charge
John Sommers Jr., just 29 years old, has been at the helm of Allied Printing Services in Connecticut since the sudden death of his father in 2013. With guidance from his board and other mentors, he has been investing in new equipment and expanding his sales team.
John G. Sommers Jr. was 26 years old when his father died in 2013 from an aggressive cancer that claimed him in less than six months. At an age when most young people are just beginning their careers, John Jr. found himself at the helm of Allied Printing Services in Manchester, Conn., the largest family-owned commercial printing company in New England.
"When he knew what was inevitable—that he was terminal—my father reminded me first to trust my heart and myself, to have the confidence to move forward," John Jr. says. "And I needed to hear that from him."
How young John Sommers—and the company—have handled this unexpected early transition is a story of one family's determination to honor and perpetuate its legacy.
Family members and colleagues of John G. Sommers Sr. use words such as "kind," "generous," "smart," "decent" and "thorough" to describe the late second-generation company leader.
"Every decision he made was carefully thought out," says Bob McCann, Allied's 89-year-old executive vice president/treasurer, who has been with the company since 1970.
A sports enthusiast, John Sr. used athletic competition as a metaphor for his business philosophy. He was dedicated to assembling the right "team," and to competing, but always fairly.
Allied serves clients in a wide spectrum of industries, including banking, financial services, retail, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, arts and entertainment, advertising, travel and leisure, and education.
Just five months before John Sr. died of colon cancer at 58, Printing Impressions, an industry magazine, published a profile of Allied Printing Services.
The second-generation CEO spoke about how high-tech his family company had become and described its new, state-of-the-art equipment. He also made this comment, not knowing how prophetic it would be:
"I feel so fortunate that I can pass my business on to my son, as my father did with my brother, sister, and I," he said.
His widow, Elizabeth Sommers, has had to come to terms not only with her husband's untimely death, but also with the great responsibility on the shoulders of her son, John Jr.
But Liz, as she is best known, recognizes that her son, now 29, is made of strong stuff, and that his memories of working with his father will guide and influence him. "He is so lucky to have had that gift," Liz says.
A solid foundation
John Jr.'s grandmother Betina Sommers, 88, loves to tell the story of how she met her late husband, John F. Sommers, the founder of Allied Printing. As an 18-year-old girl living in England during World War II, Betina volunteered to serve coffee to the Allied servicemen at a canteen. Sommers, who had been rejected as an American Air Force pilot because he was color-blind, was serving in England's Royal Air Force.
Sommers was smitten by the young English hostess. When it came time to board the train that would take the servicemen back to their base, he refused to leave until Betina committed to a date.
"He was a determined kind of man, and I liked that," says Bette, as she is fondly known. "He also was awfully handsome, and a wonderful dancer."
Within months of their meeting, the American airman asked her to marry him. "I celebrated my 19th birthday on the ship that carried me, and hundreds of other British girls who were marrying American servicemen, to the United States," Bette says. Once on American soil, Bette watched her husband use that same charm and determination to build a business.
After returning from the service with his new wife, Sommers was living in Connecticut and wasn't certain of his next step. He visited the local Veterans Administration and asked for help in ascertaining the average age of executives in various industries—and the failure rate of those industries.
"I was amazed to learn that only three printing companies had failed in Connecticut during the Great Depression, and that the industry had the lowest failure record of any in the state," the late founder explained to a trade magazine in 1959.
Sommers also learned that the average age of top printing executives in Connecticut was the late forties. He decided to give printing a whirl.
After a brief period of working for a local print shop, he and a partner, Percy Stocks, each put up $1,000, purchased basic equipment and rented a small space. The year was 1949.
Sommers handled the sales end and Stocks the production side. The partnership lasted until Stocks' retirement in 1970.
"John was a born salesman," his widow recalls. "Just as he had sold me on becoming his wife, he sold his customers, and they loved him." According to Bette, Sommers named the company Allied Printing Services so it would be listed near the front of the phone book.
Bette and John Sommers had three children—a daughter, Heather, followed by sons John G. Sommers and Gerry Sommers. "I definitely wanted to learn the business, and I managed to squeeze in time for that," says Bette, who learned typesetting and prepared mailings, among other duties. "The dining room table was often my 'office,' she recalls. We worked hard and put in long hours, but it was an exciting time."
The company relocated several times as it grew, moving from its original 150-square-foot space to a sprawling 255,000-square-foot headquarters in Manchester.
John F. Sommers passed away in 1994, having already handed the mantle of leadership to his middle child, son John G.
Longtime executive Bob McCann credits the founder's three children with moving the company forward in their own unique ways.
Heather Sommers Perry, a lively storyteller and the unofficial family historian, remembers running around the company's plant as a child. "I used to play among the huge paper rolls, and listen with a little bit of fear to really loud noises," she says. "Printing companies are not quiet places!"
Perry also has recollections of how hard her dad worked, and of once being told that he was "hung up" at the company and couldn't make it home for dinner. "I was terrified, imaging him strung up there, sure that I'd never see him again," she says.
Perry tried out several careers, including stints as a hairdresser and the owner of a pizzeria. Admittedly a free spirit, she dropped anchor at Allied for what was supposed to be a three-month trial in the sales department. She ended up staying for 15 years, from 1980 to 1995.
"I found it a fascinating industry, and had a fine time working with my dad, and later my brothers," says Perry. She left after marrying one of the company's pressmen and moving to Florida; her mother, Bette, owns a home next door.
Gerry Sommers, the youngest of John and Bette's children, was known as the naturally spirited and funny family member.
He spent more than 27 years with the company, from 1979 to 2006. During his school years, he worked evenings and weekends, ultimately mastering every aspect of the printing process. But he clearly excelled in sales, and he rose to the position of executive vice president for sales and marketing.
In 2006, he retired from the company to pursue his growing interest in real estate. "We will miss his contagious laugh that echoed through the Allied hallways and his good nature," his mother, Bette, wrote in a message to the staff.
Just a year after that, in 2007, Gerry Sommers died suddenly in his sleep at age 51. It was a devastating blow to his family and his former colleagues at Allied. The company created a memorial garden in Gerry's honor.
With John G. Sommers at the helm, Allied Printing Services grew and prospered, surviving minor recessions and occasional layoffs along the way.
Liz Sommers understood from the start her husband's passion and pride in Allied. "It was his world, except for our family," she says. "And 'family' reached beyond us—it included his parents, his brother and sister and, in many ways, the employees of the company."
John Jr.'s sister, Rachel, 26, spent about a year and half with the company, decided it was not for her, and has since pursued nursing and cosmetology. Brother Matthew, 22, just graduated from college; he plans to work in health care marketing,and possibly to pursue an MBA down the road. "Matthew will then decide whether to join the family company," John Jr. says.
Carrying on the legacy
Like most family business successors, John G. Sommers Jr. started at the bottom. "My very first job was painting the roof of our building," Allied's current president and CEO recalls. He also mowed the lawn, worked the presses and rotated through every department in the company. "There's no better way to learn than by doing," he says.
The learning process began when John was in his teens. He worked at the company during school breaks when he was in high school and college.
"My major in college was in business administration and finance, and sometimes my father actually sought my advice," John says. "That was pretty amazing, and very flattering, too."
In accordance with John Sr.'s succession plan, John Jr. was named company president in 2011, and his father became chairman.
"My dad had no sign of illness at that time, but he definitely wanted an arrangement that allowed us to work together closely," John Jr. says. "And the decision he made to appoint me president in 2011 turned out to be so fortuitous. It gave us a couple of very important years."
John conjectures that had his father lived longer, he probably would not have separated himself from the company until he absolutely had to because of age or illness. He knows his father wanted to be his mentor and teacher.
"When my father passed away, I felt a bit like I'd lost my security blanket. He had always been there, and then suddenly he wasn't. It was a tough time," John recalls. "But I know myself, and I went into overdrive during Dad's brief illness, and also after he died. I knew that if I stopped and took time off, that wouldn't work for me. So I just kept on going. I plunged right back in."
The young company leader says he felt somewhat overwhelmed by the realization that so many families were depending on him, but gradually, he also understood that no one person can do it all.
Several things helped him through that daunting period. One was being part of the Young Presidents' Organization (YPO), a peer network for chief executives and business leaders under age 50. Also helpful was a similar group within the printing industry.
While he remains one of the youngest leaders in his position industrywide, John also has had the benefit of connection with longtime Allied executives like Jon Kaufman, senior vice president of technical development, who had worked with the CEO's grandfather and father.
"I feel very attached to the entire Sommers family, and I'm really impressed with John's familiarity with every aspect of the company, especially technology," says Kaufman. "These days, John may be the only person I can deal with on major decisions, and I'm seeing a very strong, capable leader."
At least once a week, John also is in touch with another Sommers family friend and current member of Allied's board of directors. Maine attorney Bruce Lutsk, who originally was counsel to the company, has become a friend and adviser, John notes.
"The phone may ring at 7:30 a.m., and there is John with a thought or question or concern," says Lutsk.
"We have similar business minds, and when I need help, Bruce is there," John says.
John is currently bringing to fruition several key investments that had been under discussion during his father's lifetime. In the last two years, Allied has invested $17 million in new printing equipment and the installation of solar panels to provide more than 20% of the company's power.
Allied also has been hiring aggressively. The company has hired more than 50 people in the past 18 months. According to Charlie Bryant, the vice president of sales, the company's sales force has grown to 30 representatives, and sales have increased by 50% since John Jr. took the helm. The company now has 291 employees.
Philanthropy is another high priority. Allied Printing Services' Charitable Foundation presents an annual golf tournament, now in its eighth year. The tournament benefits Connecticut Children's Medical Center, Cushing Academy, Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Given the circumstances of his father's sudden death, it is perhaps not surprising that John Jr. is already working on creating a succession plan that is comprehensive, clear and far-reaching. Since he is currently single and childless, he recognizes that his family circumstances are likely to change.
"I am very serious about succession," he says, "now that I see how the unexpected can alter everything."
Sally Friedman is a writer based in the Philadelphia area.
Allied Printing Services' Board of Directors
When John F. Sommers founded Allied Printing, he had the wisdom and foresight to turn to an outside board of directors for guidance. The early board, though rather informal, was an invaluable resource. Initially, it consisted of John F.; his wife, Betina; and two outside members.
Today, Allied's board of directors meets three times a year. The board consists of two family members (currently Betina Sommers and John G. Sommers Jr.) and six non-family members. One of them is attorney Bruce Lutsk, who has become John Jr.'s close adviser.
Lutsk notes that each leader in the Sommers family has been highly attentive to the opinions of board members from outside the industry. "We serve as a sounding board for John Jr., who openly seeks consensus," says Lutsk.
The board makes recommendations and reviews policies and budgets. Non-family directors have included insurance professionals, executives and financial experts. All board members vote.
Says Lutsk, "The culture of Allied affects the culture of the board of directors, and we are a congenial bunch who feel privileged to work with a company whose culture is forward-looking and fair."
"I'm grateful that this board has kept me in check, and that they've kept me realistic about my expectations," says CEO John Sommers Jr.
John Jr. admits that board members have counseled him to be patient. "I'm often in a hurry to make things happen and to go with my gut," he says. "And while that sometimes works, the board has demanded accountability."
In addition, John says, "They remind me that Rome wasn't built in a day!"—S.F.
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