Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Seven Questions About Printing for Lexmark CEO Paul Rooke

When you consider the fact that Lexmark is a printer company — and not even an especially large one by comparison to others in the business — you might intuitively conclude that it’s a company on the defensive.

“People don’t print anymore,” goes the refrain of conventional wisdom, “not even at the office.” It’s easier and more efficient now, when you need to refer to a digital document and have it close at hand, to send it to a tablet like an iPad, or even to a smartphone.

And yet, Lexmark is anything but on the defensive. It has been expanding in recent years, primarily by acquisition. In October, it spent $50 million to acquire Pallas Athena, a Dutch software firm specializing in managing and automating business processes — the flow of information through a company. Lexmark combined Pallas Athena with its previous acquisition, Perceptive Software, for which it paid $280 million in 2010; Kansas-based Perceptive specializes in managing unstructured data. Lexmark CEO Paul Rooke says that the two companies combined give Lexmark a position that is unique among companies in the printer business: The ability to help a customer manage and access information in whatever format makes the most sense.

While Lexmark is significantly smaller by revenue than its biggest rival — Hewlett-Packard’s printing division booked $26 billion in fiscal 2011, while Lexmark is on track to report about $4.2 billion in revenue, according to the consensus view of analysts — it is still able to win business away from its larger rivals, and keep those customers. I asked Rooke about this in a recent conversation:

AllThingsD: Paul, the conventional wisdom has held for a long time that printing was a dying business, and that paper was going to go away because everything would be digital. I think that’s been the general criticism of Lexmark since it first spun out of IBM 20 years ago. What do you think of that?

Paul Rooke: We’ve always seen ourselves not so much as a hardware company. When we started, back in 1991, we were evolving from printers to multifunction printers to fleet management. You can see that in our actions. We also want customers for life. We create industry-specific solutions in a responsible way. It’s not just the blocking and tackling of managing a company’s fleet of printers, but it’s about getting intimate with their business processes and managing the paper and ink and so on. And as we’ve evolved, we’ve become more of a solutions company. We like to say “print less, save more.” When we say that, we’re all about helping with smart devices and managing that fleet. But it also refers to capturing, managing and accessing content within the context of a business process.

Well, let’s talk about that a little. When you say “capturing and managing content and information,” what does that mean?

As we found ourselves managing these multifunction devices that have scanners built into them, we found ourselves capturing content off of paper and into digital infrastructure, and we’re looking to do more of that than we have been. You’ll see us do more interpretation of content and automatically routing documents according to what’s on them. But it doesn’t stop there. We found ourselves scanning documents and putting them somewhere and managing them. Our acquisition of Perceptive Software last year has really strengthened that as a value-add for us. A lot of the content that comes in is this messy unstructured content, and with Perceptive, we’re able to help customers manage this unstructured content and finally access it in the context of their business process. And that’s where our Pallas Athena acquisition comes in. When you put it all together, it puts us in a unique position in the industry. We’re not just a printer maker, but we link into the business processes and provide added value for our customers.

“Unstructured data” is a phrase I hear a lot. What does it mean, specifically, to Lexmark?

It’s anything that doesn’t fit in massive databases that are arranged in traditional rows and columns, like financial information and shipping information. In contrast, you might take something like an admission system at a university. It might have some core intake information that’s structured, like a name and birthdate, but then there’s a lot of other information around it, like transcripts and reference letters, that goes into making a decision. Another example is in hospitals, where you have a doctor or nurse looking into a patient file. All hospitals have information systems that keep track of the basic information on a patient. But then there’s other information — like blood tests and X-rays — that’s unstructured, which the doctor will want to look at in order to make a better-informed decision. As you go around in all industries, there are a lot of examples of this sort of data. It really appears in all business environments.

And yet, the core business is still printers and printing. And for myself, I find myself printing a lot less, sending things I need to refer to to my iPhone or iPad and skipping the printer. Do people like me represent a long-term danger to you, or is that really just an issue of perception?

When you look at information generally, the amount of information and content that’s being generated just continues to grow. The ability to access it in an organized fashion is a key challenge for customers, whether they print it or not. But with that growth in information, even if a smaller percentage is printed, there’s still an opportunity for growth in absolute terms. But having said that, as our strategy has evolved, if a customer chooses to print it or store it, we’re going to be there for them. We’re trying to put the tools and technology in place for whichever way the customer goes. There’s a number of industries — government is one, social services is another — where there are customer-facing industries, where you need to fill out a form or a document that requires a signature; many still prefer paper, because it’s inexpensive and easy. Some choose to do that digitally, some choose paper. And when we talk to customers, they’re asking for help in bridging those two worlds. That’s where we jump in and help.

What is the most important thing that customers are saying to you, in terms of their needs? Is it all cost control, which is top of mind so often these days? Or is it something more?

Cost control is certainly there, as is lower-cost devices. These are certainly propositions that play well with customers who want to reduce the cost of their imaging infrastructure. When we engage customers in the managed-service relationship, they often don’t even know how many printers, copiers, fax machines and scanners they have, until we help them assess it and optimize it and hook their devices into a system that helps them control it all. And our managed print services are helping them keep those costs under control. The other thing we’re hearing about is process improvement. With Perceptive, and now Pallas Athena, we help them understand better what their processes are. We have a lot of technologies that map these processes out — not what you think they are, but what they really are. So many times, when you do process improvement, you spend months in a conference room, drawing out what you think the process is on a white board. We can eliminate that step by plugging in the tools and doing a quick digital assessment of what the process actually is, and map it for you digitally. So if you think your process is made up of steps A, B and C, we can come and show you that there’s also D, E, F and G that you didn’t think of. We’ll show you why they’re there, and where the bottlenecks are, with factual data you can work with. Which is a lot better than speculation.

Where do you think your competitors — and name whomever you want — are vulnerable? Where are you winning business away from competitors?

We turned 20 years old this year. Many thought we wouldn’t survive. I think, while the technologies have certainly evolved, the thing that has differentiated us from our competitors is our depth. We go deep with our customers, and get very intimate with them in their industry and their environment and their processes. That’s why customers buy Lexmark. When we’re up against people like HP or Xerox or others, we’re able to get closer to the customer than they are, and do things in a more customized fashion. I think we’ll be doing more of that as we fill out our technology set.

So what kinds of things should we expect from Lexmark in 2012? Are you done doing acquisitions?

You’ll see us enhance our capabilities. Some people think we’re moving away from printing, and that’s not it at all. But we’re adding to it. In addition to that, we’ll continue to integrate Perceptive and Pallas Athena into a more integrated suite of solutions. That will put us in a unique position. The acquisitions are part of the strategy. When we identify gaps or holes in our offerings, we look to fill them either organically or inorganically with acquisitions. We’ll continue to look at those as part of the strategy. We’re not looking for a big one. The ones we have done have been smaller, but of companies with technologies that have high potential for synergies. But we’re still looking.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald