August 31. 2006 2:00AM - Last modified: March 14. 2012 1:59PM

Quadracci book tells the inside story of a visionary entrepreneur


"With a belief that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things, Harry V. Quadracci built a legendary printing company and changed an industry." So says the tag line of a new book, "Ready, Fire, Aim," a biography of Quad/Graphics Inc. founder Harry Quadracci.

The book recounts the story of the son of an Italian immigrant who launched a printing company and built a corporate empire in Sussex before dying in Pine Lake in Waukesha County on July 29, 2002.

Quadracci's wife, Betty, commissioned former Milwaukee Magazine editor John Fennell to write the book. After three years of research and writing, Fennell completed the book, and copies were recently distributed to Quadracci family members and Quad/Graphics employees.

The book explains in great detail how Quadracci, after leaving a printing company his father had helped launch, cobbled together the financing to start his own company in July 1971. At a time when color televisions were replacing black and white sets in most American homes, Quadracci believed that the demand for color print images would soon follow.

He was right. Often at the risk of defaulting because of the costs to invest in expensive presses, Quadracci staved off the debt collectors in the early years of the company and kept the presses rolling. Along the way, Quadracci became his company's best salesman, and Quad/Graphics became the printer for publications such as Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and Playboy.

The book also explains how Quadracci developed a unique corporate culture at Quad/Graphics. His son, Joel Quadracci, who has since become the firm's president and chief executive officer, says (in the book) that his father was fond of hiring young people directly out of school, before they "were polluted by what some other company taught them."

Quadracci wanted to build a company in which employees felt a sense of ownership and pride. So, he started an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).
When employee health care costs continued to skyrocket, Quadracci launched a revolutionary in-house medical clinic to care for his workforce and cut his company's costs.

One of Quad/Graphics' other innovations was a rule that everyone at the company, from the executive officers to the press operators, wears the same blue company uniform.

The book explains how Quadracci and his brother, Tom, somehow stayed ahead of the technology curve and continued to grow their company in a shrinking industry.

Quadracci's interactions with dozens of southeastern Wisconsin business executives and personalities are cited in the book, including a chapter about the firing of Charlie Sykes, who was the editor of Milwaukee Magazine.

According to the book, Sykes, who is now a radio talk show host at WTMJ-AM 620, "tried to thwart" Betty, who was named publisher of Milwaukee Magazine.
"But Sykes began to resent her and undermined her authority, according to every staff member then working at the magazine," the book states. According to the book, Sykes "walked out of meetings, hung up on her and made fun of her behind her back."

In the book, Judith Woodburn, who was the magazine's managing editor, said, "He (Sykes) was critical of her in public in a way you wouldn't do if you really wanted to keep your job. As a young man, I don't know if he fully grasped that."
According to Woodburn, shortly after firing Sykes, Quadracci said, "This is a no-brainer. I love my wife."

Fennell said Sykes declined to comment on the incident for the book.
The book also sheds light on Quadracci's quirky personality. He was fond of giving "razzle and dazzle" presentations to impress his workforce, and he once made a grand entrance atop an elephant at a company meeting.

Quadracci's personality also included a dark, brooding side. At one point, when the company appeared to be on the verge of collapse, Quadracci withdrew from his office and retreated to his Pine Lake home.

"That was a very, very painful time, the closest I have ever seen Harry to a nervous breakdown. He just couldn't operate. He was in a very dark state. He wasn't sleeping at night, and then he went to bed for a long time. He couldn't talk. He blamed himself … He felt it was the beginning of the end. It was the closest we came to losing his company," the book quotes Betty as saying.
Quadracci's dark side became painfully apparent again to his family after a tragic fire caused the collapse of the company's Lomira plant and the death of a man who was trapped in a parked car near the facility.

According to the book, Quadracci was receiving therapy from a psychologist who prescribed him to take Seroquel, an anti-psychotic drug. Less than two weeks after the Lomira tragedy, Joel Quadracci suggested to his father that he take a swim in Pine Lake to relax.

On the following day, "When Betty woke at 7 a.m. on Monday, July 29, 2002, Harry wasn't there," the book states. Harry Quadracci's body was discovered under a pier in the lake later that day.
According to the book, a container of Seroquel was found in Quadracci's pocket. Four of the 60 pills were missing – the prescribed dose.

Waukesha County Medical Examiner Lynda Biedzrycki and District Attorney Paul Bucher declared the death an accidental drowning. In an autopsy, Biedzrycki stated that the drowning may have been precipitated by a "medical event" prior to or while he was in the water. "More likely, a heart arrhythmia or a brain seizure rendered him unconscious while in the water, leading to the drowning," Biedrzycki ruled.

The final chapter of the book is a poignant collection of quotes from Quadracci, assembled from speeches and interviews over the years.
In one of those quotes, Quadracci said, "A company, like a child, takes on a life of its own. What the whole becomes id determined by its most elemental parts: the knowledge, experience, ideas and sweat of individuals joined in the common enterprise. Like the humans from who it evolves, the new life needs to be nurtured continually in soul and mind and body."

Although Fennell was contracted by Betty to tell her husband's story, the book does not appear to whitewash its subject, the family or the company.
"Betty gave me free rein to write this as a real story," Fennell told SBT. Fennell has since moved on to become an associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri in Colombia, Mo.

Fennell said he did not know if copies of the book ultimately will be sold to the public. Betty Quadracci could not be reached for comment for this report.