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Entrepreneurs of the Year: Overall Winners | 'Old Guys'

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They don't take themselves seriously, with a disarming degree of self-deprecation. They emphasize conflict, particularly when it creates consensus. They drop motivational phrases like breadcrumbs for an eager workforce. (A big one: Have fun, make money, don't get in the way of anyone having fun or making money.)

They also aim to hire future CEOs, not people who want a career. Oh, and they wear shorts to work.

Most significantly they — Sarasota entrepreneurs Art Lambert and Ron Simkins — have built a singular success story in the graphics and digital printing industry. The company they co-founded in 1994, LexJet, has grown into S-One Holdings Corp. Sales at S-One, with five printing, imaging and design subsidiaries, increased nearly 90% in 2014, from $76.2 million in 2013 to $144.7 million. Sales are up more than 200% since 2010.

The foundation and oldest S-One unit is LexJet, which markets and sells printing equipment and supplies. Customers, mostly printing, imaging and sign businesses, use the products in a variety of ways, from event signs to trade show graphics to canvas photo prints. LexJet's work ends up everywhere from billboards to airport signs to huge ads in sports arenas.

But a big source of the recent growth comes from Brand Management Group, an S-One subsidiary. BMG has a worldwide presence, including an office in Barcelona and employees everywhere from Germany and Japan to Singapore and Russia. It does business in 13 languages and uses nine currencies.

BMG has exclusive worldwide licensing rights to sell wide format printing equipment and supplies under the Hewlett-Packard and Kodak brands. Clients include multiple printing industry resellers.

The licensing deals, where BMG handles research, development, marketing and supply chain management, among other tasks, are opportunistic and lucrative. Companies such as H-P and Kodak, says Simkins, would rather outsource and get a royalty fee. “When all these brands come out and say we don't want to be in the business anymore,” Simkins says, “we are the ones with our hands up.”

Friends since they met in 1974 in the Cincinnati apartment building where they each lived, Simkins and Lambert are the Business Observer's 2015 Entrepreneurs of the Year for what they accomplished at S-One. There's the growth, and there's also the duo's savvy strategy to position a company at the forefront of a rapidly changing industry.

Take chances
The best way to do that, say Lambert, 69, and Simkins, 67, is to create a company that knows why. The why includes: Why does S-One do what it does? Why do employees work there? And, especially important, why do they stay?

Lambert and Simkins address the why every day, and wrap it up in the annual company “culture guide,” a glossy magazine on its third edition in 2014. “Culture is everything,” writes Lambert in the founder's message of the book. “It's the single biggest thing we have to nourish and enhance.”

Adds Lambert, in closing: “With our culture we encourage a team environment with individuals who love to modify, innovate and learn from mistakes. Our emphasis on risk-taking, knowledge building and idea generation is truly celebrated in everything we do for our customers.”

The results of why show in up in the obvious, like stellar sales growth, glowing customer service surveys and enviable employee retention figures. It also shows up in the intangible, like the future business leaders S-One produces.

“If you come in for a promotion, you are at the wrong place,” Lambert says. “But if you want to learn how to run a business, this is it.”

Pete Peterson, recently named CEO of Sarasota-based auto dealers buying group Dealers United, is a former S-One and LexJet manager. “They really encourage you to screw up,” says Peterson. “They challenge you to take chances. And they don't like people who sit in the corner and whine and say 'my job sucks.'”

Leadership team
S-One and its subsidiaries are run out of three floors in the Ellis Building on Main Street in downtown Sarasota. The offices, about 25,000 square feet, include a high-tech printer demonstration room for clients and vendors.

The hierarchy of the business is basically no hierarchy. Titles are rare. Lambert and Simkins, who call themselves the old guys, have majority ownership. They set a long-term vision and are around for advice.

The core of the operations runs through a nine-person leadership team, which includes Lambert's son, Dean Lambert, an original LexJet employee. Several other original LexJet employees are on the team. “The leadership team is not here to manage people,” says Lambert “They manage the business.”

Then there are pods, 11 teams of four people, mostly in sales. Individuals in pods compete against each other, and other pods, for S-One sales superiority. “The pods know what to do,” Lambert says. “They are the ones closest to the customer.”

The pod system is a play off an idea Lambert learned from pro golfer and Sarasota resident Paul Azinger, who wrote the book “Cracking the Code” in 2010. The book is a play-by-play of how Azinger led a 12-man U.S. team to victory in the 2008 Ryder Cup.

Azinger's key move: He broke the golfers into pods of four to get the Type-A individuals to play cohesively. It's a Navy SEALs training technique, Azinger learned, where small pods, part of one larger squad, eat together, train together and are immersed in each other's lives.

'Beyond anything'
Lambert and Simkins each spent time in Corporate America before LexJet. They sold computers, first independently and later through top regional sales positions at Zenith Data Systems, the personal computer arm of electronics giant Zenith.

They also occasionally ventured outside the corporate world. They even owned a few bars near the University of Cincinnati. These were friendly neighborhood joints, with names like Mash, Fibber Magee's and Dollar Bill's Saloon.

The pair relocated to the Sarasota area in the early 1990s. Their goal with LexJet: Fill a void in customer support and education in how products were sold in the sign and graphics industry.

It was perfect timing. Digital photography was a burgeoning trend by the late 1990s, and demand was high. It was clear to Joan McGill, vice president of business development for the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, that LexJet was a star in the making. McGill met Lambert and Simkins soon after LexJet was founded.

“Their entrepreneurial spirit is beyond anything I've ever seen,” McGill says. “You could see it in the whole company.”

Growth soon followed the spirit: LexJet, for example, ranked 48th in Inc. magazine's Top 500 list of fast growing companies in 2001. The firm moved into the Ellis Building in 2011, and S-One was formed in 2013 to oversee everything LexJet and its sister companies do.

Although a near doubling of annual revenues is unlikely in 2015, S-One officials project the growth, in employees and sales, will continue. A general goal is to hover around $1 million in sales per employee.

Happy together
Lambert and Simkins say products and licensing agreements aside, growth always returns to why. And while the S-One culture book answers a lot of why questions, it omits a key query: How? How have Lambert and Simkins worked so well together for 40 years?

One answer: They don't.

At least not always.

Both entrepreneurs admit they've had some doozy disagreements. Sometimes they hash it out quietly. Other times they head to Key West for a work-out-the-differences getaway. “We always end up at the same point, but we don't end up at the same point at the same time,” says Simkins. “The thread that holds it together is business ethics.”

Former Zenith Data Systems President John Frank, who hired Lambert and Simkins for sales jobs in the 1980s, says the duo's success lies in a classic balance of strengths and weakness. One has what the other doesn't.

“Art is a very empathic person. He can put himself in the place of anyone he's talking to. That's what makes him a great leader,” says Frank. “Ron is one of the most creative and entrepreneurial people I've ever met. He doesn't take a lot of time to analyze things. He goes with his gut.”

The breakdown of roles, Lambert agrees, drives the success of the friendship and business partnership. In the simplest terms: Lambert excels in day-to-day operations. Simkins shines on the visionary side.

Or there's this: “I just walk behind him with a shovel,” Lambert quips. “I pick up the ideas I like and ignore the ones I don't.”

Going Global
Digital printing firm LexJet, founded in 1994, primarily did business in the United States for its first two decades.

The next two decades, say LexJet co-founders Ron Simkins and Art Lambert, could see major growth in global sales.

Simkins and Lambert oversee Sarasota-based S-One Holding Corp., the parent company for LexJet, Brand Management Group and several other entities. BMG holds exclusive worldwide licensing rights to sell wide format printing equipment and supplies for Hewlett-Packard and Kodak. Simkins says BMG, courtesy of those licensing deals and the global reach, will be the main source of the future growth.

But going global, where a Barcelona office is the nerve center, was a major obstacle. For starters, the sense of urgency was dizzying: H-P awarded S-One the licensing work in September 2013 — if the company could have global operations ready by February 2014.

S-One partnered with UPS to handle some supply chain management work and other logistics. Simkins and Lambert guided the entire process, both in Sarasota and in several trips to Spain.

“We literally went from a national company to an international company in a matter of weeks,” says S-One Process Leader Linda Mason, speaking in a UPS marketing video about how the shipping giant worked with S-One. “That's just unheard of to be able to do so much, so quickly.”

Lambert's Library
S-One Holdings Corp. co-founder Art Lambert is a devoted business book reader. Some of his favorites include:

“Cracking the Code: The Winning Ryder Cup Strategy: Make it Work for you,” by Paul Azinger;

“Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business,” by Patrick Lencioni;

“A Leadership Fable,” by Patrick Lencioni;

“Leaders Eat Last,” by Simon Sinek

3 questions

Who is the unsung hero in your company?
“Our customers who constantly challenge us, and our S-One teammates who every day accept those challenges,” says S-One co-founder Art Lambert.

Who are your mentors?
Former Zenith Data Systems President John Frank. “John, Ron and I have known each other, worked together and been friends since 1976,” Lambert says. “John was a great influence on our professional lives and gave us both the opportunity to grow and succeed.”

Adds Lambert: “Oh, and our brides of 40-plus years keep us well-grounded.”

What's the best advice you've ever received, in business or in life?
“A former sales trainer back in 1976, Alan Cimberg, once told a group of us sales guys to 'stop selling, start helping,'” says Lambert. “That advice goes way beyond sales.”

2012: $72.3 million
2013: $76.24 million
up 5.4%
2014: $144.7 million
up 89.8%

2012: 124
2013: 152
2014: 170

- Mark Gordon


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