Hagadone president Erwin Hudelist brings a thoughtful approach to printing

THE GLITZ OF A MAGAZINE would not be possible without the careful hands and keen eyes of an expert printing team. While the better part of publishing’s glory often goes to compelling photography and florid story writing, these components can only shine if the right colored ink saturations and perfect paper stocks are in place to make everything come alive.

This understated artistry is what first drew Erwin Hudelist, president of Haga-done Printing Company, to the print industry. In his 12 years with Hagadone, the Austria native has led the business to take on some of the city’s largest-scale printing projects, while introducing Honolulu to a business model that thrives on environmental consciousness.

As Hudelist settles into a quiet meeting room, he recounts the personal experiences and business principles that shaped his leadership and visionary approach to printing.

Hudelist was born in the small Austrian town of Klagenfurt, where his typesetter father immersed him in the business at a young age.

“He forced me into printing,” Hudelist jokes. “I didn’t like it. It was a pretty dirty business at the time.”

Yet the creativity of the industry captivated him, and Hudelist earned a degree in print media from the University of Vienna. He started his own print shop at the age of 22 and sold it when he was 28. Inspired by John Wayne and the books of European writer Karl May, he ventured to America to pursue another dream: to be a cowboy.

“I actually sold everything, quit everything, because time was flying by,” he says.

“I went to Hesperia in California and I got a job over there as a cowboy, fixing fences on a ranch. And I found out two months later that it’s not as romantic as it sounds.”

When the ranchers in Hesperia sold their horse to someone in Pukalani, Maui, Hudelist also decided to venture to the Islands. He eventually came to Honolulu to find work, starting off as a pressman at Harbor Graphics.

“The initial goal was survival,” he says. “I was greatly in debt, so it was just day to day, trying to make it happen. There was no big thing in my mind to make any immediate changes (to the printing industry).”

Hudelist moved up the ranks to supervisor, manager, vice president and eventually became president of Harbor Graphics. On Oct. 13, 1998, he received a call from Hagadone Printing’s corporate team on the Mainland. They were interested in buying out his business.

“In the end, I sold,” he says. “I remember the day that I sold it. It was a Friday, and I just went to Costco to buy a bunch of beer for my guys. I was sitting on one of those orange carts talking to Duane Hagadone at the time. The deal was done in front of Costco, right next to two cases of Becks on an orange cart.”

Hudelist was the fourth manager in a year and a half to take on Hagadone. The difficulty was in merging the three smaller companies that Hagadone purchased – Oahu Bindery, Tongg Printing Co. and Harbor Graphics – into a seamless operation. Hudelist did that with a people-based approach, allowing his staff to decide how to create a better company.

“When you let people make the decisions, it works,” he says. “If you give the power to the people, it’s amazing what can happen.”

Hagadone has thrived since, growing from a $16 million-a-year company to a $30 million-a-year business. And at the heart of each work day, Hudelist still maintains the simple core principles that he learned from his father in Europe.

“The European business philosophy is completely different than the American business philosophy,” he says. “In America, you go from quarter to quarter – it’s much more short-term focused than in Europe. And it’s not so money-focused as in the United States. I always think, ‘How can you do a job better?’ Even during this horrible recession, we’ve always stayed in the black, and we’ve always been strong. It’s not because we go out and tell (our staff), ‘Damn it, you’ve got to work harder.’ They just want to. There is no pressure. There’s got to be trust.”

And that level of trust extends to the recent announcement of his departure from Hagadone. Hudelist has been dealing with delamination of the optic nerve, which has been affecting his eyesight. However, he waited until the company was in a good enough position before deciding to resign.

Set to begin retirement in August, Hudelist plans to use that time to further the green message he started at Haga-done. The company currently offers certified carbon offsets for each print job, which go toward reforestation on the Big Island. Hudelist also has created environmental-themed children’s story books.

Hudelist also hopes to spend more time with 5-year-old daughter Sophia and wife Puja, whom he met through a customer service complaint at Hagadone. The family enjoys fishing, traveling and playing LEGO together.

Regardless of where his newfound time takes him, he continues to be thoughtful of his time at Hagadone, and looks forward to the company’s future – as well as the future of print in Hawaii.

“Hagadone is in good hands,” he says. “It’s going to become a media company, not just ink on paper.”

tagged in Erwin Hudelist