Features | March 02, 2021
Ivars Sarkans Retires After Illustrious Career
A session had just ended at a PSDA event in Tucson, Arizona, in the early 2000s. A crowd of attendees spilled out of the conference room and began milling around in the area just outside, discussing what they had learned. PS Magazine Editor-in-Chief Darin Painter was at that time in his early 20s, a young writer in the industry. From his vantage point sitting at a tabletop, he watched Ivars Sarkans weave through the crowd of people, heading his way. As Sarkans approached the tabletop and took a seat, a handful of people detached themselves from the crowd and followed.
Painter first noticed that the group sitting at the table represented about six decades and several different generations. He then noticed the group had not formed randomly or out of chance. Instead, the people who had followed Sarkans to the table had done so deliberately, with a specific goal in mind.
“I quickly realized they were just there to hear what he had to say,” Painter says.
This anecdote perfectly encapsulates the role Sarkans, who just retired, played in the print industry over the course of his illustrious career. With unrivaled technical knowledge and an unwavering commitment to education, connection, and the industry’s history and heritage, Sarkans has long been a towering figure in the world of print. With his retirement, other members of the industry believe Sarkans is leaving a gap that cannot be filled by five people, let alone just one.
For Roger Buck of Emerging Solutions Now, who has known Sarkans since the late 1980s, there’s no question that Sarkans deserves all the accolades in the world.
“If there was an All-Time Impact Award for the industry, it ought to be given to this guy,” Buck says.
Sarkans, who spoke at the 1986 Australian Business Forms Association annual convention, was in demand at industry events for his expertise and knowledge.
A Career in Print
If you’d wanted to find Sarkans when he was a child, a safe bet would’ve been checking his grandfather’s workshop first. Sarkans says he always had a “technical bent,” and loved spending time in the workshop, tinkering with the tools there.
“I spent a lot of time there trying to make some things — and occasionally even succeeding,” Sarkans says with a chuckle.
He further honed his interest in mechanics and engineering by poking around the machinery on a family farm and spending time with one of his uncles, an engineer who shared his technical books and drawings with Sarkans. For the first two years of high school, Sarkans attended a technically focused school where he could immerse himself in math and science. It was around this time that Sarkans got his first introduction to the world of printing.
He worked in a print shop one summer during high school, doing mostly bindery work. Sarkans believes “something about printing and ink” must have made an impact on him that summer. After graduating from college, Sarkans spent some time working in the engineering department of a corrugated carton production company. He also completed a stint with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before returning to the print industry in 1959.
From there, Sarkans’ career took off. He spent two years with a small, specialty printing business in St. Louis before jumping to Wallace Business Forms in 1961. In his job at Wallace, Sarkans found exactly what he was looking for: broader industry exposure and experience in a fast-growing segment of the industry. He spent seven years with the company before making another big move, this time to American Standard, where he worked in the graphic arts division. His job at American Standard took Sarkans all over the country. Sarkans worked mostly with forms companies, largely on equipment matters but also on business strategy, market studies, marketing and more.
Sarkans, along with several industry peers, figured on the cover of a 2004 issue of PS Magazine.
By 1980, Sarkans learned American Standard would be selling its printing division. Sarkans left the company and agreed to serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit concerning forms press suppliers. Over months of meetings, depositions and plant visits, Sarkans thought about what his next step should be.
“I wanted to capitalize on both my technical and business education and some 20 years of printing industry experience,” Sarkans says.
In the end, he set up shop as a consultant, kickstarting a 40-year run as one of the most knowledgeable and involved members of the industry.
Over those 40 years, Sarkans observed a number of dramatic industry shifts — and at times seemed to know about the changes coming down the pipeline before his industry peers. He was there, for example, when the first digital color presses were introduced, and Painter remembers Sarkans talking about digital printing before anybody else.
It was practically impossible to attend an industry event without running into Sarkans there. He knew that as a consultant with special expertise in printing technology, he needed to be there at the trade shows when new machines were unveiled. Accordingly, Sarkans made it his mission to attend as many shows as possible. This included international shows, like IPEX in Birmingham, England.
Sarkans also attended every drupa show in Düsseldorf, Germany, between 1972 and 2012, and attended the 2016 show virtually. Getting to attend drupa every few years was a highlight of Sarkans’ career — he especially enjoyed the inkjet printing demonstrations in the 2008 and 2012 shows — and his fondness for it rubbed off on his peers.
“I would always ask him about [drupa],” says Bill English of Superior Business Solutions, who met Sarkans around the late 1970s. “He told me stories about drupa, and then one year it piqued my interest enough that I actually attended.”
English says Sarkans knew all about next-generation hardware before anyone else in the industry. Moreover, he knew how the machinery worked and what kind of impact it would have on the industry. English’s view is shared by other industry figures, including Buck.
According to Buck, Sarkans was a popular figure at trade shows because he could quickly and accurately assess the new machinery. And Buck says when Sarkans praised equipment, people made sure to listen.
“If it impressed him, you knew it was good, and you knew it was probably going to impact the industry,” Buck says.
In addition to attending trade shows and industry events, Sarkans served on the board of the Print Education and Research Foundation (PERF). PERF is, above all, committed to education, and Sarkans was enormously influential in shaping PERF. Painter, who believes “no one else did more to advance supplier education,” says Sarkans’ commitment to education was his “North Star quality.”
Sarkans also helped usher members of the International Business Forms Industries (IBFI) into the Document Management Industries Association (DMIA), which later became PSDA. He also served as a PEAK Awards judge for a number of years.
He has influenced others in the industry in a different way, too, by nominating them for membership in the Ben Franklin Honor Society. Sarkans’ commitment to the industry has cemented his reputation as a hard worker who truly cares about printing and his peers.
From left to right: Roger Buck, Denny Pottebaum, Ivars Sarkans and Dan Adkison at the 2017 annual meeting of the Ben Franklin Honor Society.
“Ivars has an unwavering work ethic and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the industry as it has evolved over the years,” says Dan Adkison of Wright Business Graphics.
As a consultant, Sarkans made sure to balance his clientele, working with small, medium and large firms alike and strategically choosing clients that represented different segments of the industry. “Market trends and technology changes affect the various printing specialties differently,” Sarkans says. “That is why, from my start in consulting, I pursued a broad range of clients.”
He has worked with companies in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia, lending his expertise to firms across the globe. Some of his clients included large manufacturers, and while it would be easy to think his time was consumed with these big players, Adkison lauded his ability to “form deep and lasting friendships with manufacturers and distributors alike.”
English concurs, saying Sarkans was very friendly and always willing to sit down for a talk with anyone who had a question.
Sarkans saved a signed photo and thank-you note from a Mexican forms manufacturer for his assistance in securing additional operator training.
“His orbit was with people who were very big spenders, very big manufacturing operations, but he always had the time to talk to me about stuff that clearly wasn’t in that orbit,” English says, adding that Sarkans would willingly go out of his way to help anyone with anything.
This friendliness and accessibility underscores Sarkans’ commitment to the industry. He wanted to see his peers succeed and would do anything he could to help them. For their part, his peers appreciated all the help and guidance he offered over the years and praised his ability to think about the bigger picture.
Irv Michlin first met Sarkans in the late 1970s. In the years since, Michlin says, he has been continually impressed with Sarkans’ ability to “broaden” the discussion when he is approached with a question.
“He’s a good thinker,” Michlin says. “He doesn’t limit himself to the initial discussion. He’s good at expanding that discussion.”
Similarly, Painter says Sarkans always concerned himself not just with how things were, but why it mattered. According to Painter, Sarkans would always “ask the next question,” and in doing so challenge everyone around him to think “one more level, one more step” ahead.
As he prepares to step back from the industry and enjoy his retirement in a picturesque town in Washington State, Sarkans has some advice for newer and younger members of the industry: Be prepared for faster changes in the years ahead.
“There are very few things for certain except the proverbial death and taxes,” Sarkans says. “Above all, learn to question, verify more and assume less.”
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