Publishing Executive Hall of Fame: Mark W. White— Not Bad for a 'Generalist'
Testifying in front of a congressional committee is unlikely at the top of most business executives' lists of career goals—especially these days—and yet it was this act that probably best distinguishes Mark W. White's career to date. Standing in front of the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia, on Oct. 30, 2007, White delivered a brilliant, surgical argument on behalf of publishers everywhere that forced the various interests to rethink their positions and promoted efficient mailing to benefit both the USPS and publishers alike. It is for contributions like these that White, U.S. News & World Report's vice president of manufacturing and distribution, is a 2009 inductee into the Publishing Executive Hall of Fame.
Mike Armstrong, who recently retired as senior vice president of operations at U.S. News, hired White as manufacturing finance manager in 1995, upon the completion of his MBA at William & Mary. "He did not have much direct experience in production," Armstrong recalls, "but I felt he had a quickness about him. I never regretted my decision."
White's humble nature is to deflect attention and acclaim, frequently passing along any compliments intended for him or his work to his colleagues and subordinates. A prime example is the way he speaks of the development of his 14-year career at U.S. News. "I gradually became a generalist," he says, his way of asserting that he's a master of no particular area of manufacturing or production, but that he "knows enough" about most of them.
Nonsense, says Armstrong. "Mark is a generalist in that his interests are wide-ranging, and he has an excellent grasp of the fundamentals of the publishing business," his boss of the past 14 years says. "Once he fastens onto an opportunity, though, he rapidly acquires what can only be described as expertise—a very highly refined, special knowledge of the topic."
His testimony before Congress on postal rates is an excellent example. "Mark constructed arguments of subtlety and deep insight that bested those of folks who have been players in this business for decades," recalls Armstrong. "Honestly, I was amazed by that work."
Brian Schmitt, who served under White before moving to his current post as director of postal operations at Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., still marvels at White's performance before Congress. He delivered a speech titled the "Top 10 Myths Regarding Periodicals Rates," in support of cost-based periodicals rates, and during a question-and-answer session, he succeeded in capturing the future of efficient distribution with the memorable catch phrase, "co-mail or no mail," as Schmitt recalls.
"I've heard numerous people repeat that phrase in presentations since, and it did predict the dominant trend in distribution in recent years," Schmitt says. "Not bad for a generalist."
His propensity to wade into deep, complex topics and to master them perhaps stems from his days as a newspaper reporter after college.
"[Working with Mark] most reminds me of working with the smartest kid in your school on a science project—you knew [the project] was going to be hard work, sometimes not much fun, but in the end you would probably do some of your best work and end up with a great grade," says Schmitt.
"Touring a paper mill with Mark was the equivalent of a course in paper making, as he asked probing questions about the mill's machinery, the economics of paper making, and on and on," remembers Armstrong. "And I could list many other topics—his ingenuity in magazine makeup, acute sense of system and process, grasp of newsstand distribution, etc."
Today, as vice president of manufacturing and distribution, White is responsible for the production and distribution of all print products, including U.S. News' popular "America's Best Colleges" and "America's Best Graduate Schools" guidebooks, in addition to the 1.3-million circulation U.S. News & World Report. He is charged with finding cost savings and efficiencies, and has been a central figure in the development and implementation of innovative initiatives including pool shipping, co-mailing, rotogravure printing and, most recently, taking advantage of the USPS' Summer Sale.
It is the constant striving for excellence that both warrants White's place among his peers in the Hall of Fame and what drives him and his staff to churn out the latest and greatest strategies.
"What keeps me up at night is looking for new opportunities—whether it's reducing costs, solving problems or meeting customers' needs," says White. "Have I settled for merely 'good enough' rather than the best? Have I brushed off someone else's promising idea? Am I gathering and integrating all of the information …, not only about production and distribution, but also about the needs of my internal and external customers?"
The solutions identified by him and his staff have earned frequent recognition and accolades in the industry, yet White deflects this praise in his customary humble way. "U.S. News was an innovator … long before I joined the staff. I just happen to be the person in charge of manufacturing and distribution when the award is being given," he says.
"What most stands out … is Mark's integrity," says Armstrong. "He made very few mistakes, but always owned up when he did and accepted responsibility. I think this accounts for his diligence, which, coupled with an inquisitive nature, makes for a powerful engine for intellectual growth."
What's next for White? He says he'll keep an eye on the USPS, since so much of his job is reliant on its moves. "We're planning to use the Postal Service's Summer Sale program to obtain new subscribers to the print magazine," White says. "I've also tried to drum up interest in the newly enhanced incentives for high-density carrier-route postage, but the postal experts in both the magazine and printing industries seem to be so tied up with implementing Intelligent Mail Barcodes that they can't focus much on that opportunity to reduce postage costs."
And so, "the generalist" marches on, innovating, inventing and reinventing ways to invigorate magazine manufacturing and production, and offers the rest of us advice we'd be well-served to take: "Avoid the 'silos' that typically have kept people in publishing thinking only about their area of specialization, like production, sales or journalism. Listen to people in other departments, ask stupid questions and don't shy away from experimentation, even though that will inevitably lead to some mistakes."
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