Building Steam with a Grain of Salt
“Do the right thing” may be the most succinct way to describe Steve’s career to someone, regardless of their grasp on standards or flexography. It would not be an exaggeration to peg the number of individuals who have listened to him speak, hailing from every nook and cranny of the packaging universe, in the tens of thousands. But what has he left in his wake?
Kevin believes the trail Steve blazed has been in stark defiance to what many businesses would prefer. That “secret sauce” pitched by supply chain guys, used as a means of differentiation, hurts FTA, hurts Diageo, hurts the entire industry. Devoid of any special interests, they would have joined Team Smiley a long time ago.
“If you were to scrape back the individual agendas that we have in our businesses, if you would strip these people back in their roles at these companies, and got them to think bigger; think, ‘If this were your company, or you were a steward for the industry, what would you do?’” he fantasizes. “They would jump on Steve’s wagon.”
Acknowledging such a reality could get you in trouble. Kevin recounts instances where, after he and Steve spoke on the merits of color standards at an FTA event, their employers would have a field day: “What about our secret sauce?” and “We want printers to come to us!” When Vertis closed its doors, Steve was faced with two options. He could take a similar job at another company and hear those same complaints, or become his own boss and sell clients on processes in which he actually believed. He chose the latter, opening SmileyColor & Associates in 2013.
“What drives a man to get up every day is a love for what he does; it’s not a paycheck. Steve’s underlying beliefs were strong enough to say ‘screw it,’ and choose to get paid to do what he thinks is right,” Kevin says of that decision. “That’s a powerful thing to say, because here’s a guy pretty high up in Vertis, and the company goes belly up. Steve went out by himself—and he was getting job offers left and right—but he chose the hard road. He said, ‘I’m gonna struggle for a few years to do what’s ultimately right.’ There’s nobody else I know who possesses the same passion.”
Like a Rosetta Stone
At the start of that Forum 2015 session, moderator and California Polytechnic State University Professor Dr. Malcolm Keif brought Steve and Sun Chemical’s Dr. Danny Rich to the stage and posed a simple question: What are standards?
“Standards are the rules that allow us to communicate between our supply partners. They help us pass the data we need back and forth,” the new FTA Hall of Fame member replied, before launching into another recitation of acronyms and numbers, made slightly less intimidating by his subtle southern accent.
But in his two sentence response, he had effectively defined something far simpler to understand, something everyone in the audience already knew well: Language. Whether it is English or Spanish, mathematics or C++, Klingon or Dothraki, or—yes—printing standards, they share the goal of enabling logical and coherent communication between subjects.
“While I often joke that every technical presentation at an FTA event concludes with ‘We have to communicate more effectively,’ it is only through standards that we can effectively communicate,” notes Mazur, a front row fixture at many a Forum or Fall Conference. “When a designer sends an Illustrator file to a printer, it is standards that allow the printer to comprehend what the designer expects to receive. Neither the designer nor the printer cares to know what those standards are, but without them, the final results are anybody’s guess.”
In that light, Steve Smiley’s contributions to FTA and the printing world—to say nothing of his perseverance and dedication in the face of adversity, his affable and selfless personality—are as significant as great linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. By tirelessly working to promulgate a universal language for packaging professionals to communicate with their peers on opposite sides of the planet or practitioners born decades in the future, he has helped ensure its continued improvement and march toward perfect consistency, a Rosetta Stone which no passage of time can ever erode.