Operations Chief Rick Surkamer: From Burned Out to Zealous

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Get Rick Surkamer talking about newspapers, and pretty soon he’s leaping from his chair and covering notepads or an entire dry-erase board with maps, EBITDA calculations, graphs of the industry’s crisis. The one-time production star of the Chicago Tribune fairly cackles as he contemplates messing with the heads of his old employers as the new vice president of operations for the chain that publishes the rival Chicago Sun-Times.

It’s easy to imagine that he’s got newspapering in his blood, and that he was chomping at the bit to return to the industry during the years he spent as president of Rollex, the big manufacturer of vinyl and metal siding. Indeed, he would occasionally meet with an E&P reporter at a Starbucks across from the Rollex plant in suburban Chicago to talk happily and knowledgeably about the latest industry news, often punctuated by literal back-of- the-envelope calculations about this or that takeover possibility.

But there was a time, after he had left the Tribune in 1997 and was working for Goss International (as the storied press manufacturer is called today), when Rick Surkamer felt burned out on newspapers.

Goss had gone into bankruptcy, management had changed, and Surkamer was on his way out. “I felt, that’s it — enough,” he recalls. “I just didn’t want to have anything to do with this business anymore.”

That discontent didn’t last, and within the past couple of years he found himself increasingly fascinated with an industry that’s at a historic crossroads between transformation or obsolescence. Surkamer, 54, wanted back in the game. “What was I going to do? Extrude more siding?” he laughs. “This is much more noble. My God, I’m smack-dab in the middle of this massive change. It’s what I crave.”

He’s in the middle of massive change not only in the industry at large, but at the Sun-Times Media Group (STMG), the Chicago super-cluster of more than 100 papers that changed its name from Hollinger International to distance itself from the problems brought on by former Chairman Conrad Black and his right-hand man, former Sun-Times Publisher F. David Radler.

Surkamer says the sense of liberation at the Sun-Times is palpable, even three years after Radler’s reign of morale-sapping austerity. Escalators were turned off to save on the electric bill, for instance, and the newsroom was reduced by more than a quarter.

The feeling is rubbing off even on Surkamer, who is arriving at a time when STMG has replaced nearly all its C-suite level people, and when a big production task — planning and carrying out the consolidation of the group’s printing plants — has already been done for him. Surkamer notes there is plenty on his plate, from wringing more efficiencies in distribution to rolling out sub-ZIP code zoning. But he’s already thinking about a much more pleasant management job: figuring out how to reward managers and employees for the production gains they’re accomplishing.

“The whole newspaper industry is going, ‘My God, the roof is falling in,'” he says, “and I’m thinking about rewards, because we are going to do more.”

At the same time, he feels charged up by STMG’s far-from-concluded fight back to financial health. “This is not just, ‘Hollinger screwed up, and we’ve gotta turn it around,'” Surkamer says. “The whole industry should be saying, ‘We’re in turnaround.’ The whole industry should be feeling the urgency.”

For its recovery, STMG turned to Cyrus Freidheim Jr., the 71-year-old longtime management consultant who sealed his reputation as a turnaround artist when he led Chiquita Brands International out of bankruptcy as its CEO. Freidheim recalls Surkamer’s job interview this way: “He did pull out his pad and start scribbling. I thought, here’s a guy who really knows what he’s doing. And it isn’t just publishing. He knows manufacturing, and he’s just a smart businessman.”

Newspaper production people remember Surkamer as a chairman of the International Newspaper Group, but outside the industry he founded the Economic Development Council of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and served on the board of what’s now the Alliance for Illinois Manufacturing. Indeed, he says some of his colleagues in manufacturing — and even in the newspaper business — thought he was, well, nuts to return to the industry. “Are you sure you want to do that, Rick?” he quotes them with an arched eyebrow. “I love it. It’s like I’m one of those guys on the Weather Channel with a hurricane blowing them back. And all they can say is, ‘Here I am.'”

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