Blood, Sweat and 20 Years
As International Web express marks its anniversary, CEO Byron Sheardown reflects on the shifting landscape of 21st century printing
Boarding the flight home from a European trip, William Byron Sheardown winced as he saw the headlines. CRISIS ON WALL STREET. FEAR SHAKES WORLD MARKETS.
October 12, 2008. The stock market was tanking, banks were teetering on the brink of collapse.
Sheardown looked over at his wife, Monika, sitting beside him. A month earlier, she had pulled together the last of her inheritance to help her husband fulfill a dream: to buy his own printing press. They had just completed the purchase of International Web express. Now, as the economic crisis deepened, Sheardown's dream risked turning into a nightmare.
If there's a character trait that best describes Sheardown, it's confidence. The 48year-old entrepreneur and father of three has spent the last eight years making investments to expand IWE'S capacity—buying up older print machines from bankrupt competitors and upgrading software for the desktop publishing market. He recently purchased a high-quality UV press, a way to make IWE competitive in the low-cost glossy magazine market. “You've got believe in yourself to make the right decisions,” Sheardown says. “Always be looking ahead to where the industry is going, not where it is now.”
The shift from analog to digital has undoubtedly changed the industry. But Sheardown believes there's still a place for hard copies, especially for advertising. “Businesses were attracted to online because they thought they were saving money,” Sheardown explains. “But now, many are returning to print, because they see it gets results.”
Sheardown was born in Vancouver, but spent his formative years in Whitehorse, and remembers losing people to violence, drugs, jail and suicide. As a teenager living through long, cold Yukon winters, Sheardown sensed a business opportunity. In 1988 he opened Park Avenue, Whitehorse's first mini-golf and arcade centre. A zoning dispute over his video games pitted Sheardown against City Hall, and his David vs. Goliath story made him front-page news. But fame wasn't enough to overcome bylaw infractions, and Park Avenue was forced to close.
Sheardown moved south to attend print school at Vancouver Community College. Just before graduation, he convinced Horizon Publications to hire him as a salesman. His business acumen and can-do attitude made him one of the region's top reps, and soon he was competing for customers with a rival company called International Web express. “We'd steal one of their clients, they'd get them back, then we'd go around again,” Sheardown says.
After 15 years at Horizon, Sheardown was ready to go into business for himself. He considered starting his own company, but a surprise phone call from the founder of IWE led him to put in an offer instead. Sheardown took possession in March 2009, at the height of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But Sheardown has never shied away from a challenge.
To pundits predicting the so-called “death of print,” Sheardown says the numbers speak for themselves. IWE'S revenue has grown from $3 million to more than $10 million, and in November 2015 the company hit a record $1 million in sales in a single month. What started as an eight-person operation now employs 54, from old-school machinists to cutting-edge digital designers and everyone in between. “It's a team effort,” Sheardown says. “We wouldn't be successful if we didn't work together.”
As owner of the last independent press in B.C., Sheardown sees his role as more than simply entrepreneurial. As a publisher, he is also a defender of democracy—no small responsibility these days. IWE prints newspapers in 22 languages, something that fills Sheardown with pride. “I've always believed in freedom of speech, and I love that the diversity of opinion that we support. In other parts of the world, newspapers are banned, and publishers have been jailed, threatened and killed. So by keeping our presses rolling here, we are demonstrating our commitment to freedom of expression.”