CEO Lee Schram of Deluxe Corp. has done what he said he would do when he arrived at the declining check and business forms printer in 2006.
Schram, 53, an analytical accounting and finance executive who arrived in Shoreview from heading a retail services division of larger NCR Corp., pledged to “move Deluxe into the future.” It may have taken longer than he hoped, but the numbers are going in his direction.
“Transformations are hard, but I think we’ve done it,” Schram said recently. “There were people who didn’t think we’d make it, but our people have done it. That’s been the great thing. We’ve got a lot of things working in our favor. Our goal now is more top-line growth.”
Schram is running a refocused, leaner, more productive Deluxe. It’s heading for a sixth straight year of profitable revenue growth that should result in record earnings of $4.50 per share this year on $1.8 billion in revenue, according to analyst estimates compiled by Thomson Financial Network. And Deluxe has nearly 30 percent fewer people than the 7,600 employees of 2007, when Schram started to refocus.
Deluxe’s stock price, which slumped to $6.20 per share during the March 2009 lows of the market, hit a high of $69.77 in March.
Schram has cut $550 million in permanent costs since 2007, including closing several check-printing plants and making related layoffs. “We tried to do it with grace and dignity,” said Schram.
“We said, ‘Consumers are changing to electronic and mobile banking. This has nothing to do with how you did your job.’ Now, we’re getting more efficient so we can fuel the growth of our newer businesses.”
Schram has been a driving force at a company that in 2006 got the overwhelming amount of revenue from its declining checks and forms business.
“We respect the legacy,” he said. “There were people who thought I was a 44-year-old hotshot coming in here … but we respect the people and where we’ve been.”
Today, he runs a company that should see profitable revenue growth of 6 percent this year, even as its checks business, now its smallest unit, declines by up to 8 percent.
Deluxe today gets two-thirds of its revenue from website development, marketing services, online security and other customized products sold to more than 4.5 million small-business customers. Another 22 percent of the business comes from its financial services division that sells online marketing, loyalty and rewards programs to 5,600 financial institutions, including large players U.S. Bank, Chase and Sun Trust.
‘Methodical and respectful’
“Lee was thoughtful, methodical and respectful,” said Beth Lilly, a portfolio manager for New York-based GAMCO Investors, who lives a few blocks from Schram in St. Paul. “Deluxe had a high-cost-structure business in a declining market of check and forms printing. He came in with a fresh set of eyes and a strong track record at NCR.
“Lee has done a phenomenal job transforming Deluxe from a ‘check printing company’ to a small-business services company,” Lilly said. “Taking out $500 million in costs, selling noncore assets and reinvesting in new businesses has resulted in tremendous returns for shareholders.”
Investment managers are happy because they’ve made four or five times their money invested since the 2008-09 recession.
Last year, Schram realized his biggest payday, including salary and bonus of $2.9 million and long-term stock-related gains of $7.1 million. His compensation is closely tied to the fortunes of other stockholders.
“I could retire,” he acknowledged, adding that much of his wealth will be donated to charitable, medical and educational causes. “My board is supportive. And it’s still about the transformation of this company. This is where I want to be.”
Final stage of plan
Deluxe is in the final stage of a multiyear plan under Schram that began in 2006-07 with a candid assessment of the business and led to refocusing its strategy. Since 2010, that spade work has yielded growth that Schram aims to accelerate over upcoming years.
He ran the company and oversaw acquisitions that helped build out the next-generation electronic marketing and other businesses and blend them into an integrated growth engine focused on small-business and financial institution customers.
“Lee Schram can work me under the table, and he is relentless about getting work done,” recalled Joanne McGowan, a Chicago-based consultant with strategy firm Aveus, who was retained by Deluxe in 2007 and stayed as a senior executive through 2010.
In those days, Schram was driven to find inefficiencies in IT and other spending because he knew he had to cut costs to invest in what he and the board concluded would be the future.
“It was a tough time,” McGowan said. “We were trying to reshape a company in the midst of the recession. Lee brought tremendous discipline to the organization that hadn’t been there before. Lee focused on bringing new companies into the mix through acquisition, and we didn’t have all the human capabilities inside the business. It was bumpy sometimes.
“He’s good with people, but not always kind,” McGowan said. “He will not tolerate people not having their numbers in order, or failing to follow through on what they said they would do. Lee changed the Deluxe culture of being nice but not accountable.”
‘He doesn’t hip-shoot’
Gordon Stofer, the veteran co-founder of Cherry Tree, an investment banker used by Deluxe, called Schram “a driver with analytical tendencies. He doesn’t hip-shoot.
“Often we see entrepreneurs who are strong on marketing, but don’t have a grasp of financial implications. He has a CFO background. He knows how to analyze things. We do a lot of modeling for Deluxe [of how acquisitions will play out]. Our guys are shocked at how focused he is on what’s missing. ”
Schram left NCR a decade ago, after seven jobs and moves for his family, to run an independent company. He wanted his kids to settle and graduate from high school in one place. The youngest graduated from Hill-Murray School in Maplewood last spring.
Schram, who studied accounting and finance in college and graduate school in Ohio, is the son of a Cleveland dentist. He moved his family from close-to-work Vadnais Heights to St. Paul several years ago because he likes the vibe of the city and enjoys patronizing small businesses, from restaurants to George’s Shoe Repair on Grand Avenue.
Schram, a trim former high school basketball player, plays golf at St. Paul’s Town and Country Club, runs on a treadmill and cuts his own grass. He built an ice rink in the backyard during his son’s hockey days, but now just skates at the park.
He said he is unsure if he and his wife will retire here because family is in Ohio and South Carolina.
“But I like it here,” he said. “People are educated, and they care about this place. There’s art, theater, sports, community involvement, interesting politics.”