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Executive Profile: Chuck Geschke

Co-founder, Adobe Systems Inc.

 

Joel Shore

joel@joelshore.com

This story originally appeared in

Computer Reseller News in Nov. 1999

 

 

Chuck Geschke

 

By Joel Shore 

 

Gutenberg and Geschke.

 

In October 1999, A&E’s Biography television series named Johan Gutenberg, the inventor of movable type, as the single most influential person of the last 1,000 years. Charles M. Geschke, president and cofounder of Adobe Systems Inc., is a latter-day Gutenberg—the Gutenberg of digital type.

With his longtime business partner (and onetime employee), John Warnock, it is Geschke who set the digital standards followed today. Pick up nearly any magazine, book, catalog, newspaper (including this one) or box of detergent and you’ll find they were printed using typefaces from Adobe and that their photos and graphics were edited or designed with Adobe software. And unlike the impact of a certain Bill Gates, (who finished a mere No. 41 in the A&E Biography millennium list) Geschke’s billions of beneficiaries around the world each day require no computer, only eyes.

“The enormity of the impact that this company has had on the way everything that is printed is produced cannot be measured,” says Christopher Galvin, an analyst with Hambrecht & Quist LLC in San Francisco. And Geschke himself points out that this sphere of influence now includes Hollywood, television and, of course, the Internet.

For this only child—his father was a Cleveland photoengraver and his mother a Depression-era bankruptcy court paralegal—the type was cast at an early age.

“I used to visit my father at work and watched him working with cyanide and other terrible chemicals etching printing plates,” recalls Geschke. It was hazardous work and young Chuck, who knew there had to be a better way, recalls receiving strong fatherly advice: “ ‘Don’t go into the printing business,’ he told me.” Both parents, though, admonished him to get an education. “It’s the one thing that can never be taken away. My mother saw people lose their jobs, their cars, their houses, but an education is forever.”

Geschke listened. Armed with his childhood penchant for disassembling the family’s appliances and a trio of college degrees, he wound up at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), breeding ground for inventions that seemingly made billions for everyone except Xerox. He hired Warnock in 1978 and in 1980 founded PARC’s Imaging Sciences Laboratory with the mission of marrying computer technology to Xerox’s legacy printing products. The duo’s Interpress page-description language became Xerox’s internal standard, but the company refused to license it to others.

Frustrated with the inability to publicly showcase their creation, Geschke and Warnock left PARC and started Adobe in 1982, naming the fledgling company after the creek running behind Warnock’s house. The original mission, Warnock recalls, was to go into a service business, “kind of like what Kinko’s is today.” Fortunately, fate stepped in—twice. Financier Bill Hambrecht urged the duo to refocus on software instead of services. That repositioning led to PostScript, built originally as nothing more than a method to get an image from screen to paper. The second hero in Adobe’s success was Apple visionary Steve Jobs. It was the charismatic Jobs who foresaw the commercial potential of PostScript.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Jobs had his Macintosh, Paul Brainerd from Aldus had his PageMaker page-layout program (which Adobe later acquired) and Canon had just launched the first low-cost laser printer. Jobs saw PostScript as the glue and pursued a licensing arrangement. “So when we did the contract with Apple we changed the business model,” Geschke says. A new kind of computing, Desktop Publishing, was born. Typefaces followed. So too did Photoshop, a product developed by two brothers and acquired by Adobe. Illustrator followed.

“Nearly every image in print media is touched by Photoshop,” says Francesca Messina, senior art director of BusinessWeek magazine. “Photoshop has revolutionized the creation of images for publications.”

Adobe had changed commercial printing and graphic arts forever, but it all came crashing down on May 26, 1992. It was on that morning that Geschke, arriving at work, was abducted at gunpoint and held for ransom for five long days. In an FBI search that was, at the time, the biggest since the kidnapping of Patti Hearst, Geschke was returned safely and his kidnappers apprehended. Though the ordeal took its toll on his family and colleagues, he looks back on it as something of a learning experience.

“We had a gift—that ordinary people can confront a terrible situation and with the right inner strength deal with it,” he says. “I had never been involved with anything violent before—never even fired a gun.” Lifelong Roman Catholics, the Geschke family—wife Nan and children Peter, Kathy and John—did a lot of praying those five days. Though he is still somewhat sensitive to strange cars and loud noises, the episode is nearly forgotten.

Adobe is one of only a few high-tech companies still run by its founders, notes Hambrecht & Quist’s Galvin. “Chuck and John get an award for longevity, along with Microsoft’s Gates and Oracle’s [Larry] Ellison,” he says.

For all Geschke’s accomplishments, not to mention the great personal wealth he has amassed, it’s logical to wonder why he still bothers with work instead of traveling. In fact, he has combined both.

“I could have retired long ago, but I still work because we make the world a more interesting and creative place,” says Geschke. And time at headquarters has given way to trips around the world—eight in 1999—to promote the company, its products and vision. As for sharing his good fortune, The Geschke Learning Resource Center at the University of San Francisco is his most visible contribution, but the family also maintains a foundation that runs educational programs for children. Chuck sits on the board of the San Francisco Symphony. Nan is involved with a local museum and is a board member of a local retirement home—the very one where Geschke’s father lived his final eight years.

Ask Geschke what Adobe does and he admits to a bit of alchemy. “We combine art with science.” And politics. “In India, all of their election materials are being distributed in Adobe Acrobat format. That’s a compelling thing,” he says. But in reality, the 60 year-old Geschke is just embarking on a new career—the Internet. “All of the cute Web stuff you see today is going to [evolve] into a true medium.”

Geschke finds the comparison with Gutenberg both humbling and amusing. “Remember, Guternberg’s business failed,” he says, forgetting for the moment that Adobe nearly came to its own ignominious end in August 1998. The share price took a nosedive and dozens of employees were let go in a major reorganization. “We had gotten too big. We got rid of two entire middle layers of management.” Recovery has been sweet: those $35 shares are now trading at about $125.

But in the end, Chuck Geschke is just a regular guy, a family man in khaki pants and plaid shirt. “It’s important to Chuck and me that we are good people running a good company,” says Warnock. “Chuck is very ethical; he’s the kind of person you look up to.”

Being looked up to is one thing, but Geschke himself is looking ahead, moving a whole lot faster than Gutenberg could have dreamed. “The printing press changed Western civilization, politics, education and social structures, but it took 400 years. The Internet is only 30 and it is already having a comparable impact. Who knows what’s next?”

© 1999 CMP Media Inc.

 

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Book Credits

Joel Shore is the author of books on computing including:

 Using Computers In Business

 Using WordPerfect

 

Profiler

Joel Shore has authored personal profiles of many industry luminaries:

Microsoft’s Bill Gates

3Com’s Eric Benhamou

Adobe’s Chuck Geschke

AOL’s Steve Case

Novell’s Ray Noorda

 


 

 

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