Bowne & Co., Inc. History

345 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014

Telephone: (212) 924-5500
Fax: (212) 229-3420

Public Company
Incorporated: 1909
Employees: 2,800
Sales: $716.6 million (1997)
Stock Exchanges: American
SICs: 2759 Commercial Printing, Not Elsewhere Classified; 7373 Computer Integrated Systems Design; 7372 Prepackaged Software; 7374 Data Processing & Preparation

Company Perspectives:

By using the latest printing and Internet technologies, we are transforming Bowne into a company that provides multimedia and multilingual document-building solutions to a worldwide list of clients.

Company History:

The world's largest financial printer and one of the oldest companies in the United States, Bowne & Co., Inc. operates corporate printing operations that print prospectuses, offering circulars, annual reports, stock certificates, and other legal documents. Bowne also ranked as the leading provider of EDGAR electronic filing services to clients. The company's clients include corporations, law firms, investment banks, and mutual fund groups. In addition to its core business, which traces its roots back to the 18th century, Bowne & Co. provides document-building solutions, Internet, and print on-demand services to its financial and legal clients, concentrating specifically on the reformatting of documents for online viewing. With offices throughout the United States and in strategic locations across the globe, Bowne recorded the most prolific growth in its more than two centuries of business during the 1990s. Annual sales swelled from $205 million in 1990 to more than $700 million in 1997.

18th Century Origins

A year and a half before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Bowne opened for business. On a February morning in 1775, Robert Bowne and his two business associates began carrying crates and boxes of merchandise through the door of Number 39 Queen Street, in New York City. Above the threshold of the door hung a placard that read, "Bowne & Co. Merchants." The name would endure for more than two centuries, earning its distinction as the oldest business operating under the same name in the history of New York commerce. The Bowne family, beginning with its patriarch, Robert Bowne, owned and operated the company for more than a century, developing a small street-side store into one of the nation's most venerable commercial institutions. The Bownes arrived on the shores of their future homeland in 1649, when Thomas Bowne left England and sailed to Boston. Four generations later, Thomas Bowne's great-great-grandson, Robert Bowne, was preparing to open the doors to his new general merchandise store, christening an enterprise whose formation predated the birth of the United States.

Robert Bowne was 31 years old when he opened his store on Queen Street, having left his family home in Flushing, New York, to start a mercantile business in the city. Inside the store, the shelves were stocked with writing paper, account books, quills and pens, binding and printing materials, powder, furs, nails, glass, dry goods, and, among a list of other items, "a few casks of low-priced Cutlery," as announced in a 1775 newspaper advertisement. Business at Bowne & Co. was underway in February 1775, but before long the company fell victim to the first of many historic events that would occur during its long corporate life. When British troops led by General Howe defeated General George Washington's outnumbered forces at Brooklyn Heights in August 1776, the American Army retreated into Manhattan, prompting thousands of New Yorkers, Robert Bowne included, to flee from the battle front.

Bowne left New York with his wife and infant daughter, leaving the doors of Bowne & Co. closed behind him until it was safe to return. When New Yorkers were able to return, considerable rebuilding work awaited them. Many found their homes destroyed, lying in ruins from years of fire and battle. Bowne returned as well, and reestablished himself as a general merchant. During the post-Revolutionary War period, Bowne & Co. began doing printing work, making its foray into the type of work that would later become the company's mainstay business. More important to Bowne at the time, however, was the brisk sale of stationery supplies. It was during the post-Revolutionary War years that Bowne & Co. etched its identity as a stationery supply store. Although the company continued to sell a diverse range of merchandise, the increasing sales derived from stationery supplies were fueling the store's prosperity. Stationery figured as an essential facet of the company's business until it was abandoned in the early 20th century.

As Bowne built his store into a solid and reputable enterprise, he also spent considerable time building a reputation for himself as one of New York's prominent citizens. He was a prodigious organizer of philanthropic organizations and spent many evenings gathered around a table with some of the country's early luminaries organizing the basic institutions a fledgling nation required. Bowne helped organize New York's first bank, he fought against slavery, he served as governor of the New York Hospital for 34 years, he helped organize the first fire insurance company, and he promoted the development of the Erie Canal. His tireless efforts away from his store paid large dividends for Bowne & Co., because in many respects the company reflected the individual at its helm. Like its creator, Bowne & Co. blossomed during the early 19th century, securing itself as a fixture of the burgeoning city it served. Although stationery supplies figured large in Bowne & Co.'s business, the company was involved in a number of business activities, as wide-ranging as the extracurricular activities performed by its founder. Straying far beyond the sale of stationery and printing services, Bowne & Co. served as agents for other merchants, it speculated in land, bought and sold commodities such as wheat, flour, wine, and brandy, and provided banking services.

Bowne died in 1818, leaving behind him a solid foundation upon which succeeding generations could build. He also left an ample number of heirs to inherit his business to begin building on the business foundation he created. Bowne, who came from a family comprising 14 brothers and sisters, had nine children of his own. After his death, Robert Bowne's genealogical legacy proliferated exponentially, giving him 50 grandchildren and 112 great-grandchildren. From this vast pool of direct descendants, Bowne & Co. would draw its leadership for the ensuing century.

Bowne & Co. in the 19th Century

Control of Bowne & Co. after Bowne's death in 1818 fell to two of his sons, Robert H. Bowne and John L. Bowne. Their first great test arrived in 1835, when Bowne & Co. was destroyed by fire, as was most of New York, which lost 17 city blocks and nearly 600 buildings to a fire that started in a dry goods store. The mayor of New York referred to the "Great Fire" as "the most awful calamity which has ever visited the United States," a disaster that forced the Bowne brothers to rebuild Bowne & Co. on a new site at the corner of Wall, Pearl (formerly Queen), and Beaver streets. In its new quarters, the company gained a reputation as a manufacturer of leather-bound account books, one of the several special talents the company developed during its long record of business.

By the 1850s, Bowne & Co. was headed by three of the founder's grandchildren, Robert, William, and John, the last generation of Bownes to manage the firm. During their tenure, which began in 1843 and ended in 1898, Bowne & Co. supplemented its thriving account book business with a variety of general printing work. Of the three Bownes who headed the company during the latter half of the 19th century, Robert Bowne's length of service was most enduring, encompassing a half-century. His retirement in 1898 signaled the end of Bowne family management and set the stage for the first non-family member to head the company, Stanley M. Dewey, who joined Bowne & Co. at age 16.

Dewey had been with Bowne & Co. for 30 years by the time he was appointed the company's fifth president in 1909, the year the business was incorporated for the first time. Much of the company's business at this juncture in its history was realized from the sale of stationery supplies. Dewey himself visited banks and insurance companies during his years as a senior partner, noting whether or not customers were in need of ink, quills, sealing wax, account books, and other related items. This line of business, which had been a mainstay for the company since its inception, became less important after the 1909 incorporation. Eventually, the stationery business was abandoned altogether, as the company concentrated its efforts on developing its printing business.

A 20th-Century Financial Printer

Dewey retired as president in 1922, but stayed on as chairman of the board until his death in 1941. Upon his retirement in 1922, Dewey sold his interest in the company to a young Bowne & Co. associate named Edmund A. Stanley, who had joined the firm in 1908. Stanley took over as Bowne & Co. was in transition, gradually becoming less of a stationery supplier and more of a printing enterprise. To supplement the company's traditional work for banking and insurance companies, Bowne & Co. responded to the printing needs of the surrounding financial district, printing a substantial portion of the securities offering circulars of New York underwriters. Its printing operations received a major boost in business when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was formed in 1933. The SEC required, by law, stock issue prospectuses and instituted annual reporting requirements for publicly-held corporations, creating a wealth of business for companies like Bowne & Co. In the years after the SEC's formation, Bowne & Co. began specializing in meeting the precise printing demands of underwriters, attorneys, publicly-traded corporations, and any party responsible for complying with SEC requirements.

The formation of the SEC established the framework for Bowne & Co.'s most important business during the 20th century, but the timing of the federal organization's debut could have been better from Bowne & Co.'s perspective. When the SEC was formed, the nation was in the midst of its most severe economic depression, a time when the fabric of the country's financial community was unraveling with alarming speed. Those companies able to stay in business during the Great Depression cut costs dramatically, reducing their advertising and promotional budgets to an absolute minimum. Bowne & Co. felt the sting of the harsh economic times and suffered along with nearly every other business in the country. Annual sales remained static during the decade-long crisis, hovering around $300,000. Annual financial losses occurred too frequently for any Bowne & Co. official to take lightly.

Bowne & Co. did not enjoy the full rewards of the SEC's presence until the 1940s, but once the economic climate improved, the company enjoyed an encouraging and much-needed surge of growth. Sales exceeded the $1-million-mark for the first time in 1946 and remained at that level until the beginning of the 1950s.

By the 1950s, the next generation of Bowne & Co.'s executive management had joined the firm. Stanley was joined by his son, Edmund A. Stanley, Jr., in 1949. The younger Stanley rose swiftly through the company's executive management ranks, becoming vice-president in 1953 and president of the company in 1956 when his father died. Victor Simonte, Jr., who succeeded Stanley in the 1970s, experienced a lengthier climb to the presidential post than Stanley, working the full gamut of jobs at Bowne before taking charge. Simonte joined the company in 1950 as a helper in the composing room when he was 17 years old. He subsequently held a variety of positions before being named president, laboring as an apprentice, journeyman, foreman, and plant superintendent. Together, Stanley, Jr., and Simonte would lead the company into the 1980s.

With Stanley, Jr., in charge, Bowne & Co. headed into the 1960s after a decade of measured financial growth. The $1 million in sales generated in 1950 rose to $3 million by 1961, the year the company moved to larger quarters on Hudson Street, where it would be located for the remainder of the century. Along with the move came the addition of new, modern printing equipment and new communications systems. With the aid of this new equipment and several important acquisitions, Bowne & Co. rose to the top of the financial printing industry in terms of annual sales, climbing from third to first during the 1960s. In 1966, the company acquired Garber-Pollack Co., a trade bindery, and two years later, when Bowne & Co. converted to public ownership, The La Salle Street Press, Inc. was purchased, giving the company the largest financial printer in Chicago. Following its debut as a publicly-traded company, Bowne & Co. either started or acquired financial printing companies in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

By 1974, as Bowne & Co.'s bicentennial approached and Simonte took over as president, annual sales stood at $38 million, far above the $3 million recorded in 1961. Under Simonte's watch, the company registered another decade of energetic financial growth and was generating more than $100 million in sales by the beginning of the 1980s. Although the sales growth recorded during Simonte's first decade of leadership kept Bowne & Co. ahead of all other rivals in the United States, its lead was diminishing as it headed into the 1980s. Pandick Press Inc., Bowne & Co.'s closest rival, was gaining ground during the 1980s, recording 20 percent annual gains in sales while Bowne & Co.'s sales volume shrank. Critics charged that Simonte had failed to make the transition into the computer age, and in late 1982 Bowne & Co.'s directors acknowledged this failure by announcing Simonte's retirement. Simonte left the company he had joined as a teenager at age 49 and was replaced by Franz von Ziegesar, ten years Simonte's senior. On the heels of this change in management, the benefits of embracing the computer age were made manifest by the SEC.

New Technology of the 1980s and 1990s

In 1984, the SEC introduced a voluntary electronic filing program for corporations called EDGAR. Bowne & Co. was the first corporation to join the program and lent its assistance to the prime contractor in the development of the program. Although corporations were not obliged to file electronically at EDGAR's outset, participation eventually became mandatory. Bowne & Co., involved with the program from its start, found itself closely involved in what would prove to be a highly lucrative market, and one that underscored the importance of adopting to the changes engendered by the pervasive influence of computers in the business world.

By the 1990s, the ubiquity of computers had significantly altered the thinking of Bowne & Co.'s management. The company, after more than two centuries of business, was tailoring itself to be an information management company, a provider not only of the printing services to disseminate data and text but also a company capable of assisting its corporate clients in managing their endless flows of information through the latest technologies. The push to become this new type of company helped insulate Bowne & Co. from the cyclicality of its mainstay business. Historically, the financial printing business had been dependent on the economic cycles that influenced stock issues, mergers, and acquisitions, but by branching into providing corporate services for the Internet and helping clients manage information through computer-based technologies, Bowne & Co. could depend on business free from the economic fluctuations that affected financial printing.

With the movement toward becoming this new type of company underway as the 1990s began, Bowne & Co. started to record animated growth in earnings and sales, in proportions that never had been achieved before. The bulk of the financial growth was realized midway through the decade, after Bowne & Co. had established two subsidiary companies that represented its commitment to its new role as an information management company. Bowne Business Services, formed in fiscal 1996, was created to lead Bowne & Co.'s diversification into non-financial printing businesses. The company's intent was to manage customers' desktop publishing, word processing, and multimedia operations and also to offer services facilitating the creation and management of Internet and intranet sites. Bowne & Co. officials projected a potential $250 million in revenues in this area of business by the year 2000. The other subsidiary, Bowne Digital Services, was formed to take advantage of the emerging business created by the convergence of database processing and digital print technologies. Through Bowne Digital Services, Bowne & Co. positioned itself as a service provider for database management, on-demand printing, and digital print technologies.

With the addition of these new businesses, Bowne & Co.'s financial might was strengthened significantly. From $205 million in sales in 1990, the company's revenue total leaped to $501 million in 1996 and soared to $716 million in 1997. Bowne & Co.'s net income during the decade increased from 1990's $8.4 million to the record-setting $54 million registered in 1997. Buoyed by this remarkable surge of financial growth, the world's largest financial printer headed toward the 21st century, the fourth century in which the Bowne & Co. name would be a fixture of the U.S. business world.

Principal Subsidiaries: Bowne Business Services, Inc.; Bowne Business Communications, Inc.; Bowne Information Services, Inc.; Bowne International, Inc.; Bowne of Atlanta, Inc.; Bowne of Boston, Inc.; Bowne of Chicago, Inc.; Bowne of Cleveland, Inc.; Bowne of Dallas, Inc.; Bowne of Los Angeles, Inc.; Bowne of New York City, Inc.; Bowne of Phoenix, Inc.; Bowne of Canada, Ltd.; Bowne of Montreal, Inc. (Canada); IDOC, Inc. (80%)

Further Reading:

  • Jaffe, Thomas, "Survivor," Forbes, September 4, 1989, p. 317.
  • Power, Christopher, "The Wrong Type?," Forbes, February 28, 1983, p. 2.
  • Stanley, Edmund A., Jr., Of Men and Dreams, New York: Bowne & Co., Inc., 1975, 83 p.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 23. St. James Press, 1998.