Matthew Gonnering: Taking the Helm at Widen Enterprises

The first thing one notices about Matthew Gonnering, the new CEO of Widen Enterprises, is that at the young age of 32, he seems wise beyond his years. After spending just a few minutes in conversation, another reason becomes evident why the 61-year-old, family-run operation is passing the baton: He seems to have no fear of failure.

The decision to hand-pick Gonnering to carry the torch of this multi-million dollar pre-press and digital asset management business was made years ago. Reed Widen, president and chair of the business that his father (Mark Widen) started, was impressed early on. "He's the only person who ever handed me a career plan for themselves that had my job at the end of it!" Widen said about Gonnering.

Looking back, Gonnering admits that was a bold move, especially since he'd just joined the company six months earlier as a sales rep. Recounting the conversation, Gonnering said, "I told him my job was fine, but I just felt the organization could accomplish so much more."

So, as it turned out, did Reed Widen.

It was 1999, and Widen Enterprises had been moving more into technology — developing software that would help customers manage all of their images as a value-added service to pre-press and printing. Gonnering got excited. "I looked at that software component and saw the future of the organization," he said.

When Gonnering joined Widen Enterprises, he was not entirely wet behind the ears. Granted, he was just a year removed from earning his degree in business administration from St. Norbert College, but as he puts it, ink had been flowing through his veins for years. His father had owned a printing business in Appleton. "My first memory was how Dad smelled each night when he came home from the office," Gonnering said. "That printing smell."

Over the years, he gained experience in bindery, pre-press, presses, marketing, and estimating. In his mind, the unfortunate fact that his Dad's business didn't make it only created another opportunity.

After a short stint in sales for a sports collectibles magazine, Gonnering put his feelers out on Monster.com. At the time, he was itching to get back to the industry he was most familiar with, and the Widen opportunity seemed a perfect fit.

"Moving upstream in the printing process was encouraging to me because I saw where the printing industry was headed. Pre-press was one way to start working back upstream," he said.

Over nine years, Gonnering advanced from sales rep to marketing specialist, to sales/marketing manager, and then to VP of sales and marketing. His most recent jump to CEO publicly took effect April 1.

Reed Widen said he's been grooming Gonnering for years. The company even invested in his continuing education, enrolling him in UW's Executive MBA program. Gonnering will graduate in May.

"He's the right guy for the job," said Widen, who admits it's a little frightening to hand over day-to-day operations to someone sporting a different last name. "I think about that a lot," he said. "It's a big step."

To soften the transition, the 49-year-old Widen will stay on for a while, but he looks forward to leaving the headaches behind.

"It's Matthew's company to run," he said.

Gonnering, meanwhile, anticipates breaking new ground in technology and challenging traditional thinking. "We've been here 60 years," he said, "and my job is to see that we're in business for the next 60, and 60 after that."

Spoken like an old pro.