Winnipeg Manitoba is often called the gateway to Canada’s west. Situated far north and west of Toronto, it takes a hardy bunch to live there year-round. The winters, with arctic winds howling, seem to last forever - only interrupted by short hot summers where the mosquito is considered the national bird.
You won’t find a better class of people than Manitobans or be surprised how many famous people grew up in towns where car tires develop flat spots from the cold, all the while remembering to plug in block heaters so the car engine blocks don’t crack. I’ve never been as cold anywhere else in the world – and that includes Russia.
Early inhabitants and settlers ranged from Indigenous, Ukrainians, Germans, English & Scottish, French, and Dutch. It would seem a balmy -30C January day is just called “Monday” in a variety of languages. However, this isn’t a tale of climate or hardiness; it’s a tale of persistence, hard work, and goodwill.
The Second World War left scathing wounds all over Europe, and the Netherlands was no exception. Dire conditions saw many families surviving on tulip bulbs to fend off starvation. In the western city of Enschede, life was no better, with the city only a short distance from the German border. It was in Enschede that a young Gerrit (Gerry) Kuik served his apprenticeship as a printer and typesetter. In his off-hours, Gerry was a member of the Dutch Resistance and used his printing skills to produce anti-German propaganda. Unfortunately, the Germans caught up with the teenager, and in August 1944, Gerry, along with two of his brothers, was arrested by the secret police. After weeks in solitary, Gerry was fortunate to be released, but his older brother wasn’t as lucky and ended up in a concentration camp where he died.
“Happy the man who, like Ulysses, has made a fine voyage, and then returns, to spend the rest of his life among family” - Joachim du Bellay
After the war, Gerry completed his trade school courses and continued in printing until 1950, when he and his family uprooted to Carman, Manitoba. Post-war Canada was a magnet for many and thousands of Dutch families seeking new opportunities, settled in Ontario and Manitoba. After taking on some back-breaking work in the sugar beet fields, then mink farming, Gerry finally found an opening in a small Printshop in Carman. Soon, after twelve years, this now proud Canadian worked his way to a position where he could open his Printshop on the outskirts of Winnipeg. In 1962 Premier Printing would be born out of hard work, and plenty more of that would follow in succeeding decades.
Gerry passed away this past January 2, 2021, at the age of 96. I was blessed to know the man and, in extension, many in his expansive family. Gerry and his wife Johanna had seven children, forty grandchildren, and ninety-five great-grandchildren. This alone is a legacy. As we go through life and bump into people along the way, few of us are fortunate to meet such remarkable people as Gerry and the dozens of family members who worked at Premier Printing. Since the early 1980s, our business lives would spontaneously intertwine, and I got to see firsthand how Gerry built such a formidable printing operation, not just with hard work but a guiding principle of absolute honesty and decency that permeated completely through the whole company.
When I was a kid, busy at not being busy, my father would often say, “make yourself useful.” In Gerry’s case, he was always useful, not just in the Printshop but also in the community and his local church. Gerry was instrumental in building their church and was a constant helping hand to all members of the area. A park is named after him in recognition of some of his efforts to support his neighbors. Deeply spiritual, Gerry lived by the bible’s teaching, as do all the extended family. I once had a conversation with Ben Kuik, and somehow talk turned to his being out of town for a while. I had to pry it out of Ben and finally learned that Premier had devoted (and one has to assume) considerable time, labor, and money to assist the land-slide victims in Guatemala. This one event is just part of many other philanthropic deeds that showcased how Gerry and his family shun praise and adulation because acts of grace are simply “just doing God’s work.”
"We don't like funny business" - Gerry Kuik
In 1982, I arrived at Premier a day after finishing an installation in Florida. We had just sold a Heidelberg SORSZ, and it was to be the first two-color 40-inch in the shop. I should have been paying attention to the weather because all I had was a windbreaker while the new press sat on the floor frozen, with frost visible. Just walking in the door, one could sense that this shop wasn’t your typical printer. Everyone carried out their work with a sense of purpose and in a refreshingly friendly and positive mood. Gerry’s son Ben and nephews John and Lawrence Toet stayed with me the whole time and gave me all the help I needed. They were to become good friends. Bert Kuik, Gerry’s brother, was also a joy to be around. Although I didn’t know it then, an electro/mechanical wizard would develop and build custom machines and modifications for the burgeoning Premier School Agenda business.
In 1990, I installed a Miller TP29S, and once we had the press running, John walked up to me and said, “I just read the specifications in the manual, and this press can run a 12,000 iph.” We were cruising at around 8-9,000 iph at the time, and I must have muttered something about manufacturer’s specs being guidelines or something. But then John insisted we try and jumped on the press as we fiddled with the feeder until he finally got his 12,000 out of the machine. This type of thinking was just part of the gift Gerry left for each of his family, and I grew to love going to Winnipeg just to be around such extraordinary people.
I could see that Gerry always looked me in the eye, and when a deal was made, it was to the letter. The formal business tone slowly melted away when in 1990, I was in Fargo, North Dakota, installing a recently sold press at Knight Printing. Gerry had been gracious in recommending our company and also happened to be in town one cold winter night. Since we stayed in the same Hotel, Gerry invited Francis Danquah and me to the game room, where a ping pong table sat alone. The owner of Knight Printing joined us and happened to say he was a “pretty good player.” Well, so was Francis. Francis was excellent. A bet ensued, and there was Francis whopping his opponent then taking on Gerry while letting out these huge belly laughs the whole time. I was not sure it was a smart move pummelling two customers, but at the end of the trouncing, Gerry, with a big grin, said, “I have a bottle,” and we all sat down to hilarious stories while emptying Gerry’s Rye.
Gerry was also the driver behind the hugely successful Premier School Agenda business. These books are packed with information for school and college students, and after an initial run of just 300 books in 1982, the Agenda business grew to a phenomenal yearly total of over 25-million books by 1989. My daughter had one, and I remember how proud I was when she brought it home from school. In all the years I knew Gerry, not once did we have a disagreement, although not everything went swimmingly, and I never once saw him lose his composure. A true gentleman and forever an icon of the Printing industry.
Gerry’s daughter Grietje married a newly transplanted Dutch immigrant in Ontario. After a few years, the Gortemaker family moved to Winnipeg, where Bill (Wilhelm) Gortemaker joined his father-in-law at Premier Printing.
Schooled in administration back in the Netherlands, Bill initially worked in landscaping on his arrival to Canada. Once Bill visited our home and, after pointing out the vagaries of various flora, informed us that he knew the area quite well as his landscaping firm worked in the vicinity. It was not long before Bill would take on more responsibilities and control the purse-strings of the thriving Premier enterprise. There is a great deal of similar thinking between Gerry and his son-in-law. Although in my dealings, Bill often cast himself as the ultimate “Dr. NO,” just beneath that exterior was a truly wonderful human being. I would often joke with Bill during many of our negotiations that the Dutch invented copper wire. “How’s that then?” replied Bill. “Well, it started with two Dutchmen fighting over a penny,” I’d reply. I think Bill liked that joke. Sadly, Bill also passed away in 2015, much too young.
There were many sales made by our firm to Premier in the 1980s & 1990s and occasional hiccups. We supplied the first manroland 708-SW in Canada to Premier in 1998. The press arrived from Germany into our still unfinished new facility, where without our equipment installed, the cleaning had to be done by hand. Bill came to Toronto to see the press in a million pieces sitting amongst all the construction and, looking at me straight in the eye, said,” I hope it works.” Another press sale had John Toet and I travel to London to see a Komori L628C. When the press arrived at a seemingly always frigid Winnipeg, it was found that two print units had not been fully drained of water, and the freezing en-route had blown out the inkers causing massive repairs. We had to fix it, and we did, but not once did Bill ever raise his voice in anger. They had faith that the machine would be put right.
This isn’t a story about buying or selling printing and bindery equipment; anyone is capable of that. It’s much more a lesson on how doing the right thing while caring deeply about the people around you changes your perspective on what is important. My memories are not of doing business, but rather how we can be successful in commerce when we take Martin Luther King’s words to heart: “life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you are doing for others?”
Both Gerry and Bill changed and touched many lives, mine included, while demonstrating how devotion to good values makes a lasting impact. Premier Printing remains a success story, not only for the print industry but for all people everywhere. In Winnipeg, since 2015, Gerry and Bill’s legacy now rests with three very capable scions in Will, Dave, and Ted Gortemaker, continuing the work ahead. As one would expect, they are limbs of the same mighty oak that is Gerry Kuik.
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