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Gonnering: Widen Enterprises thrives through tech transitions

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Widen Enterprises has what some might consider the perfect business plan: Create a problem for your customers and then get them to pay you for a way to solve it.

That, in a nutshell, is what Widen has done with its Digital Asset Management software, which helps customers manage their digital media and videos.

“Through our pre-press services, we were creating massive files,” said Matthew Gonnering, the new 32-year-old CEO of Widen. “Then we were giving files back to the customers and they didn’t know what to do with them.”

Starting back in the mid-1990s Widen began creating software to help clients search and locate specific files through a Web browser, he said.

“The Internet technologies back then were in their infancies, so there were a lot of challenges,” said Gonnering, who took over the CEO post from owner Reed Widen, who remains with Widen as president and chairman.

But even with those obstacles, the software was a big help for customers, who had no idea how to store or manage their files, he said.

“Now we’re looking to create many more problems,” joked Gonnering. “We’ve got a lot of ideas. We’re wide open.”

Gonnering, who joined the company nine years ago in a sales position, is the Widen’s first non-family CEO. He grew up in Appleton, where his family ran the Master Litho printing company. It went out of business in 1999.

Gonnering acknowledges that he’s young for a printing company leader. But when it comes to being a software executive, CEOs in their 30s are hardly unusual, he said.

Widen -- which has evolved into a premedia and software-as-a-service provider -- has a long history in Madison. It was started 62 years ago as a photo-engraving company by Mark Widen. It now has 110 employees.

“Widen always has had the ability to interpret what the market demand would be,” said Gonnering, who is now finishing his executive MBA at UW-Madison. “As the age of color came along, they acquired equipment and experts in those fields.”

Since then, the company branched into other business units that complemented what the firm was doing with color retouching, photo manipulation and page production services for cataloguers, he said.

“We moved downstream into printing services and upstream into photography services,” he said. “We also migrated upstream into creating software and technology that would allow organizations to manage all the images they were creating and that we were creating for them.”

About six years ago, he said the company divested itself of much of its printing work to focus more on continued color management services and software technology.

“Though images are still a primary use by marketing and creative types, it’s now video and other marketing and creative files like Photoshop and Illustrator and InDesign and Quark. So we are embracing all these files to help these organizations get their arms around digital media.”

When Gonnering joined Widen, he helped push the company to expand the marketing of digital media management software that was created by company employees.

“I was hired to take care of printing sales,” he said. “Widen at the time had software technology, but it was only being sold to the existing customer base as a value-added service.”

Bu Gonnering quickly saw it as a tool that could be used by many other organizations, not just existing customers. Soon after that, Widen began shifting its emphasis from being a pre-press provider to being a software provider.

Gonnering said the software side of the company -- which now makes up 30 percent of its business -- is booming.

It has posted annual growth rate of more than 27 percent a year since 2004 by acquiring new customers. That growth should only continue, even in a down economy, because of the “exploding” need to search, store and manage images and video files flooding the Internet, he said.

“The start to this year has been very good (on the software side) because the problem of managing digital media is not going to go away,” said Gonnering, who acknowledged that other divisions of the company have been affected by the down economy, though there have been no layoffs.

“Media management only snowballs and gets worse if you ignore it,” he added. “Then it will get much more expensive to solve it the longer you wait.”

Though Gonnering said he expects the software side of the company to grow, Widen will never lose its roots.

“We’re not just a software provider writing lines of code,” he said. “We have a full understanding of the content that the software is managing. It’s primarily images and they are massively complicated.

“There is color space, there are file formats, there is a cross-platform environment, there is distributing a hundred-megabyte file over the Internet and collaboration on these files.

“Understanding lines of code is one thing, but understanding the makeup of these files and their complexity is another,” he said. “It’s a key differentiator for us to have the premedia side of the business. So I don’t ever see it going away.”

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