Closing The Loop: Jack McNeil

May 29, 2015

Jack McNeil says he wanted to be a jazz musician but decided that life wasn't for him.
Credit Warren Miller / Closing the Loop

You wouldn't know it from his voice, but Jack McNeil grew up in a small town in North Carolina.

“There was no job opportunity there at all,” McNeil said. “No chance to build something. If you had ambition, you headed either north or south on I-95.”

Which is exactly what McNeil, who wanted to be a jazz musician, did. He headed north on 95 to New Jersey, where he had a relative to stay with, and dropped in on a New York City music school.

“All I saw was young people who had far more talent and ability than I did. It was very discouraging,” McNeil said.

He said, “I looked at clubs, and realized that if I did that for a living, I would start drinking or doing drugs. I said, 'no, this is not my life,' and packed it in.”

McNeil found a job selling equipment.

“I had an uncle who sold printing presses, and equipment and supplies. I worked for him for quite a number of years,” he said.

His older brother also fled the small town and the two started a printing prep business, shooting photos with cameras as large as a grown man, sometimes making large plates for the presses, and other times doing short runs that large presses couldn't do.

The business did well, but the brothers eventually split. Jack developed a niche working with college bookstores, and finding big companies that wanted to give out free samples of everything from toothpaste and soap, to soda and snacks.

“Our job was to find large companies who wanted to create brand loyalty among impressionable young people, or to help continue loyalty that the parents had brought them under,” he said.

McNeil and his brother had bought a printing business in Jacksonville. When they split, Jack moved here to take it over.

“Two of my kids were already here, including a daughter who went to JU and stayed. Plus, I wanted to get out of Jersey, because I felt that life is too short,” he said.

One by one, two of McNeil's children and a nephew came to work with him.

“I think my kids felt it was a good business, and one that they could help me grow. Most of my life has been spent working with family members,” he said.

“We're a close family, but there are pluses and minuses to employing family members. On the plus side, they care about the business and will come in when other employees say they can't. On the negative side, family members often think that you should allow them to do things that other employers might not let them do,” McNeil said.

Today, Jack has to grapple not only with the changes that all media are undergoing, but also with how — and when — to pass a family business to the next generation.

“My son doesn't want me to leave, but he wishes sometimes that I were a little more in the background!” he said. “That's to be expected.”

Fortunately for Jack, and hopefully for his younger family members, there's no rush to figure it out.

McNeil said, “I can't see myself completely retiring. I enjoy being around people who stimulate me, who enjoy the work and doing different things. I don't want to give that up.”