Ultra-modern kit has enabled this firm to capitalise on traditional skills in the digital age
Blissett Bookbinders was founded in 1920 by current managing director Gary Blissett’s grandparents, Frederick and Mary Blissett. Frederick died in 1934, but Mary and her two young sons, Fred and Frank, continued the business, which grew steadily. In 1962, it moved to its current site in Acton, just 100 yards or so from its original building. Gary Blissett took control of the firm in 1989, but his father and grandmother did not retire until 1992. Mary was 93 years old when she left the business she began 72 years before. Gary now runs the business with the help of a fourth-generation Blissett, his son Chris. In 2011, they received a Royal Warrant for their binding work.
When Gary Blissett took over in 1989, the business was purely a binding and finishing house producing work for academic and public libraries. This type of work had sustained them for decades yet Blissett saw that this was going to change.
"We were very much a traditional bookbinder in those days," says Blissett. "Most of the work we were doing was for public and academic libraries. But I could see that type of work was dwindling as cuts in funding for those institutions came in and the internet rose in usage. All of our eggs were in the one basket – a reducing basket – which was not the place where we wanted to be."
That said, the aim was not to sideline the binding work. Blissett aimed to create a company where the latest technology could sit comfortably with the traditional print craft, with equal weight given to both.
The shift in business focus was a gradual one. Blissett initially put a tentative foot in the market, purchasing some digital print machines in 1994. However, he admits he didn’t put much focus on this side of the business initially and they were used primarily for very short-run, on-demand book printing.
Gradually, though, he built up the print side of the business steadily as the traditional library work began to diminish, as he had predicted. In time, he came to add trade finishing work to the roster of services, completing short-run print work and case binding and other binding services for other print companies.
However, the real shift to his vision of a merged traditional and technologically advanced operation did not come until 2009. Blissett saw an opportunity to break into the emerging photobook market and quickly set about putting the plan into action.
The first step was to get someone into the company who understood the technological market.
"I had grown up with the binding and finishing side of the business, so I know that very well and I can manage it very effectively," explains Blissett. "On the computer side, I am nowhere near as comfortable with it. That is where my son Chris comes in. While I intuitively know the binding side, he intuitively understands the W2P model and the photobook, web-based side of the business."
With Chris brought on board – leaving a job in financial services to become the fourth generation Blissett in the business – the revolution could begin properly.
"Going down the photobook route meant we needed people involved in the printing that really understood the digital print process," he explains.
This meant not just a raft of five digital presses, but front-end software such as Accura MIS, RedTie W2P and Taopix photobook software. It also meant better systems for dealing with and processing files.
Technology has also crept in to the binding side of the business, but Blissett says this is purely for the more nuts and bolts work – all the high-quality work is still done traditionally, with traditional skills and ancient machines.
"We do have some modern binding equipment, but we do not use that on our high-quality work," he explains. "It does a perfectly good job on your bog-standard WH Smith paperback, and we do do some of that type of work, but for the majority of our clients it requires a better standard of finish and the traditional machines and methods are still the best ways of achieving that."
"Today, the business is 50-50 between print and binding," reports Blissett. "The two sides are of equal importance. What makes us unique is having this full range of services available."
Blissett says the introduction of technology has helped broaden the company’s services and streamline processes, and that it has been a seamless integration, with the traditional craft side of the business not being compromised by the influx of microchips.
"We are maintaining the binding skills, it is not as though we have given up on that side of the business – far from it," he says. "We are just about to begin our latest apprentice scheme to ensure we have the skills in-house to continue the traditional side of the business. But at the same time the digital print and all that comes with that has been crucial – digital book printing is on the rise, we don’t really have to go looking for it, it comes to us."
He says this mix of the traditional and the modern has meant that Blissetts is better placed than most to seize that growing work.
"We can do paperback, case and presentation binding all under one roof, which not many others can claim to do, certainly not to the quality we strive for, and key to that quality and that capability is the mix of the traditional and the modern," he explains.
"We now bind only a quarter of what we did 10 years ago," admits Blissett. The changes he has made over the past 15 years have therefore been crucial to the ongoing survival of this already 92-year-old company.
He explains that key to the success of the merger of the old and new has been taking the high quality ethos of the binding into the purchasing decisions on the technological side.
"You have to go out and find the best because we are about the highest quality achievable," he explains. "So Taopix was by far the most expensive solution for photobooks, but from day one I knew it was the right one. We wanted the best and it was the best."
He says that despite the economic pressures, taking a gamble by spending money is the only way to ensure long term success for the business.
"The expenditure of taking the decision we have made has been high, but it is worth it, our ROI is good," he says. "You need the courage to spend money to make money. Profitability has been hit with bad debt, the recession and a lack of lending, as well as rivals offering unsustainable prices, but you still have to take the gamble of investing to have any chance of long term survival."
He says that it is equally important, though, to realise where technology has to take a step back.
"With the binding side, this is not something we can use technology to assist us with in terms of management at the moment," he reveals. "All that work goes through my own custom spreadsheet, which is formulated and adapted and updated through my own experience. I know how long a job will take, how many man hours will be needed, what kit we will use and what materials we need. Technology will never really be able to match the experience and knowledge of estimating for high quality binding work."
With this in mind, his son Chris is learning the ropes of the bindery side of the business while he runs the digital side. "Both elements are crucial as we will always be doing both," says Blissett.
In the future, Blissett expects the printing side of the business to increase and the bindery side to remain relatively stable, with the relationship between the two continuing to be a peaceful, mutually beneficial one with neither more important than the other.
And the evolution is far from over. He is currently in the midst of a remarketing exercise (for our first Top Tips series that deals with cost-free marketing techniques, see page 23) that will include new products and customer-facing platforms, such as a new website. One idea is to expand into retail, rivalling the likes of Smythson’s with a Blissetts-branded selection of high-end print products, such as notebooks and visitor books. This will be a retail website selling goods made using traditional print techniques – the perfect statement of the new Blissetts business.
Looking at the transformations that have taken place, and at a workshop once populated entirely of craftsman now housing Apple computers and designers, along with digital press kit, it would be understandable if Blissett felt the weight of history on his shoulders. But he does not have any regrets about what has become of Mary and Frederick Blissett’s business.
"I have never had any doubts," he says. "I am sure my grandmother would be turning in her grave – she would not have understood a thing about it, but I know my father is very happy with what is going on. It has to evolve. If you don’t evolve, you die."
If you have an interesting story about your business that you are willing to tell, contact features editor Jon Severs at email@example.com
The BPIF’s new London offices are just up from Tower Bridge, currently home to a set of giant-sized Olympic rings, which, now it has stopped raining, look rather impressive.
Not so impressive are the predictions of the Games’ financial pay-back. I have yet to read an article or meet anyone stating confidently what this will be. Even harder to calculate is the value of the feel-good premium the Games are expected to generate, and so the financial forecast looks as uncertain as the weather.
And it’s understandable why businesses would want more specifics on what goals need to be fulfilled if the venture’s to be pronounced a success, particularly considering the vast amounts of money being invested. After all, companies make these kinds of precise forecasts all the time; whether approaching external revenue streams or by internal resource, they have to build a solid business case with clear financial targets.
This was certainly key to Blissetts’ success. The company recognised early on that there were going to be significant changes in its marketplace, and that they would have to combat them with serious financial outlay and carefully formulated strategy. It was a bold move, as the successful history of a business can so easily be used as an excuse to carry on as before and ignore the market forces that could leave it perilously behind.
Of course it’s not all about relentless expansion; business looks to financial league tables at its peril, as being the biggest, or having the highest turnover will not determine success. And the Olympics is not just about money; success should also be measured by where the nation comes on the medals table.
But while generating vast profits might not always be the name of the game, knowing exactly what will be generated is still important. Having clearly defined financial projections that back up a strategic investment programme. Now that’s impressive.
Philip Thompson, head of BPIF Business