Blog: Tangled web powerplay

Jo Francis
Friday, April 29, 2022

Jo Francis wonders what will happen next in the latest saga involving UK web offset printers.

Here we are, then. Four weeks on from the abrupt collapse of YM Group’s web offset business, and there’s still something of an information gap about the future of the three factories and the equipment therein. 

Based on the industry grapevine, it sounds like Walstead Group has some sort of preferred bidder status with administrators at FRP Advisory – currently the situation seems to hang on what deals can be done to Walstead’s satisfaction. 

This is understandable. Walstead is a big, pan-European group with the sort of financial clout and banking facilities that mean substantial deals can be done.

FRP admins could potentially tick off a whole load of items on their ‘to do’ list with a wide-ranging Walstead deal. 

The flip side is that other bidders who were ready to move quickly on the bits they wanted are becoming frustrated at the lack of progress. 

Skilled print workers are leaving the industry and finding new means of employment – and boy do they need it after being left so horribly out of pocket in March.

And customers have gone elsewhere. A lot of former YM work has already disappeared to the continent. Will it return?

Obviously there’s a lot of moving parts here: customer commitment to be gained, landlords to deal with, and some encumbered assets that are owned by finance companies. 

It’s complicated. 

Another complicating factor is the likely future demand in the UK high-volume production market, whether that's produced via gravure or web offset. 

Newspapers, that bastion of high-volume, time-sensitive weekly supplement production, are only going one way. 

When Quebecor lost the Daily Mail supplements contract to Polestar back in 2004 the huge deal involved around 8.7m magazines a week. 

By the time Polestar went bust in 2016 that figure was some 5m. 

And when YM took the work on last year the ABC circulations of the Saturday and Sunday Mail titles came to 2.34m. Those figures have reduced further since.

Granted, these are still big numbers and newspaper publishers remain influential customers (as demonstrated by events at YM). 

But a growth market? Nah. 

No doubt the clever number crunchers at Walstead have some sort of multi-dimensional, future-gazing spreadsheet on the go mapping out all sorts of possible scenarios about expected demand in their core market vs available and likely-to-be-required production capacity. 

Just a couple of weeks back Time Out, one of the group’s clients, stopped printing its London edition which had involved more than 300,000 magazines every fortnight. 

The price of paper being as it is, no doubt other publishers will also be canning print editions or cutting back on print runs – those with strong subscription sales may well take an axe to newsstand copies.  

Commercial clients have a fixed marketing budget. Their options will include reducing the size or pagination of their promo print, and/or cutting back the print run by taking a more targeted approach to distribution and mailing.

The failure of YM's web ambitions also leaves Prinovis as the go-to people for short-grain production in large volumes here on the small island.

At one point that would have meant runs of, say, 500k and up. But nowadays it's more likely to be 150,000-plus. Gravure may be viewed as a process of the past, but it also ticks some important boxes in terms of paper savings and efficient, inline finishing. 

Meanwhile, I’ve no doubt that another factor in this situation will be a strategic play. Is Walstead interested in ALL of those YM web assets? Probably not. 

Could some of the presses be whisked away to Walstead sites on the continent? Maybe, but it's an expensive business moving them.

Will it have an interest in making sure some of the key pieces of kit are not acquired by existing or new competitors? Definitely yes. 

It feels like there has to be some concrete news on the outcome next week. Surely?

One way or another, my fascination with the not-always-wonderful world of web offset looks set to continue for a while yet. 

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