In April of last year, the company was acquired by French-headquartered manufacturing group Chargeurs. Then, three months later it was announced that long-serving managing director Richard Leach would be stepping aside and a new management team would take over at the venerable business.
A few weeks further down the line and the firm was doubling its print capacity with a major investment in a Durst Rhotex 325.
The person who took over from the long-serving Leach – who stepped back completely after a transitional period – was James Lavin, who had originally joined the firm in 2013 as commercial manager, handling purchasing, pricing and IT.
“I’m a finance person by trade and had spent 10 years with an engineering firm. I got fed up with counting numbers and wanted to get involved with driving them so I went from a large corporate to joining Leach as commercial manager,” Lavin explains.
“I really enjoyed it and the ethos of the firm. I was made FD and then 18 months later the takeover happened.”
Leach’s senior management team includes head of operations Russell Wilson, client services director Suzanne Pitcher, head of finance Paul Wadsworth, and Tom Foster who heads up Leach Inspire, the firm’s graphic display wing for the heritage sector.
The Chargeurs deal “came out of the blue” Lavin says, and was a bit of a surprise at the time. But the advantages of having the backing of a €500m-plus turnover group, and close connections with sister company and technical textiles specialist Senfa, are obvious.
“Chargeurs are very well-connected, particularly on the fashion side,” he says, and its networks are also useful in the US where Leach is targeting the museums market, with a little bit of help from the weak pound.
“The work is snowballing,” which will be helpful if Leach is to achieve its ambitions to double in size and have sales of £25m in five years. “It is quite a lofty aim but in the first year we are on-plan.”
As part of the push to internationalise the business, Leach is also involved in the biggest museum project in the firm’s history, a £2.5m graphics contract for Oman that has to be completed by April 2020.
“Because of the scale of this particular project it involves a lot of light boxes, which is great for our offering.”
Lavin says Chargeurs largely leaves the business to its own devices, although its monthly reporting requirements are understandably rigorous, so Lavin’s finance background is helpful in that regard.
“They are there for support if I need advice, or for finance if I want backing for a big project.”
Leach sets great store in R&D and invests around £150,000 a year in that area, with three people from its 100-strong team focused on R&D projects.
Fruits of the investment include its Leach Box lightbox which uses a fabric made from 80% recycled materials and includes a ‘return to base’ scheme for recycling “so it has three lives”.
“This is proving quite popular. It’s a new way of doing lightboxes and is patent protected. We’ve developed a flexible light sheet so we can send a lightbox out in tube,” he explains.
“Not many companies have got that intellectual wherewithal and it absolutely pays dividends.”
Leach’s main focus areas are commercial interiors; exhibitions; retail and brand; and museums and heritage.
“We are not a high volume provider, we get involved with higher margin, more complex, bespoke work,” Lavin says, although the firm is not immune to some of the current travails on the high street as it counts Arcadia’s Top Shop among its customers.
“The UK retail market is certainly tough. We are expecting more growth internationally than domestically – international markets are opening up and eco-friendly solutions are increasingly important,” he notes.
“There are a lot of rewards for companies prepared to push themselves internationally thanks to the weak pound and the British reputation for quality work. I love the variation, there’s so much going on and so many opportunities. This is a great industry to work in when everything is going well.”