‘Be passionate and never stop learning’
Monday, July 3, 2017
For most people, one job is more than enough. Not so for Julian Marsh.
Right now, he has no fewer than three: business consultant at UK digital print specialist Harrier, global chair of HP graphic arts user group Dscoop and his most recent appointment, director of commercial print at Harrier’s US parent District Photo.
So, it’s fortunate he feels that he works best under pressure.
Which goes a long way to explain why he’s set himself the ambitious target of creating a $50m business in around three years at District Photo, by replicating what he did at Harrier - where he created a £4m commercial print business in five years by making the most of the consumer photo products business’s spare capacity.
Darryl Danielli When do you move to the US to start the new role?
Julian Marsh I’m just waiting for my visa. The move has been some time coming – we first discussed it probably two years ago – but for personal reasons it didn’t really fit then. It’s very exciting, there have recently been some high-level changes over there and there’s a lot of new blood in the business and that means there’s the will to do something new and different and when I look at the capacity we have in the US then it’s astounding. To give you an idea I will have around 500 million A3 colour sheets of capacity, or 2 billion A4 pages.
So, a tad bigger than Harrier then?
Yes, but other than that there are a lot of similarities. When I first came to Harrier in 2011 it was very much a photo finishing business, to the extent that probably more than 99% of our revenue was from photo, or what we now call the personalised part of the business.
But you joined from a commercial print background?
That’s right, primarily trade printing. But after my last business, I was looking for something new, at the time preferably nothing to do with print.
Why was that?
It’s a long story.
Well, I’m sitting comfortably – so shall we start at the beginning?
Okay, but I did warn you. I got into print in 1987, I worked for my uncle’s print broking business, in the bit between completing my A levels and going to university. It was primarily continuous forms. I learned an awful lot from him and his team, because they would visit all sorts of companies and use all sorts of sales tactics, not just getting a copy of the forms, but finding out what quantities they bought them in, how much they paid per thousand, how often they ordered them and where they stored them. Then the reps went back to the office to work out a new value proposition for them to try and win their business.
An early form of print management in some ways?
It really was, and a fantastic learning experience. I can remember my uncle saying to me, ‘Look, these guys buy 10,000 forms at a time and pay £80 per thousand and we can buy them for £65, so we could make £150. But if we bought 20,000 and stored them we could buy them for £40/1,000, lock the client in and sell them for £75/1,000 and make £700 profit instead.’
A valuable business lesson then?
It was. In fact, I didn’t go to university in the end. One of the sales reps left and I was offered his shiny new car. And it turned out I was quite good at sales.
You sound like you surprised yourself?
I did really. I was very shy and retiring, anyone that knew me at school would have said that I was the geeky kid that sat in the corner on the computer never talking to anyone. So, really, going out and talking to people, being brash, knocking on doors and things was entirely out of my comfort zone – but looking back it was life-changing for me. So I worked with my uncle for a bit and then I joined a local company that wanted to set up its own in-house print department. I was probably there for two years, or something like that.
On the production side of things?
It wasn’t initially, it was just doing artwork. I was a sort of self-taught Mac operator. The business was a musical instrument distributor, so I set up their in-house print management thing. Because they imported instruments from all over the world, repackaged them and put new information leaflets in and also produced lots of advertising and marketing for the products. So, there was a significant print requirement. And then we started printing ourselves, we bought a single colour GTO, then a Rotaprint and a Gestetner I think, then some little Ryobis.
This was the early 90s?
Very early, I remember the first Gulf War was on telly. The print business had started to outgrow the needs of the parent though, so around 93 or 94 I did an MBO and that’s how I really started in print, when I became an owner/manager.
How old were you then?
22 or 23, so a baptism of fire. It was pretty small, maybe eight staff and a turnover of £700,000.
Where were you based?
Tonbridge, Kent. The business started off as part of FCN Music, and we stayed there after the MBO for a few years, then we moved to our own premises. We were very much stationery printers and, at the time, I liked to think that we were very efficient, but looking back, we weren’t. In the end we had six or seven GTOs, we had a couple of singles, couple of twos, couple of fours, a five colour, then a Speedmaster 52. And then around 2000 we put in a brand-new SM 74, which was a big step up. To support that we installed a Digital Cromalin and a Creo Trendsetter CTP, which had a serial number of 003. It didn’t have a case when it arrived, it came with two Creo engineers instead who were on site for around six months.
Were you still called FCN at the time?
We were, we had a licence to keep the FCN Design & Print name, when that ran out we changed the name to MCI, which stood for Marsh Communications & Information, because even then I think I started to recognise that information, or data, was even more valuable than print. So, we ran that for some time, but then an opportunity came to merge with Jaguar Business Forms, which was run by Richard Lotz.
The name rings a bell.
Well, he had a problem, he and I both had a problem to be fair. He had a continuous forms business that was in decline. And my problem was that I had a sheetfed trade printing business that was growing too quickly, so actually there was a lot synergy – so he absorbed MCI within Jaguar and I joined the business as sales director.
How long where you there?
Not that long in the end. Probably six months, the plan was to go to Jaguar’s forms customers and sell them litho print. So, we moved a lot of our print equipment from Tonbridge to Jaguar in Crawley and some of the staff went too. But in the end, it didn’t work out. I got on well with Richard as a friend, but not so well in a business context.
Which is always a challenge when businesses merge, I guess?
He had been like a mentor to me over the years, I worked for him very briefly in the early days, I helped write some of his management information software and we went back quite a long way, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
So, you went your separate ways, when was that?
It was probably the early noughties, 2001 maybe. I took a year out afterwards, I did some travelling, but carried on running a small online print broker. I looked at other business opportunities, mainly non-print, but I succumbed to the lure and set up a new business in 2003, Minotaur, trading as Prometheus Press. It was pretty well capitalised because I put in £400,000 from the sale of MCI.
Did you start that on your own, or with a partner?
On my own, well, with my now ex-wife. We found premises and we got up and running really quickly, we had £2m in sales within 12 months.
It was partly because we were much leaner than before, but also had the industry experience. We focused on B2, it was fast turnaround.
Was it trade or commercial?
Primarily trade. People used to say to me how can you make money at trade prices, but we didn’t have half the overheads that a commercial printer had and our margins were always very good.
Is that because you focused on a very specific product set?
Exactly, we knew what we were good at and, more importantly, we knew what we weren’t good at – so didn’t even try to sell that. For me it was all about gross margin. And at the end of the day, who wants to be a busy fool?
If you’re selective on the work you do then it’s very easy to mathematically model your business and you can run a nice lean, mean printing business.
And I guess you weren’t alone in seeing the advantage of a more professional print business over the craft businesses of old?
Yes. We had a Tharstern MIS, in fact we had a Tharstern at FCN – but back then it ran off a floppy disc on a Mac Plus. I’ve always been a great fan of proper management information systems, I just can’t see how you can run a business without them. You can see where you make money, where you don’t make money – refine your business on the fly. We’re still using Tharstern at Harrier as it happens.
And all was going well at Minotaur?
It was a really good business, by around 2008/2009 we had cleared all our debt and had cash in the bank. We were spread across three sites though, which wasn’t ideal.
Because you had acquired?
We had bought a small finishing business, which gave us one of the units and we took on another after we outgrew the original one. We were up to around 1,400m² across the three units, but we were still bursting at the seams and it was inefficient. I wanted to expand the business, so I looked for bigger premises so that we could put the entire thing under one roof and improve the workflow. So, we got a new unit just over the road, that was 2,800m². It was also where I put in my first Indigo press, a 7000.
How big were you back then?
Around £6m, with 60 people. So, a reasonable size. And the ambition was to grow it to £10m-plus. Around the same time I put the Indigo in I also put in a 10-colour SM 74. But, and it’s a big but, this was all around the time that the economy was going tits up. And clever old me didn’t see the warning signs.
And what happened?
Where I really got hit was cashflow. While we were still profitable from a P&L point of view, the cost of the move, the cost of the investment, the cost of the growth basically killed us. In the past, it had always been easy enough to go to the bank, show them the numbers, explain that we were growing, and they would support the growth. But that all changed when the financial crisis bit. The industry was having a tough time too, things became commoditised very quickly, there wasn’t enough work to go around. I remember sitting in my office and crying when we made the decision to shut the business down. There were good bits of the business: the photo side, the Indigo bit (we’d put another Indigo 7500 in just weeks before we shut down) we’d invested in all the Duplo equipment – that side was going great guns. But we were just struggling to generate enough cash on the litho side.
That’s interesting though, because so many companies, even today, you see the big investment, everything’s going well and then they fall over...
I know, all your effort goes into gearing up, putting the new kit in, or designing the layout of the new factory, but invariably you jump the gun on sales and fuck up and the cash runs out. I was talking to someone the other day whose business is in real danger of failing and he told me that half his time is spent dealing with money stuff, hiding from creditors, doing payment deals, robbing Peter to pay Paul, and suddenly his focus has gone from sales and managing his business and it’s painful to see. We were lucky in that we didn’t have too much bad debt, we just weren’t generating enough new business to release cash into the system. When we bought our 10-colour with HSBC we paid a big, heavy deposit and did the deal over three years. I remember at the time thinking I could have done it over seven years with no deposit, but would have ended up paying a lot more, so decided to go with what looked like the cheaper route.
But I suppose the business was doing well at that point?
It was, we were growing, we had cash in the bank, but with hindsight I would have done things differently. But it is what it is.
As tough as it was, you must have learned a lot from the experience?
I really did. Absolutely. The best thing about running your own business is that you deal with everything, finance, HR, marketing, production – everything. And you’re always learning and get a great rounded overview of running a business. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve always had really good people working with me and for me over the years. So, I’ve learned an awful lot from them too – because at the end of the day any business is always about its people.
What were the key lessons you took from that painful experience?
Well, I became conversant with failure for a start. So, seeing the warning signs earlier was one of them. People always say cash is king, but you never really realise that until you haven’t got any. The perceived wisdom is that if you’re profitable everything will be okay. Certainly now, if I was doing any business modelling it would always be around the cash first.
Funnily enough we did a story on Moo recently, and I realised that they’ve never really made a profit, but they’re still growing, still getting investment – and you wonder ‘how can that be?’
I know, I saw that. But they have cash coming out of their ears, it’s all about the model, the EBITDA, when they collect the cash and when they pay it out. One of the other things I learned was that if I wanted to set up a print business tomorrow, I don’t think I would borrow from banks – I would look for investment partners, because if I were to look at my balance sheets from all those years ago – a lot of my cash was simply being used to service debt, which means you just become busy working for the banks. That was a hard lesson.
It sounds like there were a few?
One of the other the things I learned was the importance of delegation. If you think you’re good at something you always try and control and manage it, but everyone has a finite bandwidth and if things start to go wrong you end up finding you’re doing more and more, and less and less actually gets done. So, you learn that even if people don’t do things quite the same way as you, it makes sense for a job to get done 85% as well now – than it not getting done in time. You learn that as you go. But that’s all pre-Harrier, I did lose my shirt and didn’t particularly want to get back into print, as it was such a painful experience. So, I was umming and ahhing about what to next and I was introduced to the management at Harrier. I’m not sure how it came about, but I was blown away by the kit they had, the processes they had, how they operated; it really didn’t operate like a ‘normal’ printing business – they operated like a high-tech manufacturer. Similarly, they were amazed by the opportunities that were out there that they weren’t involved in. So really it became a mutually exciting opportunity to join.
Was that straight after Minotaur shut?
Pretty soon, I probably spent a couple of months moping around. I remember saying to Nigel [Jeffers, Harrier managing director at the time] ‘I think I’m going to go away and set up a new trade printing service, because it’s what I know, but this time I will go digital only’. And he said why not write up a proposal about how I could utilise Harrier’s resources and assets and look at some sort of joint venture. When I looked at the business in detail, they were running with around 70% spare capacity throughout the year, except for a four to six-week period in Q4. So, I wrote the proposal and joined the business.
So basically, you started a business without the usual challenges?
Essentially. I didn’t have to borrow anything, didn’t have to buy anything, didn’t have to take on any premises – didn’t have to worry about the business support functions like HR, finance, IT – it was all there already. I could focus my energy on building the business and today we have a commercial print business that nests within Harrier that is successful and generates £4m-plus in turnover.
From zero in five years, because we didn’t start it up straight away we spent a long-time planning and researching the market. So, from a standing start this year we’ll process 65,000 [commercial] orders ranging in value from a few pounds to £10,000 plus big variable data printing projects that are sometimes months in the planning. Two thirds of our Indigo sheets are commercial sheets now. Harrier, the core photo business, has also grown phenomenally in the same time. Our commercial business is still only 10%. This year it will be a £40m business, it was £17m when I joined six years ago. But there have been lots of benign benefits from the commercial operation, most importantly we’re now a year-round business rather than a six-weeks-a-year-peak business. More than that though, there’s been a cultural shift, we’re no longer a photo finisher – we’re a high-tech, high-spec digital print business.
And if you look at the successful online trade printers out there, they have had to learn the process side of the business, reducing as many touch points as possible – but that was already there at Harrier...
That’s right, because on a busy day in the photo business we might process anywhere up to 70,000 orders in one day, which are batched. Funnily enough out of the 65,000 orders this year [for the commercial business], 50,000 will be fully automated and many of those will be for other online print players. So, we’re very much the overflow print partner of choice for the online players. That’s part of the reason why we haven’t rushed to create our own online B2B print offering – but that might come in time.
And now you’re going to the US to replicate it at Harrier’s parent, District Photo?
That really came about because I got involved with Dscoop [the global co-operative of HP graphic solutions users] about four or five years ago and that’s been a great platform to build my exposure in the US if you like. So, I was going to the US once or twice a year [for Dscoop] and while we’ve always swapped a lot of IP on photo side between Harrier and District Photo, because I was going to the US anyway we started to do the same with the commercial part of the Harrier business and as it grew the US showed more and more interest in that. So, it got to the point when I asked, ‘why don’t we do this in the US?’ and they agreed.
Is that because the District Photo business in the US is a bit like Harrier was five or six years ago?
Exactly. We don’t do any commercial print whatsoever at the moment, other than printing our business cards. But it’s an awesome business. We run 50-plus Indigos over there, including four of the 10000 B2s and four W7250s, the 340mm wide web presses, and have three manufacturing sites. So, we have huge amounts of spare capacity.
So, based on the UK model, commercial could be a $50m business in the US for the group?
Absolutely, that’s pretty much our target after three years – we’re looking for aggressive growth. The potential is huge. It’s all about creating the right value proposition, we’re not going to fanny about trying to produce stuff that’s not right for them or us, we’ve got some great finishing kit in our plants. So, our value proposition is going to be very high-quality print with a lot of value-added finishing options, delivered very quickly and with virtually unlimited capacity and we’re going to price aggressively. As well as US companies, we’ll be targeting UK print management campaigns that operate in the US, because we can have the account management in the UK via Harrier.
So, it will be a global commercial operation in a sense?
Absolutely. And we have manufacturing in Australia too, so we can target Australia and New Zealand.
Will it be easier, because you’re replicating the Harrier model, so you can anticipate the pain points?
The challenges will be slightly different, I’m sure, but it will go through a similar transition to Harrier – critical to that will be a culture change. To grow the business we need to look at new applications and new opportunities and no doubt there will be challenges, but with what we have learned with Harrier we should be able to fast track the growth.
And will you continue to lead Dscoop as global chair?
For the next couple of years.
How are you going to fit it in?
By not sleeping. [Laughs] I work hard, I’m passionate about it, but I don’t collect stamps, I don’t have hobbies – my job is my hobby. Don’t get me wrong, I love holidays, I like travelling, I like fast cars, I like relaxing, I like spending time with my family. But you fit it all in. I thrive on stress.
How did you get involved proper with Dscoop?
I went to my first conference probably seven years ago, but only got actively involved just over three years ago, firstly on the newsletter committee, then Peter van Teeseling asked me to be conference chairman for Dublin, which was a real baptism of fire. But I have to say it was probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It does take up a fair bit of time, but you get to meet and work with senior executives from HP and that’s really helped me because I get to see the decision-making matrices of a big corporation, how they make decisions, and allocate responsibility and accountability internally as an organisation. And all those things I took away to see how I could implement them in our business.
I thought you were going to say ‘avoid them in your business’?
[Laughs]. To be fair there are some bits of corporate life that you do want to avoid like the plague, but most of it is very interesting and extremely useful. But Dublin was a fantastic event, and after that I became chair of EMEA, which meant I had a place on the global board, a year into that I found myself as global chair, taking over from Gary [Peeling, Precision Printing chief executive].
So, a lot happened very quickly?
I guess, but I’m passionate about it. I’ve done really well from print over the years, it’s not been without its challenges and it has changed dramatically over the years and will continue to change. I believe that digital is the future, but that, unfortunately, digital will become commoditised – it’s the nature of the industry. There are lots of businesses out there that can learn from others, so leading an organisation that has the sharing of knowledge for the mutual benefit of all as its mission statement is incredibly rewarding.
What have been your proudest achievements?
I’m a proud dad, of course. I’m proud of some of my achievements around Dscoop. I would say I’m proud of all my business achievements over the years, I’m not ashamed of anything. I made mistakes along the way and I’ve had to deal with the repercussions of those, and there have been times in my professional life when I wanted to hide under a stone, but I’m proud that I got through those times. I’m very proud of the team at Harrier and what we’ve achieved too and the legacy I’ll be leaving.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned?
To be a good communicator. Not everyone is always going to agree with you – so you need to be able to sell, whether it’s a product or an idea, it doesn’t matter, you need to get people excited and enthused. One thing I’ve been focused on in the past couple of years is celebrating the successes, because it’s very easy to be very critical of yourself and focus on the things that didn’t work and forget all the things that did. And learning to delegate, that’s a big one. Over the years, I’ve also been lucky enough to have some great mentors.
Arthur Shaw, who sadly died a few years ago. He used to be a director of South West Water. He was in his early 60s when I met him 20 years ago around the time I did my MBO, but over the years he was such a giver. He would teach me practical business skills, listen to me when I was down and talk me back up again. My uncle Lewis Baker too, who has also sadly passed. And for the past six years, until he retired in January, Nigel Jeffers, because he gave me such a great opportunity and has been a real support. Peter van Teeseling has been fantastic too. There are lots.
You mentioned that digital print will become commoditised – what can the industry do to avoid that?
Innovate: print is already becoming commoditised, you see that on a lot of these online platforms, the call to action is generally always about price. And if not price, it’s turnaround – whereas before a customer would happily wait four or five days, now if it’s not next- or even same-day it’s too late. The way we avoid it is to be more awesome than anyone else and to keep innovating and inventing. I’m a great fan of disruption, I believe that everything will become commoditised sooner or later so I firmly believe that you’re better off disrupting your business, before someone else does.
Evolve or die basically?
The business world is a cruel one, I’m afraid, and it really is that simple. But what I’m seeing, especially with my Dcsoop hat on, is a much higher level of collaboration between businesses. 10 years ago, every other printer was your enemy – they stole your work, your staff – but now in a developing market like digital, people recognise that mutually beneficial collaboration is key.
Last question then: what advice would you give to someone starting out in print now?
Listen. I don’t think I necessarily did enough of that in the early days. Be passionate and never stop learning. When I was a business owner I sat in on all the training, because I felt it was important that I fully understood the capabilities of the machines – so that I never got caught out by a customer’s question.
And it meant that your staff couldn’t bullshit you by saying something wasn’t possible?
[Laughs] That was the real reason. I’ve actually got all the operating manuals for our kit in my office, so if someone comes to me and says we can’t do something I just swing back in my chair and fix my beady eye on the Kolbus KM 200 manual and they track my eye and say, ‘I’m just going to go away and have another look at it’.
So rather than being the computer geek of your youth, you’re now a fully-fledged print geek?
I have a photographic memory, it only lets me down with names and faces – I’m useless with those. But you’re right, I’m still that nerdy geek sat in front of a computer during playtime at school, but now I’ve managed to put this outgoing veneer over the top.