Building orders out of chaos

Hannah Jordan
Monday, March 1, 2021

When Covid hit, Prosign Print & Display saw its order book empty overnight, but used the opportunity to build back better.

One year ago Steve Hardy and his team at Nottingham-based Prosign Print & Display had never been so busy. The display graphics company had a stacked order book, more jobs than ever before, with increasingly innovative and exciting projects. Things were looking good.

Little did he know then that an impending pandemic was about to present him with the opportunity to send an already growing turnover through the roof.

The question was, would he take that opportunity? Amid the chaos, would he even spot it?

The challenge

“Like so many others during the first lockdown, our order book emptied overnight and we had no option but to close and furlough. That was the guidance,” explains managing director Hardy.

He continues: “As we all left that day, we passed a pallet of clear plastic material that had been lying around for ages and I said to my son that he and I would come in and chuck it the following day and have a good clear up, to keep busy.”

“We watched the news that night, like so many others, and saw that places were in desperate need of face visors. My son and I looked at each other at the same time and he said to me: ‘Are you thinking what I am thinking?’”

That same evening Hardy, along with his son Connor, who’d joined the firm seven years earlier, returned to the Moorgreen-based facility and set to work using his limited Illustrator knowledge and a CAD table to design, prototype and produce face visors out of the would-be waste material.

They made 1,000 in the first night, donating them to local care homes. The pair continued to manufacture 1,000 a day, all for donation, until the material had been exhausted, at which point they bought in new substrate from a cake box window film manufacturer, and began to charge.

“It wouldn’t have been right to sell the initial lot, because we were going to throw that material anyway. We put a post on social media saying ‘Come and get your visor’ and that was the blue touch paper. It went mad.”

Hardy, who launched Prosign from his bedroom in 2008, says: “We lived at work and slept under our desks, pretty much, for four or five weeks. My wife dropped stuff off for us. We stunk! We worked until we dropped. We just slept when we needed to. And that was just for the visors,” he states.

The pair eventually began to outsource production and sell the visors by the tens of thousands, while requests for plastic aprons were met after Connor sourced polythene from a bag manufacturer.

A Covid-related product website was launched offering everything from PPE to lollipop stands, floor stickers, internal and external signage and deskguards. In the space of a month, Prosign’s gaping hole in orders was full to the brim and by May sales had tripled and remained so until October.

Buckling under the workload, Hardy brought staff back in as soon he was safely able to and was then faced with a quandary.

He says: “In July or August we could see that we were making a whole lot of money and began wondering what to do with it. I could have made my personal life a lot more comfortable, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered that. But would that really be turning all this to our advantage, making it work for the long term?”

The method

Both Hardys, senior and junior, recognised that they had a golden opportunity to stimulate future growth for the business by reinvesting their hard-earned profits.

“We had the Zund S3 already, but we wanted ‘the daddy’ – the G3 2XL-3200,” states Hardy.

“So we purchased the machine along with every tool we could ever want in order to future-proof the business. Where we were outsourcing so much before, we can now do all sorts, cut aluminium and MDF for example, it opens up so many avenues,” he explains, indicating plans to move into new markets such as permanent display work and interior design.

“It also means that we can bring work in-house so we have complete control over quality of work.”

The Zünd was installed in November and formed part of a circa-£220,000 spend on new kit, including software upgrades, a 3D polystyrene cutter, banner welding and acrylic fabrication machines and notably a £50,000 Stratasys F370 industrial 3D printer that went in during the previous month.

“I’ve always wanted to get involved in 3D but I wouldn’t have put my neck on the block before,” Hardy admits. “It’s being adopted by the display graphics industry but it’s a very slow uptake and in actual fact it complements what we do incredibly. Wallpaper with added 3D effects, for example – it’s new and exciting.”

“It hasn’t been bought to make us money so much as to make us better. Would I have done that before? No, but we’re using it to evolve.”

Around this time, to further support Prosign’s growth strategy, Hardy decided to make Connor his business partner, promoting him to director. It was a move prompted not only by his son’s dogged commitment and tireless work during the initial push to develop PPE, but also after the 23-year old voluntarily transferred £15,000 of his own savings to his father, at a crucial moment when they had needed to buy new, raw PPE materials but, due to initial order cancellations, had only enough in the bank to pay staff wages.

“He said to me: ‘Are we going to do this or not?’ That was a real father-son moment. It gave me such a boost,” Hardy asserts. “It wasn’t about him being my son – he showed such commitment and energy – someone like that has got to be my business partner.”

The result

Since November, PPE and social distancing-related work has reduced with normal print-related work returning and up 20% on the previous year.

There are plans for further kit investments, with a new Océ Colorado 1650 UV inkjet device set to join the firm’s raft of Canon and Mimaki printers this month, adding capacity and offering double-sided and fabric options.

“We plan to expand, not necessarily into a bigger business, but staying bespoke and producing more of what we do – that’s the future of the business. I’m not interested in doing 1,000 banners,” Hardy says. “Right now we’re small enough to react and respond, as this year has taught us. I don’t want to become a ship that can’t turn.”

He says the business will grow as a ‘“visual communicator”, continuing to push the link between traditional printing and display graphics, as he believes it’s a growth opportunity that isn’t being exploited currently.

Having already invested heavily in the 3D visualiser, printer and staff training, Hardy says plans are in the pipeline to offer virtual reality proofing so clients can ‘walk around’ the team’s room and graphic designs.

“When we’re able to show clients how they can add impact and value to their projects we hope to see a significant increase in this type of work and already have our eye on a much larger 3D printer and a laser cutter,” he divulges.

“For us, the answer is ‘Yes. Now, what do you want?’ That’s what we’re trying to do,” Hardy says. “The only limitation is your own imagination. If you don’t have it, then let us imagine it for you and show you virtually.”


TOP TIPS

Hardy says it’s vital to have courage, to believe in your team and to respond to changes quickly. “It’s okay having ideas but you have to make a decision and go with it. My staff work with me, not for me, so being open about your direction is key, too,” he adds

“Be careful with the kit you buy. Look carefully at the avenues a machine opens up to you for the future. Buy it right, buy it once,” Hardy says

Something Hardy thinks has been key to future-proofing Prosign is having a business partner. “Beforehand, I was doing a million jobs, just like every other small-business owner, but now many are being done better by my partner and I focus on clients and directing the company in the right way to safeguard jobs,” he states

And lastly, if you’re going to sleep under your desk at the age of 53, bring a lilo. “I’ve got terrible sciatica now!” Hardy says.

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