Business inspection: Thriving and surviving
Wednesday, December 21, 2022
Planning the launch of a new business is challenging in any market at any time, but doing it while also coping with serious mental and physical illness takes it to another level.
Add to that a global pandemic and some would say impossible. Not the team behind Cactus Graphics.
Business location Dover, Kent
Inspection hosts Katie Weaver and Richard Archer
Established 1 July 2021
Products and services Traditional print, events and signage display, merchandise and marketing products; online ordering portals for marketing, facilities and brand managers in a corporate environment.
Inspection focus Building a successful new business in the face of adversity
Joining the print industry in 1995 at 16 years old as a YTS apprentice, Richard Archer has worn pretty much every hat conceivable over the years. He was made redundant from his role as press minder at Express Printing in 2009 and was soon taken on by Dover-based Buckland Press where he stayed until the retirement of owners Jeremy and Linda Weaver in 2021.
With the business struggling, compounded by the coronavirus outbreak, Archer and the Weavers’ daughter, Katie who joined the company in 2015, had some tough decisions to make: revive the flagging Buckland Press or bring that era to a close and create an entirely new brand and offering, which is what they did: on 1 July 2021 the pair launched design and print firm, Cactus Graphics.
All this might seem a pretty run-of-the-mill story, but add to that a history of debilitating ulcerative colitis, two major abdominal surgeries, a nervous breakdown and a heart attack and it becomes an inspirational tale of triumph over adversity.
After joining Buckland, Archer worked with the Weavers to modernise and diversify the company’s offering, quickly moving it from a purely litho outfit with bindery and repro to offer digital work with a new Kodak NexPress digital press.
The business then dipped its toe into wide-format with an HP Latex 360 in 2016 expanding it further in October 2019 with a 2.5m roll-fed Agfa Anapurna and a Kongsberg CNC cutter four months later. No sooner was the latter installed than Covid swooped.
Despite barely having time for training, Archer says that the new kit enabled Buckland to diversify and survive the pandemic, producing wayfinding and floor graphics for the NHS, among other products.
Ultimately though, the senior Weavers had had enough and decided to take early retirement, handing the legacy of Buckland to their daughter Katie Weaver, who’d grown up with the business, along with Archer.
“Katie has ink in her blood; it made sense for her to head the business and I see myself as a custodian of the family name in the industry,” Archer says.
Wanting to nurture their flourishing signage and graphics wide-format capabilities, the pair were ready to commit and invest into taking it forward.
“We wanted to freshen up the image because we felt the name of Buckland was perhaps stuck in the dusty, inky world of litho. There had been talk of starting a subsidiary, but instead we decided on a standalone, new brand.
“In terms of building the business, the only way was up,” he states. “We looked at the competition, we looked at what the market was demanding and how we could attack it differently. Wide-format was our rising star and made us agile. Key was the marketing: we wanted to get ourselves on social media, get better website exposure and other digital channels. We identified growth areas and developed a marketing plan from that,” he explains.
To boost online presence a Vpress web-to-print system was installed and more recently a Print IQ MIS, which replaced a cheaper and more simple system the pair initially adopted, which turned out to be a false economy.
Launching Cactus with five staff from Buckland, including Archer and Weaver, he was keen to repay the chance he was given as a lad and looked to local universities and colleges for fresh blood.
While the mechanics of building Cactus Graphics have continued apace, Archer has, in the background, overcome a host of health complications over the years.
Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis 20 years ago, he underwent an ileostomy operation in 2012, major abdominal surgery that took three months to recover from, although it solved the condition’s crippling symptoms. Following that, Archer was under increasing pressure, becoming a father for the first time while fighting for Buckland’s survival in a declining market. Eventually the strain proved too much and in 2017 Archer had a nervous breakdown.
“That was huge for me. I never believed I could suffer with mental health problems. I felt physically strong and confident. I had my family, a house and a good job. Anyone looking in would think I had it all, but I felt like my world was imploding,” describes Archer.
“Again Jeremy and Linda fully supported me and I went back in two weeks but it took two years to get over the breakdown. There’s no quick fix. That was probably the biggest challenge of my health and my career,” he adds.
Having conquered these hurdles, Archer had no idea that a bigger shock was yet to come in May 2021 as he and Weaver began to plan their new business.
“I felt really odd. My wife asked if she should call 111 and I said ‘No, dial 999.’ Turned out I was having a heart attack,” he states, simply.
“We were all so shocked and so worried for Richard and his family,” recalls Cactus managing director Weaver.
“We are a small and close team so it affected us all but we wanted to crack on and get it done for Richard and of course for the customers,” she adds.
Having only recently taken the company reins along with Richard, Weaver steered the ship alone over the next few weeks.
“It was just a case of getting on with it. I knew Richard would do the same for me. We would not be where we are today without him and I, as a person, my family and the business owe him a lot for all of his hard work over the years. I couldn’t do any of this without him,” she says.
Archer needed to recover not just so he could return to work, but so he was fit enough to undergo another major surgery to remove a remaining part of the colon, which had developed pre-cancerous cells. The surgery went ahead three months after the pair launched Cactus in July, with Weaver holding the fort again until he returned in January.
Now into their second year of operating as Cactus Graphics, the team has grown from five to nine in 18 months and both Weaver and Archer are excited about its progress and the opportunities ahead.
While maintaining a traditional print offering, Cactus has leveraged Buckland’s marketer client base for its wide-format work and rather than just targeting marketing suppliers, it has found facilities and buildings management buyers within businesses they were already working with as well as other new clients.
They are now producing merchandise too, in response to demand, after installing a Mimaki UJF in September, an investment that added £7,000 of new business in its first month. Archer says it has enabled the team to produce more interesting and fun work.
Overall, Cactus Graphics exceeded financial expectations by around £60,000 in its first year, according to Archer, and he is forecasting a healthy second year.
The team is set to move in December after selling its 1,115sqm facility purpose-built for Buckland in the 60s by Weaver’s grandfather, into a newly bought, four-unit 350sqm site with production floor, design studio, retail outlet and showroom. It’s a move that Archer says will be much more efficient for the modernised business and will attract passing trade, due to its situation on a retail and industrial estate.
Immediate plans are to grow the retail outlet and showroom side of the business as well as its e-commerce activities, while long-term goals include investment in dye-sublimation for the direct-to-fabric market.
So what impact does Archer feel his history and the last few years have had on the evolution of Cactus?
“I’d say what I’ve been through has had a positive impact. My mental health was awful but it taught me how to manage myself, prioritise better or delegate and deal with situations quickly rather than procrastinating.
“My illnesses have definitely affected my working mentality and in fact the way I do everything, but the biggest influence on my work ethic was my redundancy from Express Printing. It showed me what happens when you sit around and expect the work to come to you.
“One day I’ll be dead and I’d rather live having no regrets that I didn’t try hard enough. I want to make the most out of life and experience it all. This business is a part of that,” says Archer.
And Weaver believes the challenges of the past few years will stand them in good stead to weather future storms. She believes that the pandemic pushed them to make difficult decisions that are beginning to pay off.
“We have new clients, new and different projects. We are taking risks now to drive the business forward rather than playing it safe as we perhaps have done in the past.
“No one could have predicted Richard’s heart attack and all the things that have happened,” she says. “The fact we’ve come through it and are sitting where we are today with lots of exciting things on the horizon. It’s mind-blowing.”
“From a personal point of view I have learnt that I am a lot stronger and more capable than I thought and it has also reaffirmed to me how good Richard is at what he does. We make a fantastic team.”
Archer believes that if you are planning to set up a business, it needs to be seen as a lifestyle rather than a job, but key to that is truly enjoying the work and caring deeply about its success.
“You have to be brave and make the tough decisions and then give it everything you’ve got,” he says. “If something goes wrong, you can change it. Nothing is forever,” Weaver adds.
Consider carefully where you choose to cut costs, Archer advises, referring to the simplified MIS system he and Weaver initially chose for Cactus before realising it was “not progressive enough” and replacing it with a more comprehensive option. “If we looked back I think we’d say we regret putting it in because we could have saved a lot of time,” he comments.
Being open to and not being afraid of change is crucial, Archer asserts. “If you think what you’ve always done is going to keep working in this world, you need to change the way you’re thinking. Avoid getting stuck in nostalgia and hoping for the best and make a change for the inevitable.”
Archer says it is vital to manage change well, involve employees at every stage and make them feel valued. “If you don’t, you won’t end up with a team pulling in the same direction,” he states. “When we started Cactus, I said to the staff who’d been with Buckland that they were no longer at the end, but that they were at the beginning.”