Clarity is key when it comes to driving change

Hannah Jordan
Thursday, April 29, 2021

Celebrating 50 years of operation this year, Southend-based Formara Print & Marketing has, incredibly, come through the past 12 months unscathed. Stronger even. But over the past two decades the road for the SME print firm has at times been pretty bumpy and its success is a testament to the leadership and focus of managing director Phil Wilce and his team.

The challenge

Joining the firm in 1990 as sales director, Wilce led a friendly MBO with then managing director Freddie Kienzler in 2003. It was a time when the relatively new online space was beginning to eat up a good chunk of the firm’s commercial print offering, so the business expanded into direct mail and variable data processing and launched as an online ‘shop window’ to help boost sales.

Buying out Kiezler on his retirement in 2015, Wilce launched an in-house review to develop a strategic plan that would return a flagging Formara to growth and profitability.

“I sat down with the management team and started brain-storming,” Wilce explains. “We had 28 staff, £1.7m turnover and fantastic customers, but we needed to find something new.”

The team focussed on three main questions: What skills did the staff have? What were their customers buying, from Formara and elsewhere, and why? And how could the company afford to change direction or diversify?

“It resulted in lots of ideas,” he says. “Packaging, labelling, large-format, web design, direct and multi-channel marketing and we also identified a huge range of skills in the team such as data management, variable data processing, web design and direct mail.”

The method

After an intense three months, the team had shaped a two-pronged strategy: launch a personalised multi-channel marketing service and re-energise static print through

Six months later, the first major phase was to boost firepower at Formara’s 1,490sqm site, upgrading its existing Canon imagePress 6000 with an ImagePress 10000VP and a C700 to increase volume and quality.

Next, came the implementation of EFI’s multi-channel communications campaign management software DirectSmile, now Market Direct, as well as Objectif Lune’s multi-channel customer communication management software Pres Connect, furnishing Formara with the technical capacity to launch its new multi-channel offering.

“That was the first significant investment,” remarks Wilce, adding that without Canon’s “hugely useful” leasing package and his own personal guarantee (his house) behind the software investments, the company couldn’t have moved forward.

“That’s the kind of stuff that business owners do, because we’re a bit mad,” he quips.

Formara in 1971

At the same time, Wilce says that to allay customer nerves around data security, Formara became ISO 27001 certified, demonstrating information security compliance.

“So, all of those things put us in the position where we had the technology, the variable data capability and the right print engine and data protection. It set us on the right path.”

The team then brought in an independent marketing advisor to guide them through a range of areas, including: brand positioning for the new multi-channel marketing division; developing and running campaigns; presenting to and getting buy-in from customers and staff alike; understanding industry-specific campaigns; building staff confidence in the new direction and ensuring demand for static print kept strong.

It was a year-long learning process, Wilce says, that put the team on “a very clear and positive path forward”.

Initially, explains Wilce, with staff having to retrain there was some nervousness around the new direction and where it would leave the print division, but full transparency about the strategy and its aims helped drive team confidence and buy-in.

“Once we explained everything fully, they wanted to be trained, to learn and to understand where we were going and be part of our aspirations for the future. It’s a great thing to know you have everyone on board,” he adds.

To differentiate the new multi-channel proposition from Formara’s print services, the division was originally branded as AIM: Automated, Integrated Marketing. However, this name was dispensed with last year to clarify the company’s offering.

“Now it’s just Formara Print & Marketing, so everyone knows who they are dealing with,” states Wilce.

The business also focused on optimising its brand to drive new customers to Formara, which proved successful, prompting the launch of a UK-wide push through sister domains and with plans for Cardiff, Glasgow and others. The geographical expansion flopped however, because customers in those cities didn’t like the fact that the firm wasn’t local to them, says Wilce, so the idea is shelved for the time being.

The result

The new strategy was intended to deliver 10% growth from multi-channel campaigns and a 10% reduction on print volume, but with higher profit.

“That was the plan,” Wilce muses. “What we ended up with was a very solid multi-channel marketing offering, which showed our customers the advancements we were making across the board and as a result of that they gave us more print.

“So our print volumes were actually going up and we had less time to spend on the multi-channel stuff. It’s a typical SME-type balancing act, where you have to service what’s coming in and build for the future at the same time. We continue that balancing act today. It never quite works out how you plan for on day one, but it has worked well for us.”

Since launching its new strategy Formara has experienced 5%-10% year-on-year revenue growth, with turnover now £2.2m. The split between print and multi-channel jobs is currently around 80/20, rather than the 50/50 Wilce had expected.

“But within the static print there is a lot of direct mail. A lot of the projects we do are complex, not just names and addresses on envelopes. That’s what you can’t order online and that’s what has been behind our growth,” he adds.

The increased profit has enabled the business to continually invest, replacing a four-colour B3 Shinohara press with a five-colour B2 Shinohara in November 2019; beefing up its finishing department, bringing services including wire-binding and laminating in-house; and a circa-£100,000 spend in January last year to install a Quadient DS600i inserting line.

“It was a big and important investment because it answered concerns about data integrity, that wasn’t possible with the analogue system. We’re now able to report all that data pretty much in real-time, back to our customers.”

Steady growth continued right up to March last year when, along with the rest of the industry, Wilce furloughed around 70% of his team until April and revenue from its core businesses was slashed by half.

While these sales figures steadily climbed back to 100% of pre-lockdown revenue levels by December, and continue today thanks to its broad customer-base, the business has also been unexpectedly boosted by a new contract thanks to its new capabilities and data security ISO.

A major partner in the market research sector, Formara was selected by Ipsos Mori in April 2020 to help deliver a solution for distributing test kits as part of the government’s React study on the prevalence of Covid-19 in England.

It included printing instruction manuals, FAQ leaflets, generic letters and personalised, barcoded labels together with matching barcode labels for the test kits to be returned. By December the business had printed, packed, fulfilled and dispatched 2.4 million personalised test kits to households across England.

“We’ve split the React revenue from our standard revenue so we can be in as good a position to move forward, when it comes to an end, as we were when the pandemic started,” Wilce says.

Looking ahead, Wilce says staff training continues with the installation of a new Canon Titan VarioPrint 6180 mono device for variable data last month along with Pres Connect to “support our drive to streamline and optimise our variable data document production, fulfilment and mailing”. The business is also looking to expand its marketing and communications team by two or three.

“Until March 2020 we were growing revenue at 5%-10% a year. I’m comfortable with that. I’m not trying to turn Formara into the next Solopress. It’s about continual development of what is working for the people around it – the staff, customers, suppliers and finance houses.

“Our normal commercial business will continue to grow, largely because we are so adaptable to the demands that are placed on us. We’ve done that brilliantly and I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved. We have had bumps in the road and not everything has worked, but I have no regrets.

“The morale and eagerness to do the best for the business and its customers is still as strong amongst the staff today as it was when we started building it in 2015,” he adds.

“It doesn’t work without that.”


“Never stand still,” say Wilce. “The biggest opportunity to get it wrong is to do nothing. One bad decision won’t break you but make sure you continually measure as you go along otherwise you could get into a big mess pretty quickly.”

Treat suppliers, banks, finance houses and anyone that ‘sits around the business’ with honesty and respect. “We have a brilliant bunch of suppliers who have helped us out in lots of different ways over the years. Without their help we wouldn’t be the company we are today,” Wilce states.

Wilce believes its vital to have courage in your convictions and stand by what you believe in because then others will. “It’s amazing how people come on board when you are clear,” he says.

For an SME it can be a tricky balancing act and you can spread yourself very thinly if you’re not careful, so take time to understand your customers needs.

Ultimately, know your customer. Clients don’t necessarily want a printer, they want someone that will help them generate revenue, believes Wilce. “That is ultimately is where our success comes from,” he adds.


Company Formara Print & Marketing

Location Southend-on-Sea

Inspection host Phil Wilce, managing director

Size Turnover: £2.2m; Staff: 27

Established 1971

Products Direct mail, multi-channel marketing, print-on-demand, storage and logistics

Kit list Shinohara 74V B2 five-colour; Shinohara 52V B3 five-colour; Shinohara 52IIP B3 two-colour perfector; Canon imagePress C10000VP; Canon ImagePress C700; Canon Titan VarioPrint 6180; Canon Océ 6160; Epson SureColor SC60600. A wide range of finishing kit, including: Quadient, Renz, Horizon, Muller, Morgana, GMP; GBC and Boston. Software includes: Kodak Prinergy; EFI MarketDirect; Objectif Lune PreS Connect and Accura MIS and CRM

Inspection focus Developing and delivering a flexible strategic plan for business growth following an MBO


© MA Business Limited 2021. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .