Interview: ‘Print must rebuild its reputation for delivering value’

If technology has rendered print a commodity, then it’s up to printers to get more involved and become providers of expertise and excellence.

There are few business in print as respected as FE Burman. But that doesn’t necessarily sit comfortably with managing director Michael Burman.

His ambitions go much further than that.

He wants every print business in the UK to be respected and admired. He believes that if print is to survive and thrive, its companies, big and small, need to be seen as trusted authorities in the field of communication. Rather than being just commodity suppliers, printers need to become true partners, specialists who are consulted and listened to – much like his theory.

Darryl Danielli Let’s start at the beginning, tell me about the business?
Michael Burman We’ve been around nearly 60 years and began as a pre-press company specialising mainly in the magazine field. But with technology changing more and more, the pre-press role got taken over by our clients. So, we moved into printing, and digital printing was the logical move – around 20 years ago.

Early to mid 1990s then?
Around then, I think we put in one of the first Indigos in the country a few months after it was launched at Ipex 93. Then a second a few years later.

Is that because back then you thought that digital was where the market was headed?
It was more fundamental than that. I suppose, if you had to hang any kind of title over my journey in the industry, the big thing that has changed in the past 20 or 30 years is choice.

What I mean is that 20, 30, 40 years ago if you wanted to put ink on paper you had to come through a pre-press company; we were an integral link in that chain. In those days, you had very little choice in how you, as a business, communicated. If you didn’t do ink on paper then you could probably pick up the telephone and for most companies that was essentially it. It was that fundamental expansion of [communication] choice that has driven almost everything that has changed in the industry, because now if you want to communicate a message you have a choice of how you do it and if clients have a choice then that changes our role as ink on paper people to being ‘part’ of the conversation, not ‘the’ conversation.

Makes sense.
So, what we did as a company was try to build up printing as the pre-press side fell away, to the extent that pre-press is an almost non-existent part of the company in terms of sales revenue now, but still an integral part of the company in terms of providing the overall picture.

How do you mean?
Well, those pre-press skills are still invaluable, but it’s not an income stream.

And it starts some of the client conversations?
No, it’s bigger than that. Basically, having looked at digital printing we knew there were some limitations around format size, so we got into litho [as well as digital], albeit Karat and dry offset and things like that, and that sort of worked. But we felt we needed to offer more, so we bought a mailing company, so that we could offer everything from the front-end right through to going out the door. But, and it’s a big but, fundamentally we as an industry are all quite good at putting ink on paper, we are all quite good at service, so the one area that decides if you get a job or not is price. That isn’t a great place to be. You’re in a commodity market. I know it is a place that some people are happy to be...

Because they can gear their business to be in a commodity market?
Yes, but it’s not for us. And having taken the decision that we don’t want to be in a price-driven commodity market, we looked at how to solve that. And what we decided was to build relationships with our clients where we became a partner and not just a supplier. I know it’s a hackneyed term, but it changes the relationship to one where if the client wants to do something, we help them make that decision, because we’re seen as worthy of talking to, advising, testing a project. And we can only do that if, firstly, the technology allows us to do it. Fundamentally, technology does now, and our pre-press background allows us to look at things, adjust and change them and the whole data management thing stems from those pre-press skills. So, it’s part of the picture of being seen as a partner not a supplier.

Are you still reactive though, or do you get involved with clients at an earlier stage of the process as a result?
To keep it really simple; typically a client rings up and wants, say, 5,000 20pp brochures and they ask for our price. You can bet your bottom dollar that they will ask the same of a few other companies, and they will then decide on who to go with based on how they feel, price and whatever else. If we get asked to do that then we would say: ‘Yes, here’s your price, but have you thought about doing ‘X’?’ The first time we say that the client probably thinks, ‘go away, I’m not interested’ because the job is already set, but hopefully we have sowed a seed and next time, instead of just asking for a price the client will say: “I’m thinking of doing ‘X’, what do you think?” And you’ve started to move the conversation and it gets to the position where they have sufficient confidence in our opinion that, if needed, we can say “I don’t think you should print that”.

Was that a strategic shift or something that happened over time?
What really triggered it for us was that around 10 years ago we had put in a new press and we wanted to tell everybody and we sat around the table and discussed and decided to email everybody. And then we all went quiet and looked at ourselves as if to say ‘what have we just said’?

I know, we call ourselves a printer, we have a lovely new press and we decide to use email. But the lesson we took from that was that if, at that moment, we felt an email was the right thing to do, then our clients would be having the same discussions, and we needed to help them make those sorts of decisions. And if that meant sometimes saying that we didn’t think print was right for that project, or saying that they should do email first and print second then we should say that.

And risk losing the work?
It doesn’t matter, because it would build a relationship based on trust, confidence and advice – which is key to the future of the industry. Forgive me if I’ve said this before, but in the 1600s, 1700s what was a printer’s place in the social hierarchy? They were respected, they were highly skilled, people went to them for advice, they produced things of record. Over the intervening years those skills have become mechanised, organised and controlled, and being respected, being an advisor and a valued member of society has fallen way down the scale. Technology enables so many other ways of doing things, that’s it not surprising this has happened, but to ensure that we as an industry survive then we’ve got to get back to a position where we have some value in the conversation – not just be reliant on our ability to put ink on paper. Because if we can’t, we’ll all be a commodity.

There’s need for both though isn’t there, commodity and consultative?
I would argue there isn’t, I would argue that being a commodity is a self-defeating end.

But surely there are always going to be commodity type products in the print market?
But not necessarily ink on paper. The past 20 years is such a good example: you can be as cheap as you damn well like, but if there’s a better way to do something, then the client will always choose the better way.

You mean if the client phrases a conversation around the ‘better way’ being the cheaper way?
If you can buy a Mars bar a penny cheaper in the shop next door, you will go to the shop next door. But if the more expensive Mars bar is a bit different, a bit better then you’ll pay the extra penny.

But isn’t there a danger that today’s innovation becomes tomorrow’s commodity?
Absolutely. But that’s what makes this industry so exciting, because fundamentally it’s got to change, evolve and develop new technologies and applications in order to survive. In every walk of life, we use these horrible phrases about technology being ‘disruptive’ or ‘destructive’, but actually it’s constructive – it all depends on how you approach things. And if we, as an industry, are at the table talking to clients, then it helps us see where we should be going next.

So, are the obstacles to change in the industry related to people rather than to technology?
It’s attitude and changing two sets of perceptions: one about ourselves and the other about how our clients see us – they need to see us as the go-to place for advice, support and recommendations and not just ‘this is what I want, do it for the best price’.

But then how do you get yourself at the table with the decision-makers, because as the industry has changed, so have the clients and the decision-makers?
There’s a big problem there, and I recognise that – but just because there’s a problem it doesn’t mean we can’t solve it. We have experienced it in a very real way. Print buyers and production departments in big organisations were perceived as being where the industry got its work from. That’s wrong now.

How do you mean?
Typically a print buyer or production department buys print, and if you go to them with something that’s slightly out of their comfort zone then often they’re not interested, because their job, first and foremost is about buying print. So, while the buyers and production teams are important, you have to go away from them and speak to the marketers and the publishers, get into the people that are looking more strategically at what they want to achieve – and that takes time.

Because you might have spent years building a relationship with the buyer and now need to be having conversations with the marketers or the creatives?
And on a practical level that can sometimes be difficult to do as the last thing you want is to sideline the buyer or production team, as you still need to work with them and they still play an important role. In the end though, its beneficial for everyone, so it’s worth having those conversations. Take what we did with Wallpaper*, what buyer or production team in their right mind would want 210,000 A2 posters printed digitally? But the publishers saw it as a real hook for their 20th anniversary. What I mean is that publishers and marketers have different drivers from buyers and production departments.

You have put your business in a fortunate position, because you have created those relationships, but how do those who are perhaps in a commodity trap start having those conversations? They might not even have a relationship with a print buyer or production department, they might just deal with someone in purchasing?
You have to start somewhere, and what you need to do is change the perception of that client of what you can do for them and you can only do that by talking to them. The industry needs to think of itself as the place to go to for clients to find out about new technology, new applications, new ideas, new innovations, and find out how they can apply things like better targeting, personalisation all the things we already talk about. I’ve told you what we said here to our account executives 10 or so years ago: when you get a quote request in, do it but also suggest ‘have you thought about X’. It gets a bit more fundamental than that now, by asking ‘what is it you’re trying to do?’, and that starts some fantastic conversations. It’s amazing how many of the relationships and projects we have that have stemmed from us replying ‘sorry, then I don’t think what you’re looking at is going to work’ in the politest way possible, of course. Sometimes the client will disagree totally, but at least they know that they have had a conversation and our understanding of their business and what they want to achieve has improved as a result.

And if the execution doesn’t work, they’ll remember the conversation and talk to you next time?
And even if it does work, they’ll still remember that we had another angle on it. And then we start to be the people to talk to you when a client wants to communicate something, not just when they want someone to put ink on paper.

But what you’re talking about is changing mind-sets and skills within your business, is your workforce made up of different skillsets now compared to 10 years ago?
Some people take it on very easily, for others it’s more difficult. It’s like comparing a litho salesman to a digital salesman; they’re very different animals, they don’t have to be, but they have been. It’s about people adjusting to a new set of circumstances, which comes back to my fundamental point, what’s different about the industry now: choice. If there wasn’t a choice, if print was the only way to communicate, then the industry wouldn’t need to have these project development type conversations – because clients would have nowhere else to go. But choice leads to a discussion, which leads to a forum that the industry needs to be part of. Without trying to sound rotten, I worry that a number of leaders in the industry, in terms of organisations, don’t really see it that way. And they have to.

But from that lightbulb moment 10 years ago, how do you filter that through to the rest of the business?
It takes time, it’s not easy. But you have to start somewhere, and in my experience of life, if an idea is at the front of your mind, then at some stage the door is open. We had to change the perception of us being a repro house, which we were for 30 or so years, into a printing company. And then we stopped calling ourselves a printer, to change us into a position where we’re helping our clients find solutions. Why don’t we want to be called printers? Because by definition that’s all the clients will think we do. Don’t build your business on a particular product, build it on relationships because that’s what can drive you in a different direction.

How do you write a business plan on relationships though?
[Laughs] I know, and if you do – never show it to an accountant.

But how do you kick-start conversations with new clients, who may not know the business? Is it as simple as sending them a sample of what you can do?
I wouldn’t say never, but we’re very bad at sending out samples – we refuse, basically.

Why? Surely, it’s the best way to show someone what’s possible?
We have a little showroom here that has proven very useful in terms of showing clients what’s possible. We prefer not to send samples because then it’s us making a decision on what we think a client needs via a handful of samples we’ve chosen. The client needs to make that decision. If they come down here and have a look in our showroom then they see hundreds of things they could do, but more importantly it sparks a conversation about something that might be unique to them. And again, we’re being seen as the people to speak to.

And you just hope that they don’t work up an idea with your team and then the client goes off and gets someone to produce it for less?
They might do that. But then you can’t stop that, there’s no such thing as niche to my mind.

You mean that things only remain a niche for short time?
Exactly right.

So how do you stay one step ahead in terms of being innovative?
That’s a bit chicken and egg. We’ve always been up for the new technologies and we’re lucky that people come and talk to us about new ideas. We have a reputation for being able to make things work and we tend to say ‘yes’. The old sharp intake of breath response that printers used to do when a client asked for something tricky, doesn’t happen so much anymore – you certainly don’t here that from us, or companies like Precision or Pureprint. That’s one of the ways the industry has already changed.

But one thing that will never change is that printers need to be profitable, so how do you price up innovative projects?
That’s absolutely key and critical, but don’t forget that some of those projects that come out of discussions with clients are automated, volume-based solutions – innovation doesn’t always have to be weird and wonderful, it can just as easily be automation or service-based. It’s about finding solutions that help a customer do their job better.

And about getting the work mix right for your business?

What have been the other key milestones for the business, you mentioned the email moment?
Well, we were a repro company, which was very structured, because it had to be. That was a business model that was secure, because the client had to use you, or someone like you, and reasonably profitable. However, the business model was gradually being eroded by technology, because the repro industry got better at controlling the process. Then we managed to automate it, which ultimately meant that we weren’t needed anymore. So, we looked at what we were good at and how we could use that. One area was data management, and digital printing seemed logical because it relies on the core skill of data management.

So, this was all in the early/mid 1990s?
Yes. Then digital printing led us into larger format things, which meant litho at the time. That led us into mailing, which I have to say was one of the easiest sells, and then the realisation that we were operating in a commodity market. So rather than individual milestones it was about the journey from being a vital integral part of the process to being just one of the many choices for clients [in terms of process], to becoming a commodity supplier. And our solution has been to build relationships

You mentioned the Karat earlier, do you still have any litho?
We’ve got a Karat downstairs, but we don’t use it and if someone made me a decent offer for it we wouldn’t have it at all [laughs]. We had a litho print business in here and they had a five-colour Heidelberg, they needed a happier home than where they were, so they moved in and stayed here for three or four years, but moved out last summer. We’ve now got a small hand finishing company here now, that does all sorts of gluing and stuff, which complements us very nicely.

When did you get involved with the business?
I left University, went to the London College of Printing and then joined here in 1967.

Was it your father that started the business then?
Yes in 1958, so it will be 60 years next February. And we were litho platemakers, and our clients were printers all around the country. I remember driving to Euston, St Pancras and Paddington with plates in my car and then we would Red Star them to South Wales, Belfast or wherever.

What was your first job with the business?
Sales, I suppose, but I very quickly moved into production.

Was that where your talents lay?
Needs really. I wanted to understand how the business worked as that was key to selling really. We’ve always used our experience and knowledge to sell. And that’s a constant and ongoing process, because we’re at the sharp end of doing new things.

Is that the same now, is your sales team especially production savvy?
We don’t have a sales team. We have Paul Regan who is technically sales director, but he’s probably the only one that goes out to sell, everyone else is internal, we have account executives, who, if you like, one of their roles is sales, so it’s not really accurate to say don’t have a sales team. But we’re a small company, around 40 people.

So, is the company smaller now than when you joined, in terms of people?
Half the size. Repro was much more labour intensive in those days.

As a lover of new technology what’s next?
On a practical level, I just think toner technology, as I call it, has had its day – inkjet has got to be the way we go. There are still issues around inkjet that need to be resolved, but I think they will be. Whether Benny Landa gets it right, I’m not sure. More important though is getting print back strategically to where it was three or four hundred years ago. Otherwise we’ll forever be a commodity market, regardless of the technology we use.

When do you think inkjet will reach its tipping point?
Probably the next five to 10 years. It’s very interesting if you look at the quality you can get off devices like the Fuji [Jet Press 720S], nice big colour gamut, lovely quality – not so good on uncoated stock though and we use a lot of uncoated. I’m fond of saying that Epson proofing devices produce the best quality in the world, the only problem is that it’s not a press – so it’s too slow and you can’t print on the other side [laughs].

You could just buy 50 Epsons instead of a big inkjet?
You could, but you still couldn’t print both sides of the paper and you would need to run special stocks.

Fair point. Getting back to what you said about print regaining it’s standing of old, don’t the advancements of technology make that even harder to achieve? Hundreds of years ago print was an artisan skill, but technology has effectively deskilled it?
Exactly, but we’re not selling the skill anymore, we’re selling the innovation. I remember when HP started to talk to us about its Mosaic software a few years ago, I said why would anyone bother? You want everything different, how do I know my copy is different from someone else’s? But the people that find the ideas to use it are the creatives and the designers, and in their hands it’s incredibly powerful.

And I guess that’s the best type of marketing when it becomes a story or journey rather than just an application?

But how do you market yourselves? How do you pigeonhole yourself as a business?
If we operate in any one area, it’s one where we help feed ideas into creatives and marketing departments.

But how do you run that as a business, going back to the earlier question about pricing up innovation?
It’s sometimes difficult: turning ideas into invoices [laughs]. But it’s also about reinforcing the idea.

And what about you? Any plans to retire or are you going to work in the business for ever?
My wife thinks that, yes. If I find something equally stimulating then I might go one day, but I still find it too exciting – until they throw me out.

Who’s going to throw you out then?
[Laughs] Well, I’ve got two co-directors Paul [Regan] and Ade Onabanjo, who heads production. They’re both 20 years younger than me and one day they will take over, that’s been the plan for the past five or 10 years.

But you’re still here every day?
Absolutely, I enjoy it too much.

What have been the big challenges, the scary moments?
Managing the changes.

I suppose recognising that the business needed to change is one thing, but making it happen is something else altogether?
Knowing and having the ability to make the change, and I’m sure some people think I do things too slowly and others think it’s too fast.

Regardless though, I suppose the key part is that you made the changes before you ‘had’ to?
[Laughs] We always try to. I suppose we’re lucky in as much as repro taught us a lesson.

In terms of the market, well…
Dying on us [laughs].

I was trying to think of a nicer way phrase it.
Well, it did, didn’t it. That doesn’t mean that we weren’t very good at it, just that the punters didn’t want it any more. When I think about that though, the repro world was very structured and very reliable, paginations may have gone up or down, but you knew what you were doing. But in printing if the phone doesn’t ring, you have nothing to do. That was a very difficult cultural shift and I suppose that’s why we try to build systems for clients, so there’s regular work coming in, but overall we’ve tried to do it by having a relationship with clients.

What are the key things you’re learned?
[laughs] As every year goes by, you get a year older.

I asked for that. What about things that have struck you as important business wise?
I think it’s the ability we all need to see the change and make the change, driven by the fact that what has changed for all of us is the element of choice that has forced that need to change and technology has enabled us to do it, technology is a real plus – it’s our reason for being here.

So essentially you sum up your career in three words: choice, change and technology?
I suppose you could.

Biggest challenge?
Making the change from repro to printing.

Was your father still involved with the business then?
No, he had died.

When did you take over then?
Probably 30 years ago or something. We were 100% repro at the time.

But at least you leapt before you were pushed though, in that the market still existed – you just decided to bet on digital?
Yes, but it wasn’t so much betting on digital as looking at the new technologies out there to see if there was an opportunity and doing that at a time when the pre-press business was strong enough to be able to play with it and not worry too much.

Because I suppose that if you had left it another five years you might have had a problem?
Exactly. We were lucky.

Lucky, or you made the right choice at the right time?
I’m a great believer in that if you make a decision then you make it work. Forgive the analogy, but before you make an investment decision you are researching, listening and testing. But all that does is get you to the edge of the river and, hopefully make the river a little narrower. But you still have to jump across it, you still have to jump. In any decision in life you still have to jump.

And that seems like the perfect place to finish. Thank you.


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