"It has been a long but very enjoyable journey”

Jo Francis
Monday, September 23, 2019

Over the summer Precision Colour Printing managing director Alex Evans announced he would be standing down from his role in February next year, after a near 40-year career at the Telford web offset printer and its parent group.

Evans has been managing director at £38m turnover PCP since 2005, and prior to that spent a decade as sales director of the company, giving him a unique perspective on some tumultuous times among UK web offset printers, and the customers they serve. 

Printweek caught up with Evans as he prepares for a transition period with his replacement Mark Brownrigg, who arrives in November, after which Evans will step back into a non-executive role – which will come with at least one very important benefit. 

Jo Francis Remind me, how did you get into the printing industry in the first place?

Alex Evans I was in retail for a number of years, and then I moved into selling watches for Bulova watches. After a short space of time I realised it wasn’t the career for me! Then I saw an advert for a role in the circulation department in the Express & Star. Went for the interview on the Friday, was offered the job on the Monday and started a week later. 

I must ask you, then, what kind of watch are you currently wearing?

I have too many, but Rado is my main one. Bulova was a nightmare to work for, but that’s another story. 

So your ‘printing industry’ career actually started off in publishing. 

Yes, I spent three or four years in newspaper publishing, and also setting up a monthly magazine that PCP used to print. Do you remember the old bi-metal plates?

No. I’m old but I’m not that old. Actually I think I was probably screen printing when they were in use… but back to web offset.

At the time my predecessor [Paul Liggins] was looking to grow the commercial side of PCP and offered me a job to go out and sell commercial print and that was in January 1985. The following day I was in Gloucestershire doing just that.

And so began your PCP journey. 

For the first couple of weeks people were talking to me in jargon and trying to explain to me ‘collect’ and ‘straight’, and different configurations of the presses, and I thought “oh, I’m not sure about this”, but in the end you get your head around it. 

If there’s one thing this industry isn’t short of, it’s jargonese. PCP has been totally transformed during your time there, hasn’t it?

It’s been a long journey but a very enjoyable journey. Moving the business away from being a subsidised company producing pre-print for the group to a standalone commercial printing operation. In 1985-86 when we were the relatively new kids on the block and unheard of, to today where we’re one of very few high-quality magazine printers in the UK. 

You’ve seen so many changes over the years. What stands out? 

Oh gosh yes, there have been so many technological changes. We moved away from bi-metal plates, we had two Crosfield Magnascans in the ’80s, and a department of about 16 film planners, and of course that all moved away to final film and now PDFs. When you think about it now, in the nicest way, back in those days there was always that level of contention if there was a problem with colour. Is it the film, is the repro house, is it your artwork, is it the original transparency? Nowadays all that’s been taken away and generally speaking we print what the customer gives us. So, providing we do our bit and use the colour control and quality controls we’ve got, it’s easier to identify the root of a problem. 

My mind boggles when I think back to the days of film planning. Production timescales have changed a bit too, since then. 

Absolutely. Now, though, everyone expects things turned around in a matter of hours. And that’s actually one of the advantages we had. Because we were originally doing pre-print for our newspaper business, we already had that mentality of fast turnarounds. It was a great selling strength as we were used to turning colour around extremely quickly. We’re in a world now where customers want everything today, we want to have a little bit longer to pay you, and by the way we want the cheapest price and the best service...!

That seems to have become the norm.

The big challenge for us and indeed for the industry, for what I would consider to be the more quality-minded printers, is how we can continue to offer all those benefits and services but still be competitive in the market, given what the market is demanding. That’s the challenge facing all of us. 

Dare I mention the p-word – pricing? 

You’ve got pricing in the market that is becoming more and more competitive to the point of becoming questionable from a financial point-of-view, and at the same time you’ve got ongoing costs. So, as the managing director of a printing business, you need to remain very focused on costs. 

It seems that costs for printers just keep going up and up?

Yes, cost savings, cost efficiencies, cost initiatives, automation... All these things are becoming more paramount in business strategy. I’d be surprised if there’s many businesses, particularly in our sector, where they aren’t continually reviewing what I call the operational overheads. In many cases now, you’re running faster just to stand still. That’s the reality. 

How have client dynamics changed, apart from the aforementioned demands for faster, cheaper, better?

Some of the big publishers are now looking at 12-month contracts as opposed to the three or four years it would have been in the past, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because they don’t know what their portfolio is going to be, and secondly with the market as it is they don’t want to put themselves in an awkward position in the case of supplier failure. At the same time they know the capacity demand model at the moment is not aligned they might be able to secure savings by opting for a short-term contract. 

It seems weird, given everything that’s happened and all the companies that have disappeared, including one very large one, that other p-word, Polestar, that it’s still that way?

You know this, because we’ve talked about the number of businesses that have gone. I think there’s about 36 or 37 companies who used to be in the web offset sector catalogue and magazine market, that are no longer with us. And obviously there’s the European market, some work went abroad, some came back and some has remained on the continent. And Brexit has hit the commercial market quite badly. You only have to look at the retail market and the challenges they’ve had, and the knock-on impact on their print requirements. 

It’s like a perfect storm, really. And it really is quite astonishing how the landscape of competitors has changed.

St Ives, Polestar, Goodhead Group. You had those big boys. Cooper Clegg. Some big household names. There’s been a big wholesale change. TPL... The other big change that’s taken place over the years is work mix. The industry was very much categorised in terms of gravure, web offset, CutStar, B1, B2... whereas now there are so many overlaps. The boundaries are not as clear and all that does is challenge us as an industry to continue to look at becoming leaner and more efficient in terms of what we’re offering. 

And the added-value services, like your recent investment in laminating for covers?

Added-value is key, either you or the group you’re part of. When you look at some of the print management firms over the years, that’s how they’ve been successful. 

When you think about the web offset business, who will be buying new web presses? People will ultimately reinvest, I guess it will just be different. 

I think it depends on the organisation. Some of the privately owned organisations have a different view to companies owned by investment corporations. The private organisations will continue to reinvest. Rather than replacing every five or six years, hypothetically, it will be every 15 or 20 years. And let’s face it, it’s not the mechanical side, it’s the software side. 

Good point. 

That’s where presses are becoming a little bit more concerning moving forward, is the software going to be supported? The mechanical press can last for many years, but if you’re not careful, is the software going to be obsolete? That’s something we’re looking at carefully. The bigger [web offset] boys have a slightly different agenda, maybe they will continue run their existing presses for as long as possible to meet whatever is their exit strategy. 

PCP is part of this diverse group, how does that work at a group level, how much cross-fertilisation is there?

Our view has always been to offer a cross- media platform, to bring in cross-group business and support the group’s profits. Moving into publishing with Kennedy Publishing, moving into print procurement and creative agency with Cubiquity is giving the overall group that degree of profitable stability and growth. But also, hopefully, providing services within the group. It’s something I’ve advocated that we need to continue moving forward. 

Any mentors or inspiring people you’ve worked with over the years?

My old chief executive and chairman Graham Evers had a great influence over me for a number of years. Obviously my father, and also a very great friend of mine, Grant Penfield [ink industry veteran with a long career at Stehlin Hostag, Druckfarben, and Flint Group]. Those are the people who stick out. 

What was Graham’s role when you first joined the company?

He had a group finance role and was a director of PCP at the time. The beauty about Graham was, not only did he have a very good financial brain, he also had great people skills. Very family-orientated, and that shared the ethos of the family at Claverley Group. He always had a very good way of communicating and managing people. He respected your autonomy but was always there supporting in the wings as and when required. 

Your dad was involved with a very different industry, wasn’t he?

I suppose my father was the biggest influence on me. In his role as the chief executive at a series of steel companies he was a very strong finance person with a lot of business acumen and a very strong work ethic, and he instilled that in me. 

And what about Grant?

Grant and I go way back, we were buying ink from him in the 1980s. Again that entrepreneurial spirit, good people skills, and very high integrity, which is very important in business. 

Ain’t that the truth. 

He was Mr Ink! The thing now is, the big characters in the industry are gradually declining. For me, that’s a little bit of a sadness. Will they ever be replaced? I don’t think they will be; the industry is a different environment now. 

You’re right. Things are more serious and corporate in general, I guess. Let me check, is it 38 or 39 years you’ve been in the industry?

I joined the group in 1981, so by the time I retire it’ll be approaching 39. 

So you weren’t tempted to go for 40, a nice round number?

No! [laughs] That definitely wasn’t a consideration. 

What about your replacement, Mark Brownrigg?

I’m actually seeing him tomorrow. He’s joining us in November. He comes from a packaging background, he’s got good commercial skills and is well versed and experienced in running manufacturing businesses and he’s good with people. He’s got a nice strong personality and I think he’ll do a good job for us. 

Sounds like a great fit. It’s always tricky to take over from a long-standing MD. 

He’ll get good support and he’ll understand the good people we’ve got at PCP and I think they’ll work well together – that was very important for my replacement. And also in understanding the group’s traditional values, which are very important, notwithstanding the fact that we have to change as a business moving forward, and hopefully Mark will bring his new ideas and initiatives and growth opportunities to the company. That, principally is what we’re looking to him to do. 

What about some highs and, sorry, lows? 

I think the low was when we went through a restructuring in 2014. Some of the more traditional rates and benefits had to go, and it was hard to get that over the line. But it needed to be done. The volatility of some of the supply chain is also a concern. When you look at the last year and half and the amount of paper price increases we’ve had to handle, those are challenging. 

And some highs?

Seeing PCP develop. Seeing us win the BMJ contract for seven years when we were relatively new in the magazine market. And I thank BMJ for that vote of confidence. And we also helped them with some of the initiatives we produced for them. That was great. And putting the investment programme we’ve put in place over a period of time is a positive high. And obviously winning PrintWeek Awards! Industry accolades. But the biggest high for me is the people I’ve enjoyed meeting and had a business relationship that’s turned into a friendship. 

People make the magic happen, at the end of the day don’t you think? 

There’s a number of people whom I enjoy their company and have done over the years. We know how to conduct ourselves in business, but there’s a personal friendship there as well. That’s probably one of the biggest highlights, that I consider those people among my friends now.

I must make it clear that it’s more an upcoming au revoir than farewell, as you will remain as a non-exec at PCP.

Yes I’ll be staying on as a non-executive for two years and it’s likely that I’ll be involved with some other business initiatives in the future, of which more in the fullness of time. 

Keep us posted! What will you miss most, from the day to day job?

I’ve still got the passion for smelling ink on paper, and for the people. Although PCP is not my company I’ve always tried to treat it as if it was. I think I’ve been very fortunate. We’ve got some very good people committed to PCP and in many ways committed to me over a number of years and I’ve enjoyed seeing those people develop, and they will be the strength of PCP moving forward, so I think that’s another high really. And I think I’ve really enjoyed being part of a privately owned organisation, which has allowed me the autonomy to run the business in many ways how I wanted to run it. I don’t know how many people could say that. 

Good point, when you look at listed businesses dealing with the vagaries of the city, the reporting is such a strain. Privately owned companies have the ability to act quickly on things, and take a long-term view. 

To give you an illustration, a few years ago we heard about a five-colour B1 sheetfed press that had become available in Ireland, after a company that had bought two new presses for a specific contract didn’t survive for more than about six months. We got wind about it on a Monday morning. We flew over one of our engineers to have a look at it the same day. At the same time myself and my FD were putting together a report for the MD at the time to justify the investment, and by the Thursday of that week we’d bought the press. And that’s an illustration of fast decision-making in a privately owned organisation, as opposed to the layers of bureaucracy you can have in a corporate. We can be very responsive, and there’s also the support there from the group for investment. I had a meeting yesterday about some new investment, as it happens, and hopefully we’ll map that out over the next few weeks. 

Good to hear, we look forward to hearing about that when more details can be revealed. How’s the market at the moment?

Generally speaking, I think Brexit is really hitting the commercial market. There’s a softness in the market for this time of year. Look at what’s happening in the House of Commons. If you or I were on the other side of the water looking at this, what would we be thinking? Kids in 10 or 15 years’ time will be looking back at this and saying ‘what the Dickens?’. Look at the timeframe of it all, the uncertainty, the negatives, the bad decisions and just the way politicians have presented themselves. I think it’s unprecedented and I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like this again. 

Let’s hope not. 

The world we live in is so much smaller, because information travels so instantly, I just think it’s a real concern. What is the business landscape going to be like? How are they going to be looking at society in 15 or 20 years? How many people are going to have to be working into their seventies?

Oh, for a time machine. 

Yes, or at least a crystal ball to see what the market will be like. Print is far from dead. All I want to do is make sure PCP is still remaining in 10, 15 or 20 years providing a secure stable platform for the employees and their families, and of course providing a worthwhile service to our customer base. 

Hear, hear. Is there anything you won’t miss?

I’ve realised that as a non-exec, when there’s a board meeting you don’t have your initials against any of the action points.

That definitely sounds like something to look forward to!

Yes, definitely!

The Claverley Group

The Claverley Group has a history steeped in print, with its newspaper businesses Midland News Association and Guiton Group having more than a century of newspaper publishing heritage. The overall group had sales of nearly £103m last year, and employed 928 staff across all of its businesses. 

MNA Media publishes the Express & Star, Britain’s biggest-selling regional newspaper. Its portfolio includes weekly newspapers, magazines and lifestyle publications

MNA Digital Online marketing solutions

Guiton Group Includes the Jersey Evening Post and Guernsey Press, although Guiton is in the process of selling the Guernsey Press Company.

Precision Colour Printing (PCP) Telford-based magazine and catalogue printer

PCS Developer of editorial, advertising and circulation workflows for newspaper and magazine publishers

Kennedy Publishing Children’s magazine publisher of more than 30 titles. It has its own character brands and also publishes 12 standalone character titles under licence

Cubiquity Creative design and print procurement business acquired by Claverley in October 2018

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