Perfect pitch drives tender triumphs

Securing framework agreement work and preferred supplier status opens up new doors.

The challenge

It’s a situation many in print can only dream of. Competing against just a few other businesses for a certain bit of work is a pretty rare eventuality in today’s still tough trading conditions.

Yet this is the enviable position Birmingham-based Pinstripe Print Group often enjoys. Its secret? Successfully being awarded opportunities to work under framework agreement contracts and preferred supplier agreements. 

The business first decided to have a go at tendering for work in this more formal way back in 2006. The firm had been established in 1998 as a high-quality design, print and finishing house, but was struggling, as recession hit, to differentiate itself and win lucrative work on the quality of its service alone.

“One of the things we did right from the start was try to offer a bit more than just print. We offered marketing support services, so stock store and project management, and data manipulation,” reports managing director Nigel Lyon. 

“But come 2005 and 2006, things were starting to get a bit more difficult. Price in particular.”

So the business decided to pitch for a framework agreement contract with Aston University. “Everybody was whingeing and moaning about margins, but I thought at the end of the day maybe we need to do something a little bit different. Which is what we did,” says Lyon. 

He explains that securing this contract and then adding others – so that today the company works under 15 framework agreements and several preferred supplier agreements – enables the company to either eliminate the competition entirely or go up against just a few other firms on the roster of a local council, university or business.

“It’s about looking at the situation and thinking ‘hang on a minute, everyone is battling away in the same pond’. You’ve got to differentiate,” says Lyon. “Rather than being in a pot, where everybody is going for a bite of the cherry, being in a situation where there’s only a few of you – perhaps between four and six – gives you a great opportunity.”

The method

Of course the formal tendering process is not to be taken lightly. The oft-cited accusation that tenders are unfairly biased in favour of the larger businesses who have the resources and expertise to fill them out, provides a clue to this. Whether it’s seen as fair or not, filling out a formal tender for work is a notoriously involved undertaking.

Pinstripe can certainly attest to this. “It’s not something you can do in an afternoon or when you’re sitting watching the telly,” says Lyon. He reports that filling out a tender can take up to two man weeks at Pinstripe.

“That’s unlikely to be one person. There will probably be a number of people contributing,” says Lyon. “It helps if someone has writing skills. You need someone who can be focused and succinct and can answer a question persuasively and clearly.

“You also want someone who can do the pricing side and pull all of that together in a sensible fashion and be realistic on what kind of levels you’re prepared to go in at. In our company that tends to be one of our estimating or customer services people.”

Lyon wouldn’t personally use an external writer for the tendering process, although he does concede that a business less switched on to this kind of work might benefit from one. “We do everything in-house. A writer won’t necessarily write what you want unless you are particularly vigilant,” says Lyon.

Lyon adds that, despite the bad rap this process has received, he actually finds it very logical. “You go through a PQQ (pre-qualification questionnaire) and if you don’t score sufficiently on that you don’t get through to the main tender. The whole thing is very logical in the way it’s put together,” he says, adding that his background as a chartered accountant definitely helps.

The kinds of things client organisations are looking for vary, says Lyon. But transparent finances are a must. “They’re looking to see fully filed accounts and that you’re fully compliant from a Companies House perspective,” he says.

Environmental, health & safety and quality management certifications, while not essential, will probably help your pitch, as will the ability to produce the majority of the work in-house, he adds. The fact that Pinstripe has ISO standards 9001 and 14001, was the first B2 sheetfed printer to become ISO 12647 accredited and is a certified Carbon Balanced Publication printer, often gives it the edge, says Lyon.

“Environment is important, health & safety is important and more recently colour management has become more important – I’m seeing people turning round and asking for that more now,” says Lyon, adding: “On a shopping list, the fact that we’re carbon balanced doesn’t come at the top, but we have been in presentations where people have said it’s great so it does get a big tick.”

Lyon’s advice would be to know what’s worth tendering for and what’s not. “You have to look at what’s sensible as these things take a long time to put together. If there’s a range of work and some of it suits us, we would go for that. If it was all web-based print, there’s no point us going for that,” he says.

He adds: “A local council or NHS trust or university will often opt to place the work with a local supplier, so we’re careful about not tendering too far afield.”  

Actually being able to fulfil the work once you’ve won it is of course crucial, adds Lyon. To win a contract only to have it terminated because you fail to deliver on your promises is not only a huge waste of tendering time, it will also have a negative impact on your ability to win more work via future tender applications, as you will be required to say if this has ever happened.

The result

Following these sensible precautions has certainly paid off for Pinstripe. Lyon estimates that 40% of the work the company processes comes from formal contracts of this kind. This has provided critical insulation from the recession, he reports. 

“We’ve seen a modest increase in turnover since 2006, but that’s been against a background of less print being required and against prices going down – people are paying less now for printed items than they were in 2006, which is crazy,” says Lyon.

Winning this kind of work has, then, enabled the company to make investments it wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. The company’s kit spend over the past three years has totalled around £1.1m. This has included the replacement of all digital machines with Konica Minolta kit, investment in a new Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 75, a new Heidelberg workflow, and new Agfa CTP and X-Rite kit. The latest investment has been a refurbished Muller Martini stitching line, installed last month.

“There’s no way we could have achieved colour management standards with the kit we had. It just wasn’t modern enough,” says Lyon.

The latest framework agreement success has been a contract to provide Dudley Council with a range of colour print. The group has also recently secured a three-year sole-supplier deal with Edgbaston Stadium and Warwickshire County Cricket Club worth around £200,000.

Other major organisations the company works with include the NEC Group, Birmingham City Council, Coventry University, Keele University, the University of Warwick, West Midlands Fire Service and Coventry and Solihull Councils.

Lyon says such prestigious work gives staff a real boost. “Staff understand how it is within the print sector, and they’ve seen a number of good businesses fail. So seeing us win such reputable work gives them a real morale boost,” he says.

So for Pinstripe, tendering for formal contracts has proved a real success. While this time-consuming and exacting process won’t be for everyone, Pinstripe is a great example of how putting effort into tendering, can really pay off. 

Vital statistics Pinstripe Print Group 

Location Birmingham

Inspection host Nigel Lyon, managing director

Size Turnover: £2m-£2.5m; staff: 26

Established In 1998 as a high-quality commercial design, print and finishing house. The company now offers creative design artworking, database management and data manipulation, along with litho and digital printing and finishing, including collating, stitching, trimming, drilling, cutting, creasing and folding

Products A wide range of products including brochures, annual reports, maps, magazines, calendars, POS material, mailing packs and greetings cards 

Kit Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 75, Heidelberg Speedmaster SM 74, two Heidelberg SRA2 presses, Heidelberg GTO Z 52 press, Konica Minolta bizhub Pro C8000 and C450, Agfa Anapurna M² UV, HP Z6100, HP Designjet L255000 and a wide range of finishing kit, including Heidelberg, Romec, Morgana and Polar machines  

Inspection focus Winning framework agreement contract work


  • Assess whether a tender is worth going for carefully. Your in-house capabilities for the particular products listed and your locality will all factor. With filling out tenders a time-consuming task, you need to be sure this effort stands a good chance of being worthwhile.
  • Having said this, once you’ve decided to go for it, make sure you do just that. “There’s no point going about it half-heartedly,” says Lyon.
  • Be wary of tenders that seem to put a large emphasis on price. The whole point of winning this kind of work is to avoid price wars, points out Lyon. “Quite often price is quite an important element of the tender. So we have to be strategic. If someone says price is 90%, we’ll have to ask is this something we can do without effectively working for nothing?” he says.
  • You’ll need someone who can write persuasively, and someone to work out the pricing of the job. Put aside around two weeks for the tender process.
  • Consider official accreditations to give you the edge. “People aren’t excluded if they don’t have those, but some will say they want that tick in the box. And at the end of the day you can’t argue with an official accreditation,” says Lyon.
  • Make sure your customer service matches that expected by big organisations. “You’ve got to have proper account management. You need reporting channels so that if someone’s off for the day, others will know exactly what’s happening with that job.”

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