Small can be beautiful

Adam Bernstein
Wednesday, June 29, 2022

SME leaders share powerful insights into how their operations outshine larger rivals

There’s an old proverb: ‘great oaks from little acorns grow’. Behind the saying is the belief that at one point every great enterprise will have had modest beginnings; and it’s very similar to another that expresses the same sentiment – ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.

The point of these two adages should be clear. Be persistent, for with small efforts something grander can be built in time.

Of course, it follows that not every enterprise will become a multinational. In fact, the vast majority are very small and sit at the bottom of a pyramidal structure that makes up any given sector.

In the context of print, it’s interesting to see how smaller print concerns win business from the larger corporates. Printweek spoke to three firms to see how they have created a solid basis for their businesses.

Eight Days a Week Print Solutions (EDWPS)
Location Nottingham
Turnover £8m (2021)
Staff 25
Business activities A digital print and direct mail business, providing end-to-end solutions for a range of sectors including pharma and healthcare, retail, financial services, education and charities

Lance Hill, managing director of Printweek’s reigning SME of the Year, says his business was started in 2007 by David Beardsley and John Dallison. Formerly called Alltrade Print, it was an in-plant at Nottingham University. Initially a commercial digital printer, he says it morphed into personalised communications and direct mail.

Prior to leading an MBO at the business last year, Hill was brought in to make the company more visible. He says he uses a mixture of new business development salespeople, referrals and long-term relationships from previous companies. “We focus on marketing and PR to raise the profile, and this has worked very well since I joined in 2019.” This translates to using social media, sponsorship, events and awards to build the brand.

Good salespeople
One of the strongest elements in EDWPS’s play is, reckons Hill, good salespeople and the relationships they build. He comments that “salespeople are critical; we are a people business and focus on a personal experience for our clients to build long-term and mutually beneficial relationships”.

Staff are, says Hill, “recruited and selected mainly through existing contacts – i.e., they are former colleagues of team members from previous employers, plus some via trusted recruitment consultants”.

But that’s not to say that the company doesn’t take on ‘young blood’. In fact, Hill sees potential in “rising stars” who he can then “mould, develop and coach to fit my way of thinking and our overall business ethos”. By definition, this includes mentoring and suitable training where required.

Two things that are important to Hill are relationships and trust. He says: “I am very passionate about reputation and want us to be seen as a trusted supply partner that goes the extra mile and always adds value.” He doesn’t want the business to be seen “as a sausage factory”.

For Hill, “a good salesperson is someone who understands the client, their market, competitors, challenges, restrictions and how they operate... their objectives, and goals.” He’s adamant that if a salesperson does not know any of this, they cannot provide an effective and compelling offer.

But such knowledge shouldn’t be held in splendid isolation reckons Hill; he says staff “also need a strong understanding of our products and services, plus other ancillary services such as postage which is so critical in the mail market”.

Choosing the right clients
So, how does EDWPS open the doors of larger clients? In short, Hill says that the company is very selective about the size of clients it targets. And he says this because “some of the larger clients are frankly not worth targeting as they have been commoditised by being targeted by the big players of print management, year after year. If I can’t make a half decent margin on the work, there is no point going after it”.

That said, EDWPS does work with some very large organisations, and Hill says that “there are many more in the pipeline”. Filling it means being “focused on award-winning customer service and our overall approach to being a partner, not just a supplier’. He continues: “If we cannot add value, then why should we be considered? We have to have a differentiator to the rest of the market and that often means a very
tailored approach and proposition – one size does not fit all.”

And because of EDWPS’s philosophy, Hill says that some business comes in directly because of “our burgeoning reputation and profile”.

A range of services
EDWPS being ‘just a printer’ doesn’t cut it for Hill and he tells how the firm has moved on to being a full-service company.

It now offers a suite of data services which includes profiling, analytics, sourcing of cold data, returns management, plus design, which Hill says “is growing rapidly”.

In addition, he says that EDWPS is a Royal Mail door-drop affiliate “so we can target and book door-to-door campaigns for clients, rather than just print them… we use insight and other partners such as Royal Mail MarketReach to help clients get more from their investment in direct mail”.

But on top of this, Hill says that the company is offering more managed services work where it outsources on behalf of clients “and manages their complex print requirements that we cannot do in-house”.

Keeping clients satisfied
Hill’s keen to make the point that once a door is opened, EDWPS demonstrates capability and service – that clients won’t be let down.

To do this, he explains: “The entire business is customer-focused, top to bottom, so when we have a new client, everyone is on high alert.”

EDWPS does aim to “get it right first time without compromise”. But Hill recognises that mistakes do happen – rarely though. Nevertheless, he says: “EDWPS is very quick to put mistakes right and that has proven to make a big difference to clients who can see that we are committed and go the extra mile, time and again.”

Hill says that customer service is everything and he “will not tolerate poor service from any member of staff”. He adds: “How we perform on every job is part of the sales process, which is clear when I look at how we have grown our business through organic development and nurturing.” Ultimately, he says that “doing what we say we will do makes clients return”.

Location Southend on Sea
Turnover £7m (2021)
Staff 27
Business activities Variable data and technically complex printing projects as well as standard print

Phil Wilce, managing director, details how the company was formed in 1971 as a lithographic printing company “and has evolved through the years into a business that specialises in technically tricky work that very often involves more than just print”. He says: “It now specialises in variable data processing, direct mail, print-on-demand and projects that require a varying degree of bespoke packing and logistics.”

Being different
In terms of generating new business, Wilce comments that a sizeable chunk of the company’s enquiries come via its online brands for products that, he says, “are difficult to commoditise”.

Further, Formara’s online marketing focuses on its areas of specialism that Wilce noted earlier. This means, without convoluting the point, that Formara avoids “going head to head with the larger online printers for static printing… and we mainly get the enquiries for products and services that can’t be bought in a standard format”.

Getting to speak to buyers in larger clients is the result of several angles of attack. First of all, Wilce says that the company is fortunate to be able to use a mixture of word of mouth and online enquiries through the web brands – mainly But it can also use the public sector tendering process.

But the best source of business for Wilce – and probably the most gratifying – is that which comes from staff job changes in client firms. On this he comments: “As personnel move around, they often stay in touch with us for the areas we specialise in; we gain a number of new clients that way.” He goes further and says that not only do clients return, but Formara has a near 100% client retention rate.

Doors are opened
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that for Wilce, clients are considered gods and new clients placed on pedestals. He explains: “We leave very little to chance when it comes to delivering the first job for a new client. Paper samples, printed proofs, client visits – often conducted over Zoom these days. We don’t hide behind emails when we receive an enquiry; we aim to build the relationship and trust straight away.”

And this is important to Wilce because, as he says, “very often there are other clients in the same sector who we can reference”.

Beyond that, he says Formara makes a point of highlighting the ISOs it holds for quality, environment and information security.

And in a world where attention spans are short, Wilce emphasises that his company’s response time to enquiries is measured in minutes, not hours. He says: “Doing that takes great people working with a true understanding of what it takes to achieve a high level of client confidence from the first communication.”

Being agile
He expresses a sense of pride when he says: “All of our team are technically proficient in our sector and, as a small business, we are all in earshot of each other and can check things in seconds.” Further, when it comes to larger projects, he tells how the management team can come together very quickly, make its own decisions, and can give clients a fast and accurate response, adding: “We know we can achieve without the delays that are sometimes experienced in larger companies which, by their very nature, cannot be as agile as we can be.”

Naturally, despite the advent and deployment of swathes of technology, people are still at the core of the business. This is why Wilce likes staff to be good all-rounders.

In detailing this, he says: “We sell through marketing and in providing the best customer service when enquiries come in – of which there is a steady stream. We don’t employ people whose role is just sales –
customer service, marketing and myself provide the sales element as part of our general and marketing communications with our clients.”

Sales and products
Wilce believes that he has an advantage with a background in sales and has trained as such. He says he uses this to good effect and “disseminates a lot of my knowledge to the teams in the company”.

But making sales means more than just selling – it’s also about knowing what to sell. This is why Wilce says that Formara leans on its main suppliers for “ideas of new products and services we can promote as well as help in identifying the opportunities within our client base”. He adds that account executives at the company have their own client groups and know them well enough to be able to determine if a new product or service would be advantageous to them.

Formara’s success is, says Wilce, based on identifying, by market, what new products and services may be useful to clients and then being able to directly market on that basis. He adds: “This proactive approach opens doors for new business with existing clients and enables them to see the progress we are making as a business – even if they are not interested in a particular promotion that we may be running.”

Brightside Print & Design
Location London
Turnover £500,000
Staff 8
Business activities A digital printer predominantly providing general commercial print collateral along with graphic design. Produces conference materials and large-format graphics such as banner stands, printed boards and branded products.

Formed in 1991, Brightside Print & Design opened its doors, says Laurence Hobbs, sales director, to a completely different industry to that of today. “Originally set up as a typesetter and graphic design agency, we’ve evolved over the past 30 years.”

The two partners who started the company, one being Hobbs’ father, “operated,” he says, “in a world where business was conducted without the internet and clients were generated by traditional sales methods, such as cold calls and word of mouth”.

Demand led changes
But as demand for traditional typesetting lessened, so Hobbs says, Brightside gradually developed into a graphic design agency, placing print on numerous projects. The natural progression from this was, he says, “to invest in printing machinery, which has been our main focus since 2006”.

On how the firm finds new clients, Hobbs comments: “Being an established business, we are fortunate that we see a lot of repeat trade from existing clients.”

That said, he details that one of the main methods of generating new business is to purchase data on a monthly basis: “We prefer to purchase a higher quality set of data than is the average and closely focus on this, rather than opting for larger volumes and email blasting. We do try to work through the data on the telephone, but over the years the number of people who pick up the phone is clearly declining with their
preference leaning towards communicating via email.”

But when time permits, he’s found LinkedIn to be a useful tool – even just for research.

An additional focus for Brightside is having a strong website which “has been a life saver for us”. Hobbs tells how the company has always invested in search engine optimisation (SEO) and has endeavoured to improve its own skills. The result of this effort is, he says, “being a highly ranked website which is continually improving and branching out. We are now able to offer our clients a ‘Pay As You Go’ SEO service”.

Larger clients
On the scale of Brightside’s work, Hobbs says: “Over the course of the company’s history, we’ve worked for some of the largest of organisations on various projects. Some have come from proactive sales methods and being able to quickly to react to a client’s needs. On other occasions, we have been fortunate enough to be remembered by someone, and there’s no better sales tool than positive word of mouth.”

He finds, however, that keeping a foot in the door and developing a relationship can prove to be a greater challenge. “The problem is that the regular change of guard within large organisations can mean you no longer receive work, through no fault of your own.”

Keeping faith
As Hobbs has identified, it’s one thing to win business, but it’s quite another to keep it. He knows that reliability is central to keeping the plates spinning and comments: “When anyone makes their first
purchase, they’re placing blind faith in you and it’s beholden on you to maintain that trust.”

He thinks, however, that where logistically possible, “there are very few reasons why a client wouldn’t carry you with them through their career; being reliable and providing immediate responses cannot be understated. It helps to have a wealth of experience to fall back on during any discussions”.

Also – and this follows – being able to point to previous projects, while highlighting any potential pitfalls, certainly helps to calm any hesitations in Hobbs’ view.

“And doing all of this comes,” as Hobbs says, “at a cost with regards to time available for new sales though – it’s a perpetual juggling act.”

But as Hobbs identifies: “The proof will be in the pudding as to whether you’re a reliable supplier.” He states that as a company, it operates in the quick, same-day turnaround market and views itself as problem solvers.

And this is one of the company’s USPs. As Hobbs says: “On a high percentage of the work where we’re approached by a new client, their back is already against the wall and they’re searching for a solution.

Therefore, we regularly get to demonstrate this and build on these opportunities.”

Customer service means…
Ultimately, Hobbs believes that customer service is a tool to win business. He says: “Part of this means that we should be adaptable to what we believe the client wants and needs. It can be incredibly frustrating when dealing with an organisation that is set in its way with a ‘computer says no’ approach.”

He’s firmly of the view that his clients “are not all the same and what works for some will not work for others”.

This is why he thinks that “being able to provide that extra bit of care and attention to the smaller prospects can certainly reap rewards”.

“From experience, several of our largest clients over the years have been generated from leads and enquiries that one would not have thought could have developed in the way they did.”

What’s more, Hobbs adds: “It’s very likely that this approach enabled us to get through the pandemic.”

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