Turn challenge into opportunity
Monday, June 28, 2021
Coming up on 10 years this year in its current 370sqm Enfield facility, Print4UK was growing faster than ever, buying kit, bringing more services in-house, increasing turnover year-on-year and management was eyeing a move to a larger premises.
But in the advent of ‘the big reset’ of 2020, focus shifted from expansion to survival, says managing director Chris Brady, who explains that while he’d never worked as hard, the first lockdown, in spring of 2020, actually gave him some much needed, blue-sky thinking time.
Launched in 2008, the firm’s core work has traditionally been commercial print with supplementary income from in-house design and digital web projects and outsourced branded merchandise, for its existing print clients.
“We’ve always offered these extra services to our clients but never done it really competitively,” says Brady. “We’d wanted to expand that side of things, but we were so busy focusing on our core bread and butter that we’d never had the time to work on the strategy.
“So when our print fell off a cliff, branded merchandise was the first thing we started to look at to diversify our offering to existing Print4UK clients to try to make up some of the losses,” he explains.
The issue, Brady says, was that the team didn’t have the right knowledge to develop the idea fully. “We just went to supplier/distributors who then did business with the manufacturer, so there is a domino effect down the line where everyone takes their little slice of the pie and by the time it got back to us it was pretty pricey, which meant, ultimately, we were making barely anything on it,” reports Brady.
He decided to approach the British Promotional Merchandise Association (BPMA), signing up to a paid membership and taking advice on how to go about monetising a branded merchandise arm.
“We did a lot of research, got a lot of really valuable advice from the BPMA, learned what we needed to do, how and where to buy,” Brady explains. “We had time to rethink, research and reset,” he adds.
With print work crashing 90% overnight, the decision was quickly taken to ramp up branded merchandise, as well as offering a more rounded digital marketing service such as web animation, app development and marketing.
Brady decided that to approach the markets competitively and gain traction with new and existing clients, the offerings should be branded separately to Print4UK, so two new arms were created in November 2020 that now make up the 4UK group: Branded4UK for branded merchandise, with suppliers anywhere from the UK to China, and Navy Blue London as the digital marketing and design agency.
Having to furlough around half of his 14 staff at the time, Brady retained those with digital, design, branding and account expertise.
“I kept everyone that could help with our own digital presence so they could help us to build a new website, etc. Those people have helped us achieve the diversifications that we are offering today.”
Minimal training has been needed, Brady explains, aside from learning the new ‘bible’ from which merchandise products are selected and keeping on top of the outsource management.
With existing staff in charge of running the branding business, Brady brought in experienced marketer Lee Hedger to head up the Navy Blue London operation along with two dedicated staff.
A brand new website highlights the three 4UK entities and, along with some successful Google ad pay-per-click campaigns, has begun to drive work back to the business.
Enquiries have been predominantly for Branded4UK, Brady reports, with a lot of requests for packaging from both big retailers and start-up brands alike. “It’s just something we had never done or gone after,” Brandy states.
“But it sparked our interest and so we started to look into it. We quickly realised how expensive it was to get things made for short runs, so we looked at the finances, researched equipment and decided to invest in a Duplo PFi Blade B2+ die-less digital cutter and creasing table.
Brady originally considered the smaller format PFi Blade but with a move into B2 digital work being a potential option for the future, he opted for the larger model.
The device, installed in April this year, immediately enabled the business to accept a much broader range of jobs including short-run pockets, tuck-in boxes and Foamex projects.
According to Brady, launching Branded4UK has been the group’s saving grace: “Thanks to the BPMA we’ve learned where to buy, we got some major new clients through them and quite a nice bit of turnover over the last 12 months on the branded merchandise side.
“The BPMA told us that anyone can start a branded merchandise company at any time, but having consistency and expertise is key.
“There are loads of companies doing it, but big firms spend a fortune on their branding and brand guidelines and they need quality and consistency. They know that we will stay on brand and deliver consistency. We have the expertise and trust that allows us to advise them on the best type of print for their product and brand. We have become our clients’ marketing team.”
“One of the clients we’ve picked up is a burger chain,” he says. “They came to us for a website and then wanted packaging and branded print, so they’ve managed to keep brand consistency and also save money and time.”
Brady says enquiries continue to grow for Branded4UK with some major brands now on the books, while the branded merchandise jobs are giving rise to a resurgence in commercial print work.
“Printing has definitely increased over the last two months, but prior to that the Indigo was a big paperweight,” he says. “We used to do event-driven work for many of our existing clients and until events start coming back, we just aren’t going to get that work.
“Even then, some events that have gone online, I don’t think will ever come back. But that’s where we’ve been really strong at coming up with new ideas, for example we’ve produced movie-night boxes and influence and product-launch boxes for people to open while attending streamed events. Those have gone down really well.
“One of the reasons our clients stick with us is because of the new ideas we come up with. We’re constantly pushing new ideas and through that we are getting print through the door for jobs that are totally new to us. It’s always been brochures, prospectuses and event materials but now the packaging and branding is what is bringing in the revenue,” Brady states.
Brady says he can’t forecast how each arm will grow, due to the global situation, so can’t predict how group turnover will be split in the future.
Once the work begins to build back up for Print4UK, Brady says, Branded4UK will be split away from it, as a separate business with a dedicated manager and team.
Plans to expand into a larger premises this year have been put on the back burner for now, with Brady saying he wants to take the next six to 12 months steadily and see how print volumes grow.
“If it wasn’t for Branded4UK we wouldn’t be here today,” Brady states. “ Hopefully, month-on-month, we’ll begin to see an increase in our existing work – perhaps without the pandemic we’d never have created these two new arms.
“At one time, I couldn’t see how we’d get through but with a strong work ethic, determination and thinking outside the box, we’ve got here and we’re surviving on what we’ve built,” he states.
Location Enfield, north London
Inspection host Chris Brady, managing director
Size Staff: 12; turnover: £1.5m
Products Litho, large-format and digital commercial print including booklets and brochures, annual reports, branded envelopes and stationery, gift boxes and posters, direct mail and fulfilment; custom branded merchandise and packaging and event promotional materials; brand research, concept development, design and delivery, website development and design, digital marketing and social media campaigns and support
Kit list HP Indigo 7900; Duplo PFi Blade B2+ die-less digital cutter and creasing table, an HP Latex wide-format printer and a range of finishing kit
Inspection focus Developing and implementing a diversification strategy
Keeping on top of the figures on a day-to-day basis gave Brady the ability to understand quickly what was needed and to react accordingly, he says. “When you see that the money just isn’t coming in, you need to do everything in your power to turn it around,” he says. “Diversifying for existing and new clients was key,” he adds.
Another key financial aspect to helping the business implement its strategy is Brady’s policy of keeping ‘rainy day money’ available for the business to provide a buffer for such eventualities. “We haven’t suffered with our cashflow. Of course furlough helped but we’ve needed no other help for other overheads and we are up to date on all payments. I think that will be hard for a lot of businesses,” Brady states.
Listening to and understanding clients and responding to their needs is imperative, Brady says. “We want to help them look the best they can and the only way we can is by understanding their needs and by being really proactive and delivering for them.”