If you want to get ahead, get a niche

Des King
Monday, November 17, 2008

We have the poet John Milton to thank for the observation that "they also serve who only stand and wait", subsequently corrupted into that rather backhanded and patronising compliment "good things come to those who wait" and regularly rolled out to acknowledge the contribution to the greater good made by those perceived to be a step or two behind the main event.

Hitherto, it has described to a T the role trade finishers play within the printing process, making them the unsung heroes. According to Friedheim managing director Peter Morris, finishing is the sector that “the industry has always been reliant upon to turn a bad job into a good one, and to turn it round within ridiculous time schedules”.

Trade finishing has always had something of the doormat about it, totally belying the fact that when the printed sheet hits the finishing department, it is probably at its most expensive and thus deserving of far better treatment than when it’s a plain sheet of paper. Indeed, it’s one of those occupations that you wonder why anyone would ever choose to take it up.

It is the work that printers have neither the time, nor the capacity – or quite often, the ability – to do. “Forty years ago, the trade finisher would get a reasonable amount of time in which to produce a quality job at a fair rate,” adds Morris. “Why has
the trade finishing sector contracted? Because by the time that they actually get the job, it was already wanted a week ago; the prices are rubbish, and they don’t make enough money to reinvest in new kit. Once there is no differential in speed, turnaround times and price in comparison to the in-house bindery, the printers will say ‘we might as well buy some kit and do it ourselves’.”

The situation has been further exacerbated by a number of broader-based equipment suppliers targeting in-house finishing departments to ease pressure due to declining press sales. “People are quoting saddlestitching prices that are no better than they were 10 years ago,” says Morris. “It’s a commodity, that’s the problem – so you have to do something else. The trade finisher now has to look at his customer base and work out what else it is they do and in relation to which they’re not prepared to invest.”

In other words, if you want to get ahead get a niche, which is exactly what Wembley-based Purfect Binding Company (PBC) has done by focusing on short-run technical books. Managing director Reg Walwyck says: “You’ve got to look at the more complex jobs with different sizes, and be there to handle what printers can’t or don’t want to do.

“We’ve just installed a new Wohlenberg binder that will produce up to 7,000 books per hour. You’d have to be a very large printer to put in one of these machines as they can cost anywhere between £500,000 and £1m,” adds Walwyck.

In reality, PBC’s level of investment over the past few months has run closer to £2m including the transfer of the business to new premises, and exceeds the company’s total turnover, says Walwyck. “You do what it takes to meet your customers’ needs. There are three reasons why a printer would come to a finisher: price, quality and reliability. I don’t mind losing a job on price if it happens, but I don’t like to lose a job on either quality or reliability – those are the two areas in which we strive to achieve all the time.”

Two-minute takeaway on surviving as a trade finisher:

  • Partnership may be something of a cliche, but it’s what the trade finisher has to establish with his customer base. Don’t wait to be asked
  • You’re providing an on-demand service. Not everyone can think like that, and the ones that can’t are the ones going out of business
  • Trade finishers have to be positioned so the printer will not even consider investing in his own finishing kit
  • The more local you are to your customers, the better for both of you. Time spent in the van is money down the drainl Most in-house finishing departments probably operate at 30-40% utilisation (compared with a press room running at 80-90% of capacity)


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