The financial print sector has undergone radical change, but the work is there, if you know what your clients want.
There was a time when financial printing specialists made up some of the biggest print companies in the country, and names such as Burrups and Bowne were giants of the trade.
Tim Black, joint managing director at Imprima Financial Print, which emerged via an MBO of the former BPC financial print wing Oyez Press in the 1990s, remembers those halcyon days well.
“Back in the day we were involved with some of the biggest ever deals,” he says, recalling the heady times when the print runs for some prospectuses ran into several millions.
But over the past decade or so there has been something of a double-whammy for financial print specialists: changes in financial regulation means weighty deal documents don’t automatically have to be printed out and sent to every shareholder anymore. And the financial crisis of 2008 also put paid to a big chunk of financial print work.
“The industry has changed out of all recognition,” Black explains. “Now firms can put their main prospectus online, meaning they can send out smaller documents.
“So they might send a precis to smaller shareholders, with a small print run of the full prospectus to institutional shareholders.”
And the financial bloodbath that began in 2008 and still reverberates to this day had a dramatic effect.
“We had been working on big securitisations at the time, which was a massive market for us and that just stopped – it was all those toxic assets. That market just went, and it was probably about 30% of our business. And even though that work has come back now, it’s not necessarily being printed.”
All of this begs the question, why on earth would anyone want to be in the financial printing space? And why were Black and his fellow joint managing director Chris Callow so happy to be given the opportunity to buy their side of the business from former owner Mercurius Groep at the end of last year?
The answer is that the operation has adapted to its clients’ changing requirements – even if clients don’t need physical print output on the scale previously required, they still need Imprima’s specialist and confidential typesetting know-how when it comes to the complex documentation that goes hand-in-hand with any deal.
As a result, Imprima has adapted its own offering to the new financial landscape, as Black explains: “Ten years ago we would be contacted by a bank running an IPO with one set of lawyers. Now, the market has moved on and there are multiple banks involved in any IPO. So you might have four banks, which means four sets of lawyers, and often a private equity firm as well.
“The lawyers are trying to track everyone’s changes, and they are tearing their hair out,” he says.
This sort of complex document creation is not the sort of thing that standard word processing and page layout software is cut out for, especially when it comes to documents that could be a whopping 1,000pp. Imprima Financial Print’s team of typesetters use a specialist typesetting system from 3B2, with bespoke elements, for this distinctive work.
“Our system can dislocate a document into separate ‘takes’ or units, so different people can look at it and amend it at the same time. This allows fluidity and flexibility for what the Stock Exchange needs for their requirements,” Black notes.
This functionality involves all manner of ‘blacklining’ to comply with the requirement to be able to see every change made, although Black says the company has recently developed a new way of providing this service. “We are now moving towards comparison files, and have spent a lot of time with 3B2 getting this right. We’ve had this for 13 months and it’s something of a USP.”
This specialist know-how is one of the reasons why Black and Callow believe that even the smaller financial printing pie still represents a sustainable living as long as you can gain a big enough slice of the action.
“The barriers to entry for financial work are quite high, there are probably only four big players and some niche operators. So only a handful of companies will be considered for big global deals.”
High levels of security and confidentiality are required. The firm has ISO 9001 accreditation and works to the ISO 27001 security standard – it is in the process of being separately accredited to ISO 27001 following the MBO from the parent group.
The reactive and unpredictable nature of the work is also a big factor. Imprima could get a call today, saying a deal is being launched tomorrow, and the documents will need to be in the post to shareholders next week. And it could be quite a document.
“In the 1980s the average rights issue was 50pp, now it’s 500pp and some are 1,000pp,” he notes.
And this is high-value work that can be charged at a premium due to the special skills required and the need for confidential production.
While Imprima does receive some level of prior notice that a job is coming its way (at the planning stage the names of the specific firms involved in a deal will be kept under wraps by Imprima’s client through the use of codenames) the firm still has to be able to flex its production facilities to cope with significant peaks in production. As a result it is always operating with excess capacity.
“We can produce 8,000pp of typesetting a week. We run 24/5, or 24/7 if needed,” Black says.
An example of the sort of complex project management skills required by the Imprima team comes via the firm’s work for the government on the recapitalisation of Lloyds Bank in 2009. This involved 1.45m copies of a 4pp application form; 600,000 copies of a 68pp circular; 615,000 copies of a 4pp Q&A; and 3.2m letters. The entire mailing went from approval to completion in just 72 hours.
Imprima has also looked beyond its core City clientele and has embraced international work for emerging markets such as Poland, Russia and Turkey. It will bring in special keyboards, translators and proofreaders if required, which was the case for a Slovakian telecoms IPO that was required in both English and Slovak.
Black says the business has also taken its expertise into other areas that are not as volatile as its core financial work, but where there is still a requirement for confidentiality and fast turnarounds. This includes report and accounts work, and reports for fund managers.
Another new area is work for insolvency practitioners. “In the insolvency space we can be working on big, complex projects involving confidential information,” Black adds. “We might get the information at midnight, and it is mailed to creditors the next day.”
The firm has its own in-house digital printing facilities for runs of up to 500, and the production of what Black describes as “hot copies” that need to go out urgently to the key people involved in projects such as large IPOs.
For larger print runs, Imprima has strategic partnerships with a number of suitably-vetted printers. “When we had our own factory the under-utilisation was shocking,” he explains. “As far as I know there’s not a single financial printer with their own presses now.”
While it’s only just over six months since they became masters of their own destiny, Black and Callow are facing the future with confidence. They ran the operation as a separate business for a year prior to the MBO at the end of last year, and were able to take six months to organise the details of the deal.
The fresh start for the company has involved a move into new 2,500m2 offices, next door to its previous location. And it is preparing to rebrand under a new name later this year having been granted a licence to use the Imprima name for a year post-buyout.
It also retains a shared client base and mutually beneficial links with the separate Imprima iRooms operation, which was sold to OTM Participation at the same time as the MBO of the print wing.
“It’s so nice waking up every day and having the challenge of doing it for yourself and the team,” Black says.
As part of its plans to further enhance its offering, Imprima Financial Print joined the Institute of Customer Service earlier this year and is now striving for “a John Lewis type of score”.
“The lawyers and bankers we work with are under so much pressure. Anything we can do to make their life smoother and easier is important to us,” Black concludes. “The client gets their proofs on time, and the job is printed and posted correctly. This level of customer service is working well when it’s invisible.”
Imprima Financial Print
Location City of London, plus offices in Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam
Inspection host Joint managing director Tim Black
Size Turnover: around £3m; Staff: 23
Established Company dates back to 1890 when it was the Solicitors’ Law Stationery Society. MBO in December 2014
Products Design, typesetting, translation, proofing, SEC filing, printing and mailing, virtual data rooms (via sister company Imprima iRooms)
Kit Multiple PC and Mac workstations for typesetting and proofing with bespoke 3B2 typesetting software, as well as InDesign and other relevant software. Two HP LaserJet 4700s for fast proofing, Epson Stylus Pro 7600 for large high-quality print proofs, Xerox WorkCentre 7835 for fast proofs, book proofs, and short-runs of perfect-bound or stitched products
Adapting to fundamental change in your core market
There are still opportunities in markets that are declining, or where the customers’ fundamental requirements have drastically changed.
Markets with specialist require-ments and strictures can be a good place to be due to the high barriers to entry for new players.
Capitalise on the specialist know-how of your team. In Imprima Financial Print’s case, this is its ability to handle complex typesetting work for multiple stakeholders, and the management of large fast-turnaround confidential documentation production projects.
Differentiate your offering. Imprima has married its range of specialist services with a focus on exemplary customer service.
Look at new or adjacent markets where your company’s specialist skills will also be relevant. For Imprima that involves other clients requiring rapid production of complex documentation such as fund managers and insolvency practitioners, and taking its offering into new international markets.