A fragile truce binds printers and managers in partnership

By Simon Creasey, Monday 26 October 2015

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Around a decade or so ago PrintWeek published its inaugural print management league table. The table ranked the UK’s 20 biggest print managers by turnover and was headed by corporate behemoths like Astron, which by then had already started to morph into a business process outsourcer, rather than a pure-play print management company.

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Over the course of the next few years the league table charted the progress of these print management companies as they grew rapidly, either via organic sales growth or through merger and acquisition activity. 

Their rise in turnover coincided with the general demise in the printing industry’s profitability as companies across a number of different print sectors started aggressively slashing prices in what ultimately proved to be a desperate race to the bottom – a race that escalated when the global economic downturn kicked in.

Many printers fell by the wayside as they quoted for jobs to fill downtime on their presses that would barely cover their costs. Although it would be unfair to blame print managers for the demise of many of those companies that fell by the wayside, it’s fair to say that many of those businesses that failed, during one of the bloodiest periods in the history of the UK printing industry, had fallen into bed with the print management groups. 

Those printers that survived the bloodbath emerged stronger, leaner and better placed to service the needs of their customers. The same rings true for the print management companies, many of whom didn’t emerge from the recession unscathed. Which brings us up to the present day.

At the moment an uneasy truce exists between printers and print management groups. Both parties need one another and while it’s undeniably true that there are some bad print managers out there it’s also true that there are some bad printers.

So what attributes are those good print management groups looking for in their print partners and how should printers decide which print managers to get into bed with?

Tackling the latter question first, Tony Massey, vice-president of business development EMEA at InnerWorkings, who has been involved in the print management industry since its formative years in the mid-1990s, says that printers should choose their print management customers just as carefully as they would their end user clients.

“The print management market is now globalised and diverse, so printers should select print managers who are well aligned to their goals,” says Massey. “Printers should search out the print managers that they feel they can partner with for mutual gain and avoid those that don’t meet their aspirations on ethics, supplier relations, pricing and payment terms.”

Coming at this from the other side of the fence, if you asked a bunch of printers what print management companies are looking for in their print partners the vast majority would respond “price” – as in cheaper prices. But while cost is clearly an issue for the print management groups, who secure business on the promise of significant savings on their clients’ print jobs, it isn’t the be all and end all. 

“Generally speaking, print managers are looking for printers to become a seamless part of their supply chain providing consistent quality, high service standards, compliance, proactivity and good value for money,” says Massey. “Certain print management organisations might have a bias towards one or more of these requirements, but in truth this is no different to end-user clients where some are more focused on quality and some on price.”

The range of other attributes that print managers factor into the equation when considering print partners is lengthy, with strong levels of customer service featuring high on the list of must-haves for the majority of print management companies.

That’s why printers should “make an effort to build long-term partnerships by being flexible and understand that for us quality in production and service to our clients will always come first,” says John Scott from Mauve Group. “If we can achieve this first stage together, retaining the customer long-term becomes more likely and the focus on price becomes less as the added value and reliable supply chain becomes more important. 

“Our clients expect us to protect their brand, from creative through to production, so we can only get into bed with a supplier who understands this.” 

Can-do approach

It’s a similar scenario at HH Global, with Alan Bittle, the company’s head of strategic sourcing EMEA, saying the most important thing the print manager looks for from its suppliers is “attitude and aptitude”.

“If a printer shares our customer-centric ‘can-do’ attitude and can demonstrate the aptitude to deliver market-leading quality and value, with a commitment to sustainability, then they will fit well within our supply chain and work with us to provide the best price,” says Bittle.

He adds that the company’s best suppliers constantly challenge their own, and their customer’s, way of working. “In other words they embrace continuous improvement as we do,” continues Bittle. “These suppliers invest wisely in people and technology that will deliver a competitive edge – for them and for us.”

To help its ‘strategic suppliers’ move along the continuous improvement path, HH asks them to participate in the company’s ‘quality printer programme’, which is aligned with the ISO 12647 colour management standard and over time leads to 3%-5% cost savings per job – it also looks to partner with printers who use lean manufacturing techniques such as Six Sigma. 

For Leeds-based company Snap Print Management, quality also features high on the list of attributes it looks for. 

“Snap is ISO 9001 approved and as a result we follow a stringent set of measures when assessing whether a supplier should make the cut,” says managing director Sarah Wiles. “Most suppliers tend to think that sending across a plant list via email is enough to get them on the roster, but in reality this isn’t always the case.”

Wiles adds that her company likes to know what particular printers do best and what stands them apart from the rest of the industry. “We put our suppliers into USP boxes,” she explains. “Some may have a USP for a fast turnaround, whereas others might have specific kit we are looking for to produce a campaign for a client.”

Communication is also key. “The better the communication, the better service Snap can provide the client,” says Wiles.

Another vital factor flagged up by more than one print management company is relationship building. 

“Building lasting relationships with vendors is key to our business,” according to Steve Jackman, commercial director at Charterhouse. “Vendors who know our business and in turn get to know our clients’ businesses are better able to tailor their service to fully meet our needs.”

Other firms refer to these relationships as a ‘partnership approach’. “It is vital for us that we work in partnership with suppliers in order for us to add value to our 300-plus clients,” says Paul Dykes, category director at Webmart. He adds that the firm’s print partners are continually benchmarked to ensure that the partnership is working. 

“Webmart look for suppliers who offer good quality print, responsive customer service, competitive sustainable pricing, reliability, innovation and who are financially sound,” continues Dykes. “We strive to ensure the network of printers, finishers, mailing houses and distributers we use are continually monitored and we request and collate feedback from clients and the account teams on the timeliness, quality, communication, suitability and whether they would recommend the supplier.”

In addition to those areas outlined above, there are a number of other factors that different print management companies might take into consideration when choosing print partners, such as: print optimisation, inventory reduction, environmental issues, security of supply, the ability to offer web to pint and print in the digital mix. 

It’s also increasingly likely that considerations will be made around vital factors such as: is the printer financially stable, do they have the production capabilities required to meet projected demand without sub-contracting work out to other vendors and do they meet minimum accreditation requirements? 

Some of these hurdles are more easily surmountable than others. However, the area that causes the most friction between printers and print managers – and the one issue that we’ve so far skirted around due to its sensitivity – is price. It’s a hurdle that is unsurmountable for some printer/print manager relationships and it won’t come as much of a surprise to hear that virtually every print manager approached to contribute to this article referred to ‘best price’ or ‘competitive pricing’. 

Key requirements

But although this reference to ‘best price’ might make many printers think back to the dark days of the mid-2000s, when print management companies were portrayed as the bad guys with the general perception being that they were continually looking to beat printers down on price, it genuinely feels that while today price clearly is still important to print managers, it is almost irrelevant unless other vital criteria can also be fulfilled.

“We look at the combination of the three values of quality, service and cost,” confirms Charterhouse’s Jackman (notice that cost comes third on that list). “Without any of these we cannot satisfy our clients’ requirements. Great cost, but late delivery, is not acceptable. Likewise rapid delivery, but at the expense of quality, is equally unacceptable. If any of these three are sub-standard then we cannot meet the high standards we aim to deliver for our clients.” 

That latter point is vitally important because the requirements of print managers should mirror – and more often than not do mirror – those of the clients they represent, according to InnerWorkings’ Massey. 

“Most corporate clients carefully select a print manager to source for them in a method that they feel is representative of the ethics, standards and general approach they themselves would adopt, including supplier relations,” he explains. 

Whether printers like it or not, print managers are a vital cog in the modern print supply market and it’s undeniable that they can offer some printers a consistent level of profitable income. But that’s not to say that signing up to the roster of a print manager is going to work for all printing businesses, as Massey explains. 

“In theory print managers offer printers a quick and easy route to larger volumes, however, as print managers fundamentally operate as sourcing agents, or aggregators, printers may find that this volume comes with a higher degree of scrutiny.”

Many printers may not welcome this degree of scrutiny and prefer to strike out on their own. For those businesses, print management stalwart Massey offers the following words of advice.

“Each market segment – direct supply versus print management – can demand different service models so printers would be wise to decide what percentage of their overall volume they would like from each segment and indeed whether they can afford to serve both segments and resulting supply chain models,” says Massey. 

“Over the years some printers have delivered a very healthy return by focusing on the needs of just one segment alone – either directly or indirectly. It can be difficult to build a service model that meets the needs of everyone without sufficient volume at the right price.”

The decision of whether or not to go down the print manager route ultimately boils down to whether or not it’s going to be right for an individual print business. 

It comes down to a straight choice between pouring resources into a sales team, who can service clients directly, or investing in technology interfaces and giving direct production access to print managers. For some printers the decision is a no-brainer, for others, it’s a step too far. 


A printer’s perspective on print management

Finding a printer who works for a print management company and is willing to openly speak about their experiences is an impossible feat. However, the managing director of one reputable UK printing firm who is a supplier to a print management company, agreed to talk on the grounds of complete anonymity. His verdict on the print management industry in the UK makes for interesting reading.

Although he concedes that some print managers do some things very well and acknowledges that print management companies have been very successful at “selling print to large corporates in a corporate way, which is something that the printers have never been able to do because they don’t know how to do it,” he feels that the vast majority of print management companies don’t add any value to print whatsoever. 

“They don’t employ good enough people with print knowledge,” he explains. “They’ve basically become email movers who rely on automation too much. To them print is a commodity and to a degree it is, but take a business card. It can have die-cutting, embossing, foiling, lamination. A business card is an important tool – a good one stands out – but to print managers the sole focus when it comes to printing business cards is simply price.” 

He adds that to make up for this shortfall in internal expertise many of the print managers grill printers for knowledge about how best to approach a particular job and then they offer the work around to 20-30 different “capacity priced” printers who are on their roster of suppliers.

“Someone who hasn’t got the work going through their presses will take the job on cheaply having taken that knowledge from people who have it, but they’re usually the sorts of printers who just put ink on paper. The biggest mistake a lot of these types of printers make is they see print management as a saviour for their business so they sack their sales team and do jobs cheaper, cheaper, cheaper, but this approach doesn’t work in the long term.” 

The managing director says that he knows of a few companies in his local area who went all-in with print managers and ended up going bust when the work dried up, which to some extent helped to address capacity issues in the industry and sorted out the wheat from the chaff.

“There was probably too much fat in the printing industry in the 1980s and it needed to be looked at, but where we’ve ended up is not great and print managers – in my opinion – have had an awful lot to do with that,” he says. “And having destroyed the UK market they’ve now started to go into Europe and America where they can still make a decent margin on print because everyone still buys in silos there. Print managers offer cheap, efficient and boring work and I honestly believe that print will kill itself faster than the internet ever could if we continue to go down this route.” 

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