Jason Short jetted off to Barcelona last week. For a man who went a long way, he’s come a long way. The managing director of Qualvis Print & Packaging was in the cosmopolitan capital of Catalonia for a three-day user-group meeting at Xerox.
The weather in Spain was sunny and despite overcast skies in the East Midlands, things are bright for Short’s business in Leicester. It could have been very different when he took charge of what was a loss-making company seven years ago.
Qualvis Print & Packaging in those days was not in such a sunny place. What it needed was a transformative five-year business plan, but this wasn’t to be just a plan. It was a manifesto for change.
Short took over the company from his father David in 2010. And what he took on was a print business that was stumbling along with old printing and finishing kit, primarily serving the food and drink sector. After his father retired a year later Short faced a dilemma: should I stay or should I go?
“The company needed both fresh impetus and fresh ideas,” recalls Short, who at the time was vice-chair (he is now chairman) of the BPIF cartons division. “I could see digital print hitting supermarket shelves in a very big way, meanwhile the smaller boys in the food sector were being squeezed out, suggesting we had to diversify.
“My BPIF position helped open doors on how other businesses were organised – I visited competitors and they visited me to see what was wrong and what was right. I could see the results of investments they had made into equipment, workflow processes and staff. I knew we had to make changes, but didn’t fully realise how many. It soon became apparent.”
Further impetus came from a business degree course he signed up for at Cranfield University where he was tasked to do a SWOT analysis of his company, forcing Short to go into painful detail on his company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
What he thought would take a couple of days took two weeks and left him with a cold realisation: “I had very limited time left if I wanted to keep the business going. At college we learned about the ‘red ocean, blue-ocean’ business philosophy: we had to get out of the red ocean infested with sharks and into the safer commercial waters of the blue ocean.”
Before penning and then implementing a five-year plan including a vision for the business, mission statement, company objectives, strategies and yearly sales goals, Short needed an accounting brain to put financial flesh on all those objectives. Ann-Marie Cameron joined a year after Short to help him hone budgets, production figures and forecasting.
This was the first of several big personnel changes at Qualvis, which at the time was overstaffed with just under 100 employees. One of the most painful jobs for Short was making job cuts while at the same time bringing in new people with more relevant skills. Some staff left, some retired, but some had to be made redundant.
“I believe,” he explains, “a company is bigger than any one individual, including myself, and this strengthened my resolve to make the business work.” From this a five-year plan emerged in 2011 laying out investment plans, re-equipment requirements, staff needs and new markets to target.
“The plan crystallized the need to stand out from the crowd, create other revenue streams, invest heavily, and do it all quickly. This is when digital came into sharp focus and I went to HP in Spain and Xerox in the US. The culmination was the first twin digital press installation for carton production in the UK and the first for Xerox in the world.”
Those two Xerox iGens, a 4 and a 5, went in last December after an 18-month period of what Short calls number crunching and winning over shareholders and his board. The latter – as part of the plan – was enlarged with the promotion of Cameron to finance director and Richard Pacey to creative director. It was, he says, a “slow burner”.
“It took time to convince people that digital printing would be part of the future, not perhaps in two to five years’ time but definitely in five to 10 years. Supermarkets want to reduce print runs and stock holding, increase the number of SKUs on their shelves and blitz waste and landfill.
“This doesn’t bode well for litho, geared for big print runs and stock holding. There’s still a big place for litho but by going big on digital sooner than others we could jump forward and make a more powerful name for ourselves.”
Short also needed allies beyond the boardroom. Qualvis had been using accounting giant KPMG for several years but for the five-year plan Short wanted something more local and print focused. Mazars, based in Leicester, won the tender process, has several printer clients, is well known on the Midlands seminar circuit and has proved quick and highly responsive, says Short, who also valued a “fresh pair of eyes”.
And everything at Qualvis is fresh: the only things the five-year plan didn’t change were its name and logo. Everything else came or went. Out went old furniture, computers, even telephones; in came a new look, new technology and new markets. The company now serves not only food but confectionery, cosmetics, multimedia, DIY and household, and horticulture markets.
Qualvis, which wanted its plan to add £5m to company turnover and wipe out its losses, has done almost that. Turnover went from £8m to nearly £13m while the £500,000 loss has been transformed into a “very healthy profit”.
A dedicated room houses the two iGens, both with Tresu double coaters, and feeding a Kama DC76 platen. The kit was supplied by and installation overseen by Phil Tucker of Advanced UK. One job rolling off the iGen 5 included 50 personalised packs of Border Biscuits’ Dark Chocolate Ginger cookies for Ed Sheeran with the packaging matching the pop singer’s hair colour.
In another room litho kit trundles away: a year before the Xerox investment, Short oversaw a £2.7m spend on a seven-colour KBA Rapida 106 to complement an existing Heidelberg Speedmaster CD 102, for use in high-end packaging work. The press has bumped up enough capacity to enable the company to add up to 25% growth in two of those new markets, confectionery and cosmetics.
Although digital is stealing the litho thunder in some markets, the Xerox investment led to more litho work with clients keen to maximise the benefits of both technologies.
“In a year’s time I would like to have settled down with the digital side of our business; the market is like a growing, unruly teenager that needs a bit of taming. But with careful control it will mature into something very promising and powerful.”
In late April, Qualvis Print & Packaging won Company of the Year at the Leicester Mercury Business Awards. Meanwhile, in the shadow of Barcelona’s fantastical Sagrada Família church Short weighs up the cost of embarking on such an ambitious project as a five-year plan.
“It takes over your life and there are big personal costs. But it’s one of the most exciting things I have ever done, and with production, wastage, turnover and profit figures all moving in the right direction, it’s proof we too are moving in the right direction.”
Qualvis Print & Packaging
Location Thurmaston, Leicester
Inspection host Chairman, Jason Short
Size Turnover: £12.7m; staff: 111
Products Packaging such as cartons for the food, cosmetics, multimedia, DIY and household, and horticulture markets.
Kit Xerox iGen 4 and iGen 5 digital presses, seven-colour KBA Rapida 106, Heidelberg Speedmaster CD 102, Heidelberg Suprasetter CTP system, two inline Tresu Pinta coating units, Kama DC 76 cut-and-crease line, EFI MIS
Inspection focus Planning and implementing a five-year plan
Identify a vision Define where you want your business to be in five years’ time, outlining areas such as company structure, sales goals, alliances with suppliers and office locations.
Write a mission statement Explain the reason for the new direction, how you aim to reach your business destination and how it meets a need currently unfulfilled, advises Short.
Seek outside advice A specialist can offer a more objective “fresh pair of eyes”, says Short, not necessarily a big name but one with experience and good local knowledge.
Define company objectives Short insists this is not just markets, turnover and profits, but expectations on staff, management and new technology.
Set - and continually measure – goals Companies need specific benchmarks for each of the five years.