Iain Clasper-Cotte took the urgent call at 5.30pm. And less than 24 hours later his relieved client took delivery of the job: high-definition tension fabrics for 30 shops. This was just one of eight urgent orders in a single day last week from major clients of Northern Flags.
A few weeks ago managing director Clasper-Cotte couldn’t have taken on, let alone delivered, any one of them on such a fast turnaround. What changed was the move just before Christmas. That relocation of his wide-format business was just four miles away, but the effects were far reaching.
It could have been so different. While relocating your print business may give you more space, a better location and a host of other benefits, no amount of planning can prepare you for the random surprises and logistical curve balls that can threaten even the most organised of site moves.
Northern Flags is a leading fabric printer, rolling off banners, exhibition print and display boards from its base in Leeds. Six years ago boss Sandy Goodall retired and Dutch multinational FaberExposize took control of the firm with Clasper-Cotte investing heavily in the firm.
“When I joined we changed the business model. We do flags – they still pay a large part of our mortgages – but the market for soft signage was exploding. Fabric is the hardest material to print on but we were ideally placed to expand into retail, venue overlays and automotive arenas.”
Smart move – business prospered. But with it came the growing pains: Northern Flags, which was largely a UK sales office for Europe and the Far East with warehouse facilities and limited print capabilities for small runs and urgent last-minute jobs, needed to step up to full production.
“It was these jobs – short deadlines, high-quality, quick turnaround – that became more prevalent. We started with two and ended up shoehorning in four wide-format machines as part of an unplanned expansion. Not even the creation of a mezzanine could contain the machines.”
Clasper-Cotte had to move, but location of the new premises was as vital as size. The existing base in south Leeds had excellent access to the M1 and M62 motorways, and was good for his production and finishing staff, most of whom used public transport or walked to work.
“We wanted to keep our people, while the motorways are ideal for rapid access,” he deadpans, having spent the prior morning logjammed on the M1. “We needed bigger, faster kit and more finishing space. In three years, staffing had tripled to well over 20 and it was essential we move.”
But finding the right premises was hard. It had to be big enough for the kit and close enough for staff. And it had to be impressive for clients including major brands, big-name agencies and print managers – somehow the existing base in an industrial unit didn’t quite set the right tone.
“We wanted to give clients a better experience. We needed a climatically controlled production suite, a larger pick-and-pack area, better staff facilities, a showroom and break-out areas. But this part of Leeds is one of the UK’s most prosperous areas: property is scarce and bloody expensive.”
Despite the dearth of suitable property, Clasper-Cotte struck lucky with a 5,000m² office in the Millshaw part of Leeds: “Relocating is a balancing act between aspirations on how you’d like the business to grow verses the need not to overreach yourself with crippling overheads. Print is littered with examples of people who have got too optimistic and taken on unsuitable premises.”
The new rented base was three or four times bigger than the old property, which Northern Flags – in another stroke of luck – sold quickly to a supplier. All that extra space was important, as Clasper-Cotte wanted to swap two 2.5m-wide Dgen inline fixation dye-sub printers bought two years ago.
“We would normally expect to write off machines over four years, and we only had the Dgens for half that time. But needs must: we wanted 3.2m-wide machines that were faster and better. We went with Agfa; a likeminded outfit that gets really excited about equipment and is no mere box-shifter.”
Northern Flags chose a new Avinci DX3200 dye-sublimation printer and a hybrid Anapurna. When it comes to print kit, “our company looks aggressively, and is not an easy customer” homing in on print quality, flexibility of inks and quality of service and back-up.
The move took place just before Christmas and, with the new equipment, totalled about £1m. One of the hardest challenges was synchronising the shifting of kit to minimise downtime and avoid relocation overlap – no one wants to pay rent on two buildings when one is empty.
“Fortunately both our new landlord and the supplier who bought our old building were very flexible. Our energy company however was inept, trying to get us to buy a £100,000 substation when local capacity was plentiful. The broadband supplier meanwhile took months to lay a pipe.”
First to move were the sales and commercial staff. Half the production team then profiled the new Agfa machines in the new base. Only when they were up and running did the rest of the team move the old machines, including an HP Latex and finishing gear, across to Millshaw.
“The move went well and we had a good team. But it meant taking a fairly negative viewpoint and anticipating everything that could go wrong. I would like to say the smooth move was all down to amazing managerial talent, but there was an element of luck and of everything falling into place.”
Clasper-Cotte is still directing a large proportion of business through FaberExposize, but Northern Flags is doing far more retail and exhibition work as well as print on hard substrates. He hopes to double, even treble turnover in two to three years and is looking to recruit four new staff.
As well as more staff he needs new kit and has just ordered two more Agfa machines. The new roll-to-roll Anapurna will run alongside the existing hybrid Anapurna and another Avinci dye-sublimation printer. This will take the total investment closer to the £1.5m mark.
“In just three months at our new base we are having a major reorganisation in our print facility. We like the Avinci because the ink offers good penetration – vital with flags needing strong colour front and back, as well as displays and light boxes. The Anapurna offers great density using less ink.”
At the time of the move Clasper-Cotte was looking to appoint a new production manager and in an ideal world he would have recruited one before – instead of after – the move. It’s amazing, he adds, how much relocation can take you away from your primary focus.
“I probably spent 70% less time in front of customers than I normally would, and that can have an impact. Though I didn’t have a production manager at the time I did have an excellent general manager, Claire Taylforth. Even the banks, who were expecting a post-move decline in business, were astonished when they saw business was growing.
“Retail work is invariably to very short deadlines, so doing it in the UK gives us much more agility when it comes to running test prints and then moving into full production without losing 24 hours with couriers. It meant when those eight customers phoned up last week with last-minute orders, we could deliver even for something as complex and demanding as the tension fabrics.”
Northern Flags, FaberExposize UK
Location Leeds, West Yorkshire
Inspection host Iain Clasper-Cotte
Size Turnover: Undisclosed; Staff: 25
Products Large-format flags, POS material, display boards, vinyl, signage, stickers, branded interiors and printwork for some of the world’s biggest-name brands and events such as the FA Cup and Olympic Games.
Kit Agfa equipment including an Avinci DX3200 dye-sublimation printer and Anapurna hybrid printer, HP Latex machine, Zünd G3 cutter and a Monti Antonio 901 calender heat-transfer press
Inspection focus Implementing a site move
Location, location, location Make sure you consider staff needs - not just freight and client access - when choosing where to relocate your print business.
Be open to compromise Choosing a new base involves balancing aspirations with reality - print is “littered” with examples of firms that overreached themselves with overheads.
Choose the right suppliers Make sure your equipment suppliers have a likeminded go-getting attitude and are not “mere box shifters”.
Synchronise the move No one wants downtime on their kit or paying rent on an empty building, so time your more and kit relocation to minimise risk of both.
Watch out for utilities Northern Flags had bad experiences with its energy and broadband suppliers, so do background work and have contingency plans in place.
Plan for disruption Cover all your bases on what could possibly go wrong, and expect disruption to work practices: Clasper-Cotte had to spend less time with customers for a period.