Graham Hunstone is spreading his wings again. The England-based Scot recently opened a regional sales hub nearly 300 miles from his print company headquarters in Lincoln.
Setting up a sales office can be a smart and logical move for a company with the cashflow and back-up systems to support a new, personalised local branch office. But it can be overwhelming, says Hunstone.
The energy, the expense, and the pressing need to attract local sales talent can grind you down personally and professionally. Is it really necessary and will you be able to deliver the same levels of service quality? These issues played on the mind of Hunstone when he looked to expand beyond his East Midlands base earlier this year.
Hunstone’s business horizons started to expand three years ago when his company, Visual Print & Design, acquired Go Digital, a print and finishing firm just over 50 miles from Lincoln. Go Digital in Derby, nearly 30 years old, had ticked over on £105,000 turnover annually for several years. Within a year he added 70%, while a year later the reinvigorated firm had hit the £200,000 sales threshold.
“We rebranded the company and transferred all customers to Lincoln. This was a good exercise in learning how our brand would fare outside its home territory, so for me Derby marked the dipping of a toe in the water to see if another location would work for us.
“I’m from Scotland and always wanted to open an office up there. And I reckoned the brand would work well.”
He was also fortunate to be in good company. Friend Lorraine Noble-Thompson is based in Scotland, has been in print for around 30 years and is a whiz in areas such as marketing and mailings. Both of them saw the potential of such a move – the pair have witnessed other businesses that have “gone by the wayside” up north because customers were not getting what they wanted. Hunstone, meanwhile, was keen to expand his brand and a particular kind of service.
“Many people want to drop into a printer and use it as a one-stop shop. They want a range of different printed materials without having to go to a range of different printers. We wanted to target schools and colleges, councils and marketing companies, all of which have varying print demands. I knew this was going against the grain and could be a big risk at a time of economic uncertainty.
“Not only are businesses across all sectors consolidating into single premises. But who wants to open a bricks-and-mortar sales office in this internet age? Everything however comes with risks: I’ve taken a few and many have paid off. But some haven’t and you have to suck them up, learn from the experience and use it to strengthen your brand. If you don’t take risks, you won’t grow.”
And Hunstone’s business has grown. He started Visual Print & Design solo as a print management business nine years ago with £250 in his pocket. The venture snapped up a few digital and large-format machines a few years later to broaden its service and within just over five years had gone from zero to £750,000 turnover. The company currently has 10 staff and a turnover of £1m.
Hunstone and Noble-Thompson spent six months firming up marketing and business plans, looking at target markets, evaluating competition, considering the brand, and focusing on differentiation and competition in terms of price, product, or service. They also had to think of budgets, and both have put up significant amounts of cash to make Visual Print & Design Scotland take off.
“We are investing in the region of £100,000 and I reckon we will probably go over it a bit. But we will recover it once we start utilising the new office.” That new office is currently under construction and will cost £70,000 of that total. The 140m² over two floors is due to open in late October just outside Glasgow, targeting the surrounding area and pushing towards Edinburgh.
In the meantime Hunstone and Noble-Thompson have been emailing and Skyping each other on a daily basis while the former is travelling “up and down to Scotland, touching base” regularly. The latter meanwhile is tapping up the many contacts she has amassed over 30 years in print, marketing and mailings north of the border, many of whom work for charities and automotive businesses.
Down in Lincoln, Hunstone’s team have 2,500 customers on the database, while 200 past clients are up in Scotland. Hunstone and Noble-Thompson are trying to “regenerate” these clients and drum up new business by offering an even better service closely allied with the Derby setup by using its invoicing, digital print and MIS technologies as well as tried and tested litho suppliers.
Although the Scottish operation will not produce print on-site, Hunstone says his new service can still offer a same- or next-day service. Anything from leaflets, business cards, labels, brochures, posters and larger vinyl banners can be printed on Xerox digital printers in Lincoln and couriered up to Scotland. Litho work in Derby has always been outsourced.
“Our processes in the Midlands, combined with Lorraine’s expertise, means we have a unique offering. Lorraine knows a lot about mailings, so orders for 50,000 to 100,000 mailings for a university or council work really well because they are cheaper for us to do than the customer. Meanwhile we can manage the entire process, having fine tuned all our production over nine years.”
The office for Visual Print & Design Scotland has yet to open, but the brand launched on 1 April and is on target to make £200,000 to £250,000 turnover in its first year. “Lorraine”, he says, “has done really well. I wasn’t expecting many sales in the first month or two, but business has grown every month and we are going in the right direction.”
That direction has been mapped out in a five-year plan for the Scotland office, which – all going to plan– should end in 2023 with a turnover of £1m, a couple of digital print machines, and several staff. Hunstone is looking to recruit two or three more sales people within the next six months, and will rely on his three or four loyal litho print suppliers down south to help us “smash it that way”.
Scotland is hotbed of talent, he says: “One of the great advantages of setting up north of the border is the talent on our doorstep. In contrast, Lincoln is a small close-knit community and finding talent sometimes means bringing it in to the area and training the people up. My business is my team and my guys drive me. Having a talent pool to draw from is crucial to our growth, and Scotland has it.”
The office, when it opens in late October, will have a display area showing off Visual Print & Design Scotland’s promotional items and make an “interesting, comfortable space for people to come in and have a chat”. That said, and despite putting his faith in good-old bricks and mortar, he is all too aware how the internet has changed work practices for ever – and how it can be utilised.
“We want and need more interaction with our customers, many of whom don’t have time to interrupt meetings to chat for an hour with print sales people. But we can drop in on them through different channels such as social media, newsletters or varying types of marketing.”
Hunstone has not finished dropping in on customers – or potential takeover targets: “We bought out the Derby company and growth has been phenomenal. We have our eyes peeled for these kind of openings - companies happy to tick along on £100,000 turnovers, not looking to grow or market themselves, of which there are many. My method is different; I’m quite aggressive on growing business. I want to take on more companies and use them to set up regional sales hubs.”
Visual Print & Design
Inspection host Managing director Graham Hunstone
Size Turnover: £1m; Staff: 10
Products Leaflets, business cards, labels, foiled brochures, posters, vinyl banners and large presentation displays as well as promotional print for umbrellas, bags and phone chargers
Kit Xerox Versant 180, Xerox Color 770, Mutoh ValueJet 1324X, Morgana bookletmaker, guillotine and laminator
Inspection focus Setting up a regional sales hub
Get advice from a print professional based in the new location who can help you analyse the options and potential for setting up a regional sales hub
Avoid business interruption as you set up and maintain the sales office: you can’t be in two places at once, so delegate and communicate effectively
Write a business plan and know your new regional market so you can work out the sector in the new area, the demand, the suppliers and your competitors
Think ahead – you’ll need enough cash to make your business work, while your premises needs will probably change if business takes off