Earlier this month, PrintWeek, in partnership with Konica Minolta, brought together six print unit heads from across the local government and education sectors to discuss the evolving roles of CRDs.
And while the discussion covered a wide range of topics, the common thread was that the challenges they face and the opportunities they embrace are not a million miles away from those presented to print SMEs up and down the land. Well, with the possible exception of needing to become a licensed drone aircraft pilot, of course.
Darryl Danielli Before I start, to set the scene, is CRD (central reprographics department) still the right term for what you all do – or is it a historic term?
Anthony Evans I think it still roughly describes what we do.
First proper question then, what does a modern CRD look like?
Simon Beasley I think for us it’s about the flexibility of our offerings, around trying to offer as much as we can based on what our customers want. So, it’s the entire production line, from design, wide-format, cut-sheet digital. We manage external print, MFDs, a scanning hub, we’re adding post to that, digital post. And my role is also changing so it’s around document management as well. So, it’s about trying to contain as much as you can, while also servicing the needs of our customers.
So, do you have to be much more agile than your commercial counterparts of a similar scale?
SB Without a doubt.
AE We have to be very diverse, I wouldn’t describe us as a Jack of all trades, because that’s not fair – we do know what we’re doing. We have to cover the full communications remit, and as well as that we have to be professional print buyers for our organisations.
Graham Lowe I think a lot of CRDs have, over the years, had to significantly diversify the services they offer. There are a couple of reasons for that. For example, one of the misconceptions around CRDs, certainly in local government, is how they’re funded. People think that there’s a slice of money given by the council [and that funds the CRD], that might be true in some cases, but the vast majority are standalone and run as a commercial entity that has to go out and find business. We all know how print has changed, driven by digitisation, which means a lot of CRDs have diversified into things – vehicle livery, interior graphics, a whole raft of things requiring different skillsets. So, to your earlier question, CRDs have changed well beyond their ‘reprographics’ remit, because they can and have to deliver a wider range of services to sustain their presence.
So, CRDs been forced to evolve because you’re now profit generators rather than cost centres and services are being added because the organisation demands it. How do you cope with that, constantly learning new skills?
Steve Thomas In the mid 1990s, Lancaster faced some challenges and anything that wasn’t core, stopped being funded and we became businesses – and a lot of us weren’t ‘business people’. I started out as a photographer in the press office, but we made a commercial success of the photography unit and that, eventually, was how I ended up running the print room, because that had never really had commercial success. So, the commercial director decided to put the photography and print units together. We’ve always been about being very agile and constantly reinventing ourselves, so now we’re very much seen as the people that you come to for solutions. One example is, weirdly, that I’ve just opened a traditional bindery because there was a need from the PhD students. We’re very diverse: we’ve got design, photography and print and that really works. If we were standalone print I think we would struggle. You have to be very flexible [in CRDs]. I mentioned to you earlier that we’re into things like commercial drone photography, you have to look for new opportunities all the time. Like I said, none of us probably started as business people, but if you’re not now and you don’t enjoy that side of things, you would probably struggle in a lot of universities nowadays.
It’s the way that inplants have to go, surely. You touched on it there, but how many of you came to CRDs from a print background?
Ian Wilcox I did, I came into CRDs 12 years ago. I’ve always had a commercial background and even run my own businesses, so the commercial aspect of CRDs is quite good for me.
So, just Ian. But what is the most important skillset you’ve had to develop then? Print or business and management?
GL They’re two completely different skillsets. I used to work for an architect company, and you would often find the best architect became the manager, but they often weren’t the best manager and I think that’s the same in any sector.
IW If you look at any print business, inplant or commercial, if you look at those that are running well then they are run by proper business managers, that understand how to run a profitable business – rather than just knowing how to sell a £10 note for £9, an all too common theme in the [commercial] industry unfortunately.
ST Busy fools.
IW There are still a lot of them around though.
But surely you guys are under the same commercial pressures? You might not have a bank manager breathing down your neck, but there will be someone in your organisations constantly looking at spreadsheets?
ST But what Ian just said, it adds a pressure. When you’re in-house, people don’t have to come to us – procurement, very kindly, have provided them with a framework that means that they can go to any printer, but that means that we have to compete against those busy fools that are selling £10 notes for £9. There have been certain printers that put work on the press just to get cash into the business, but there might not be any money in the job.
AE There will always be companies like that.
ST And I know they often don’t last.
But then how do you manage that, if you have to justify your existence on a job-by-job basis almost? How do you benchmark your units against the commercial sector?
IW We use people like APCOM (Association of Print & Communication Managers) and the ACPME (Association of Creative & Print Managers in Education), we talk, we communicate, and there are always emails going around asking things like ‘what’s everyone’s average cost for a black and white on an A4’.
ST And one of the anomalies for us as CRDs is that when somebody comes to us with a job in one sense it’s cost neutral for the university, because when they go outside they pay for it twice in effect, we still have leases to pay, salaries to pay, that carries on being paid. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t offer best value and offer a reasonable price – but if people look at the ‘big picture’ for the institution it’s better to produce things in-house.
GL But there’s often the perception that its better or cheaper externally.
IW I’m a great believer in the internet, but that’s the downside – people go online, see a price advertised and don’t take into account there’s VAT, delivery, artwork costs, or that the product is of low quality, or its been delivered from 300 miles away. We set up a system where most of our work is carbon neutral – which is a great advert for us internally. So, as well as running a successful business unit that generates a surplus, we’re also doing the best thing we can for the environment too. It’s like Steve said, printers taking work below cost just to keep the presses turning is a problem.
So how do you compete against commercial businesses? Is customer service becoming increasingly important?
IW Big time.
SB As Anthony mentioned, as well as business managers and print professionals, we’re also relationship managers and understanding our customers’ needs to ensure we’re offering the services that are right for them is critical. That comes from knowing our customers, and the customer base can be really wide and you have to understand each of those service areas.
ST You’re absolutely right Simon, and one of the things that we’ve done is twice a year we have an open day. I find that if you feed people cake, they come. [Laughter]. And showing them everything that we can do and getting them to talk about their challenges is invaluable. We also attend faculty meetings, just reinforcing the value that we can add.
Will Cooper We’re probably a slightly different model to everyone else in that we went through a review a few years ago and ‘the people spoke’ and said that they wanted an agency type model. So, we now have six or seven account managers and effectively they each have a college, a school, a section, and it’s their job to keep the relationships going, take the briefs, and build the businesses around our clients.
AE And they generate enough business to sustain their jobs?
WC Yes. Our previous model probably meant an awful lot was going out to external suppliers, and the idea was that by implementing this strategy it would bring back in the work that we were losing. And it’s working. It enables the account managers to go out and get involved with every single project within the university. The job is to attend the meetings and say, ‘have you thought about this?’, ‘have you considered that?’.
Is that quite unusual in the education and public sector, the account manager approach?
IW I’ve got two client liaison officers, who do all the selling and estimating and promoting the services we offer, and five business relationship managers within IT, we work within IT, and they work on our behalf. But I don’t think what we have is quite to the same level as Will, that’s quite unusual.
WC Three years ago it didn’t exist, but after the people spoke, we made it happen. It was a painful two-year process to get where we are, to create this new model...
It must have been a massive cultural shift.
WC It was and we’re still refining the model, but we’re getting there.
But I suppose the nature of the model is that you’re going to be constantly refining anyway, learning from customers, taking feedback?
WC Absolutely. We have a client services group that meets every three months and they feed back. They can say exactly what they want and we take it and learn from it.
IW I kind of like negative feedback. Positive feedback is great too, but we learn more from the negative feedback.
GL That’s really interesting, Will, because I’m now working in a commercial organisation and have a different angle and in a very short space of time I noticed that in the commercial sector there is much more emphasis on the kind of agency activity you’re talking about.
WC It’s put an awful lot of additional turnover onto us, which is profitable, and last year we had a record year – so the model does work. The challenge for us is keeping hold of good account managers as they tend to see us as a stepping stone, and we lose that knowledge and relationships when they leave.
GL Is there a risk that when they leave they take those clients with them?
WC No, we’ve a fair amount of control.
On the subject of talent management, that’s an industry-wide issue, how do you sell working in the print sector?
ST To be honest it’s not too much of an issue, because for us we’re seen as one of the best employers in the area. The perception is that Lancaster University is a great place to work, so people want a job in the uni primarily – but I guess the challenge for all university and local authority [CRDs] is that we sometimes struggle to pay people what they’re really worth [in the commercial world]. It’s easier to get investment in kit, to a degree, than people – I don’t know if everyone agrees?
But in terms of attracting people, it’s the strength of your organisations that attracts people rather than the industry sector?
IW There are other benefits, beyond simply salary –, the holidays for example, and the fact that you’re working for a large, respected organisation – ours employs 6,500 staff.
ST That’s very true.
IW We had a professor apply for a job as a print finisher.
ST We get PhD students applying for apprenticeships.
Okay, so attracting talent isn’t so much of issue then. You mentioned earlier about struggling to compete with commercial rivals for your own internal work, do you guys go out into the commercial sector and pitch for work?
GL That’s a yes and no, generally...
Let’s start with the yes, then...
ST If work comes your way, you’ll look at it and might take it...
But you don’t court it?
SB You don’t look for it. It sits in a bit of a grey area. It depends if the authority has a relationship with them, then generally you can tap into that and sell your services to them, but if they’re just Joe Bloggs, that’s different.
IW It’s a little different for us in the university sector as our students are technically external clients. Perhaps a PhD student will leave and get a job and then when they want to place some work remember us and give us a call. That’s where we have got a lot of external work from. But in terms of going out and proactively winning contracts, we would only do that for like-minded organisations – like local councils, or NHS Trusts, colleges and schools.
AE There is a pressure on some units nowadays to generate income from commercial sales. So, some are competing with the private sector, and that’s very difficult to manage. Obviously, the elected members might want them to raise money [as a CRD] and sell their services to bolster funding in other areas of the local authority. But the other side is that commercial businesses then complain to the elected members because they’re paying Council Tax, business rates, etc, and they feel that the CRD is competing with them on an unfair footing. But as Graham said earlier, it’s very often not unfair as the print centres have a P&L, manage their own budget and have to generate enough income to support themselves. What you’re looking at nowadays is full cost recovery.
GL You have to remember that councils are political animals by their nature. I’ll give you a case in point, one of its primary roles as a local authority is to help grow and support local businesses. So, if you set up a business within the council that competes with those local businesses, then you have a problem. Some do sanction it and positively encourage it, for others it’s an absolute no-no, they can only get commercial work in the public sector, charities, schools, universities, etc. The other reason its poo-poo’d by some local authorities is potential bad debt.
Playing devil’s advocate, commercial printers in the area might say that charity, or that school or college used to be their client…
AE But the flip side to that is that print units place a lot of work amongst the local commercial printers anyway.
Is it the same in the university sector?
WC I’m actively encouraged to get external work in, because it isn’t ‘wooden’ dollars, its new money into the system. So, we have deals with the BBC, who are on campus, and other organisations. We’re even in the unusual position that we do trade work for other commercial printers. We’ll work with anyone and do anything; my university is very encouraging.
To be fair though, presumably the complaints always centred on CRDs not competing on a level playing field because you were subsidised operations in the past. Whereas now, to make an investment or expand the department, you’ve actually got to base that on profits or payback?
IW It really does depend on the organisation, though...
ST It does.
IW The University of Southampton has had a print service since 1969 and it has always been cost recovery. Getting back to your point about selling your services externally, I think we’re actually at a disadvantage, because, as a university, we don’t have the benefit of being able to claim the VAT back.
WC Does your institution as a whole not claim some of it back?
ST They get some back.
IW It’s a partial recovery.
WC But it doesn’t come back to you. It’s the same with us and that can be a problem. A percentage comes back to the institution, but not us directly.
IW So, it doesn’t show on our bottom line. So sometimes that can make you less competitive, so if you do win work commercially you’re at a slight disadvantage.
GL I think it’s fair to say that there are still some local government print units that are still funded and aren’t profit centres, they’re a support function and not charged for. In fact, Anthony, I think there are one or two that have converted back from a profit centre to being resource?
AE Yes. I think they see the administration and all the internal recharge, wooden dollars as you say, as a negative and just top slice everyone’s budget, take that print budget away [from departments] centralise it, and then fund the service with that.
SB We run a mixed service, for example we’ve just bolted on scanning to what used to be our print service, but is now called Digital Solutions. But that scanning service is FOC [to internal customers].
GL When I was running Staffordshire’s CRD there were around 9,000 internal orders a year, that’s a lot of administration resource to just move money around the council in effect, so the profit centre model is still king, but that’s why benchmarking was always very difficult because I didn’t want to benchmark against Anthony in Swansea, say, I wanted to benchmark against the external guys – because benchmarking against other councils, which might have different or hybrid models, was very difficult.
How important is the commercial sector to you, though?
IW It’s incredibly important, because they can bridge the gaps we can’t fill.
GE From an innovation standpoint, it’s very important too.
WC We work very closely with our external suppliers and they’re incredibly important to what we do and they’re key partners. We also give them an awful lot of money.
AE I think that’s an important point. We’re sometimes perceived as competing with commercial printers, but in truth if they’re any good we’re probably working with them and we’re giving them a lot more work than we’re [perceived to be] taking.
One of the things I wanted to ask, although we have already touched on it, was the way that print is perceived within your organisations – who are your champions or advocates within the organisations, or is it just you guys? [Laughter].
IW There are some.
AE There are, but only where there are no alternatives to print. Events or culture and tourism will look at options on web or email rather than print, but there are things that have to be printed: ballot papers, electoral registration forms, invoices and statements. So, they’re perhaps not champions, but certainly support the print unit.
GL What’s been around for the past three or four years is ‘digital by default’ in a lot of local authorities, where the perception is that digital communication is better, faster, cheaper than printing. There are a lot of transformation teams in local authorities, a former colleague was told once that ‘print is the devil’s work’ and he needed to reduce what he printed, so we need to counterbalance that with new ways of working, making print work smarter.
SB It has to be about print and digital working in partnership, print will always have its place, they’re complementary.
GL And we need to get that message through to the decision-makers in local authorities, that’s key.
AE There’s no doubt print isn’t the primary communication route any more for a lot of organisations, electronic delivery is, but there is still value in print – but the digital by default argument is being driven to save money in most cases, but the ROI you get on direct mail, say, can’t be overlooked.
WT We’re actually seeing a bit of pushback on that at the minute. There’s so much noise in the digital space that people are coming to talk to us asking how they can get away from that noise. Some people are now looking at coming back to print for things that have been lost to digital for the past few years. And they’re seeing tailored, targeted print, integrated with data, as a way to cut through all that digital noise.
Are you guys seen as the communications experts within your organisations even if people want to talk about digital?
WT You’re assuming that there’s any joined-up thinking. [Laughter]. Fatal error. We’re very large organisations, so we face the same challenges as any organisations of our size.
GL I would have thought GDPR would have been a catalyst for that, definitely. Certainly in local authorities.
AE I think local authorities handle data very well already. So, we haven’t seen any pushback for that.
ST What we do as part of our business planning every year is we really study the university’s strategy for the year ahead, it could be increasing student numbers, going up the rankings, whatever they are we then use those to shape our department’s strategy by looking at what we can do as an inplant unit to make us relevant to the organisation’s top level strategy and help it achieve its goals.
But following on from what Will said about adopting the agency model, if you look at commercial printers that have developed the agency model, they almost have to be agnostic and sell across all channels, it’s about joined up customer communications, omni-channel marketing.
ST I get that and I think there are some universities where that does work. Because marketing, the printroom, design is all part of the same bubble – so it’s more joined up.
IW We work really closely with marketing and we know where they’re going and their plans, and what their planning print-wise in conjunction with digital, social media, apps, etc, because they know, like we do that people suffer from ‘digital blindness’ and what they’re after is integrated marketing. Because without print they know that they risk their messaging losing its voice.
AE But all it takes is someone in the organisation’s senior management team to have a digital bias, and then cutting print becomes the conversation.
But can’t you throw all the research at them that proves print’s effectiveness, and how it enhances digital cut-through?
WC Like Ian said, for us it’s about establishing a relationship with marketing. It’s our account managers that broker those conversations because the marketers are a very diverse group and are spread throughout the organisation.
And ultimately you have the same goal as them, because you want their marketing to be as effective as possible?
WC Absolutely. We just try to broker joined up thinking.
IW For me, it’s like we’ve all been saying it’s about relationships and ensuring your service is essential to your organisation. When I started 12 years ago we had a couple of GTOs and some photocopiers. Now we’re heavily into signage, vehicle wrapping, direct mail, t-shirts, mugs – anything that can be printed we can either produce or source. From essentially being seen as someone that prints the organisation’s letterheads or duplicates things, we’re now seen as a solutions provider, a marketing service that saves and generates the organisation money. Because if we’re not seen as that, if we’re not seen as being on the ball, then we have a problem.
GL And a lot of that revolves around partnerships, relationships.
WC The challenge for all of us is to be constantly agile, whatever comes up we have to be very quick on to it, to figure out how to do it, or know the right people to talk to. We have to flex constantly.
IW It’s about being fit for purpose. We’re all diverse organisations, and we have to tick a lot of boxes for them and provide good value for money. That’s one of the things that gets me out of bed in the morning, changing the perception of our unit within the organisation, so people know it’s special and does great things.
Being fit for purpose is almost offensive then, because that’s just the basic requirement?
AE It’s like we said earlier, it’s about being solutions experts. It’s not all about print, it’s about coming up with a solution to your organisation’s challenges.
WC And quickly, before they outsource to someone else. [Laughter].
But if you have the relationships, at least you get a drop on things?
WC Exactly, then you have a chance.
AE But things can slip by, if you’re not in the loop.
What drives innovation? Is it necessity, technology?
IW A bit of everything.
GL We constantly tried to generate new ideas, to give added value to what we do, new products, new services, new ways of doing things. But that comes from us, internally. With input from our suppliers.
AE I think there has always been innovation within print units, but it’s been largely driven by, in recent years, austerity. The fact that you have to change, you have to look at new ways of working to be competitive, or making savings for the organisation – austerity has been a big driver for that.
Aren’t you bullet proof, though, if you’re a profit centre, that actually makes the organisation money?
AE No. [Laughter]. It’s exactly the same as in the private sector, you can always be challenged to make more money, or have lower costs.
You’ve mentioned the breadth of services you all offer nowadays, what has been driving diversification?
GL What we’ve seen in the public sector in the past five years or so, is this shift to what is called ‘commissioning authorities’ where many services that were in-house, are not in-house anymore. That’s had lots of impacts, and that eventually brought down the Staffordshire in-house print unit. Can you see that commissioning model approach eventually being reflected in the education sector?
ST It is like that in some universities. It depends on where you sit in the organisation. Our unit sits within Commercial Services, with conferences, pre-school, all the bars and food outlets on campus, etc. We have monthly board meetings, run through our figures, say what’s good, what’s bad, what our upcoming challenges or opportunities are and that goes all the way up to our financial director. There are significant advantages in that model, because I have a lot of flexibility and do what I need to do to achieve our targets.
AE I think what Graham’s alluding to is where are a lot of departments/services are commissioned out, which means that the print unit loses a ‘customer’ as that service is now provided by an outside organisation. In Graham’s service in Staffordshire, essentially over three years the rug was pulled out from under it as so many of the print unit’s customer base disappeared.
ST I think we all face challenges though, they’re just different. For example, if we wanted to do what Will has done and create six new roles, that’s not easy.
But haven’t you now got the perfect case study? Have a chat with Will and say look guys, this is what it could do for us. [Laughter].
WC To be fair we took a bit of punt on it, we thought it would work, but like anything there was a little bit of a gamble.
But it’s like anything surely, once someone has proven the model, it’s an easier sell, to get the investment, provided you have the ear of the right people in the organisation?
AE You’re right, and that’s where organisations like APCOM, ACPME, and the BPIF in the commercial sector, and this event today, give you the chance to network and find out about these things. But it can still be difficult to get that support.
ST I think there’s perhaps a difference, Anthony, with universities and austerity and all the cutbacks in local authorities. We’re a little bit different, higher education is almost a growth industry.
AE Of course.
ST I think in either sector, provided you know what you’re doing and you run a tight ship, you’re probably alright. But if you have that old-fashioned, jobsworth mentality of ‘I do this, but I don’t do that’, then you won’t be there very long. We’re small agile teams – I go out and do deliveries, I’ll get on a press if I’m needed – we all have to do whatever needs doing.
WC You definitely need to print that, Darryl, my boss thinks I’m the only person that does that. [Laughter].
IW Getting back to what Graham said about outsourcing though, I think that’s coming back around – a lot of organisations have tried it and it didn’t work and now the tide’s coming back.
GL That’s good to hear, but it’s already happened at a lot of local councils and once it’s gone, it’s gone – it does happen, but it’s rare for a CRD to come back.
But I guess you all outsource some of your work anyway, because not all jobs suit your machinery?
IW Of course.
So, if you can go out to the market and get it done cheaper and better for certain products, why wouldn’t you?
ST And sometimes the time of the year has an impact; if we’re flat out we outsource more, but if we’re quiet then sometimes we’ll do work that we might usually outsource, even if the margin is lower, because it at least keeps money in the university.
AE And one of the challenges for authorities that don’t have CRDs is print buying – who’s ordering the print, where’s the expertise? We do a lot of buying for the authority, but there are those [authorities] that don’t even have print buyers and I think that over the long term that costs them a lot of money.
But isn’t that a big opportunity for you all, the decline of professional print buyers, the same as it is for commercial printers?
ST It’s an opportunity, definitely.
IW We offer training too, because we’ve got Winchester School of Art [in the university] and once a quarter a graphic design cohort come in and we get them to send us a little 8pp A5. We don’t give them any instructions and when they come in we go though it with them and show them how to prepare it for pre-press and then show them how we print it. It’s brilliant, they have so many questions – it gives them valuable print experience.
AE That’s the biggest advantage of being in-house, it’s the partnerships you can create – that adds value to any organisation. As we mentioned before, the challenge is when there’s a change of personnel, because you have to start all over again.
But then perhaps having to constantly prove yourselves is not a bad thing, because it helps drive innovation and diversification?
AE That is true, but it can take you away from the day job.
How do you measure success within the organisations though, is it purely on the bottom line?
WC Well, and no mad noise, complaints, that sort of thing.
GL It’s probably worth clearing something up regarding profits. I’m often asked [by commercial printers] what happens to the profits. If we make a profit...
ST Surplus is the better word.
GL True. Well the surpluses get ploughed into the central organisation, it’s not held by the CRD for investment in kit or anything.
It’s ammunition though, when you want support for an investment, or your value is being questioned?
GL Of course.
WC But come the start of the new financial year, you start back at zero, you can’t depreciate against any investment, you can’t carry a surplus over.
AE It’s all about what happens in that financial year, which can make it difficult to develop a long-term strategy.
On that then, let’s finish on a high, what are the key opportunities for CRDs?
AE It’s got to be moving into digital platforms more, developing an even greater understanding of cross-media, AR, and the extra value they can bring our organisations.
SB For us, and we’re going though it now, it’s around document management and breaking down some of the silos within the organisation.
WC Our university is expanding its property portfolio massively, and [while that’s being redeveloped] with that comes hoardings, building wraps so we’re looking at moving in that [super-wide-format] direction and signage.
And Steve you’ve already mentioned drone photography, is there anything you don’t do already? [Laughter].
AE He doesn’t deliver by drone yet.
ST [Laughs] We already do our own graduation photography and we installed a minilab. I think we’ll look at installing kiosks around campus maybe. The hand bindery too, it’s going really well, especially in terms of the extra print it generates and, yes, expanding the drone photography work.
GL I think services shared between local authorities is an opportunity for some units, especially as councils’ traditional volumes are shrinking.
IW: For us it’s about marketing materials, we just got a direct-to-garment printer – and that has been driven by demand. Mailing is something we’re watching too, as I think there are opportunities there. I think like everyone here today though, we’re in a constant churn of innovation, business planning, flexing – so if you asked me next week, it would probably be a different answer.
Which seems the perfect place to finish.
Simon Beasley digital solutions manager Wokingham Borough Council
Will Cooper print manager University of Birmingham
Anthony Evans president APCOM (and DesignPrint manager, Swansea Council)
Graham Lowe executive APCOM (and print project manager, Synergy Print Management)
Steve Thomas Design, Print & Photography Unit manager Lancaster University
Ian Wilcox Design & Printing Services manager University of Southampton