Gently does it,” says Dean Latchford – a good adage when the company you work for thinks of consolidating different strands of business by merging into one identity.
The sales and marketing executive at Last Bros (Allprint) was brought into the label and tabbing specialist as part of its drive to merge the two aspects of the business into one.
“You need to be a little careful,” he explains. “The motivation that drives mergers can be complex and occasionally flawed. Merging parts of a company can be driven for the wrong reasons. Staff differences, for example, can be underestimated or even ignored. It’s a mistake to assume some of the issues are easily overcome and businesses that fail to recognise this may end up regretting it.”
There can be other causes for regret: bad management of risk, strategy, cultures, or depth of leadership. This is why businesses like Last Bros (Allprint) have to work through everything, from behaviours, working relationships and core values to production processes, marketing strategies and environmental practices, he says. Especially when your company is grounded and long established.
Last Bros was launched in 1948 by brothers Ken and Alan Last as a general print business and in less than 10 years, they had purchased a one-acre plot and built the factory from which the company still operates. The company in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, expanded over the years to supply print nationwide, and in 1970s began specialising in tabbed dividers and printing self-adhesive labels on rolls.
The two areas were run as separate entities, with tab production managed by Philip Last, son of Ken, and labels by Stephen, son of Alan. 10 years ago Last Bros Printers took over another tabbing specialist, Tabs Direct, and the company name was changed to Last Bros (Tabs Direct), with the Label side becoming Last Bros (Labels).
Philip remains a director and though retired from the day-to-day running of the family business is still involved in the financial side, while Stephen has retired completely. Also on the board of directors is Philip’s nephew Jeff – last of the Last family working day to day in the company – alongside fellow directors Jason Hennigan and Mike Hutchinson.
“When the company took on Tabs Direct it enabled the firm to increase its customer base and production capacity in that area of business,” says Latchford. “10 years on, the tabbing industry is a diminishing market, highly competitive and getting harder to make money; margins are tight and unless you’re switched on you can end up busy fools.
“The labelling industry however shows better returns, so we wanted to develop that business and use it to cross-germinate sales, so both sides of our business could benefit each other. By consolidating the two sides we could ensure capital investment in machinery benefited the whole company and make accounting and administration procedures more cost-effective.
“There was one other thing playing on Philip’s mind in early 2017 when the plan to consolidate was gathering pace: 2018 would be our 70th anniversary and we were keen to streamline our marketing effort in advance.”
There was another reason the two latest generations of Lasts were looking to consolidate. The existing building on Delamare Road – a red-brick design with a two-storey flat roof – planned and built by the founding brothers. The building has aged while the site is to be redeveloped into housing, requiring the company to relocate around 2020.
Philip Last gave “drive and direction” to the plan of merging the tabbing and labels sides of the business. Having spent his working life in the family business, he was well placed to spearhead the merging and re-naming to Last Bros (Allprint), without the need to rely on consultants. The process took around three months to complete.
One of the biggest challenges could have been winning around the staff, says Latchford. Communicating with employees, empowering them and creating a culture to thrive in are “fundamental” to consolidation and integration, he says. “Employees can be left in the dark leading to mystery, rumour and whole lot of questions such as ‘why are we merging?’ and ‘how will it affect my job?’ If handled badly it can lead to an unhealthy element of competition among staff.”
Fortunately the 25 staff at Last Bros are close-knit and have always “sung from the same hymn sheet”, says Latchford. Had it been a bigger operation, across multiple sites, perhaps things might have been different. “But the management explained from the start what they wanted to do, why they wanted to do it, and how they were going to do it by involving the whole team.
“Last Bros did not even need to consult heavily with clients. The amalgamation was used to publicise our impending 70th anniversary and the only noticeable change was new stationery, incorporating updated logos and various additional ensignia celebrating our big anniversary year. The only other noticeable change to our clients was our bank payment details.”
Physically however there was one big, costly, change: equipment. Last Bros realised if it were to strengthen its labels offering it would need the newest technology to run beside its existing Edale flexo kit. It therefore spent just short of £500,000 on a four-colour dFlex label machine and Xerox Versant 180 digital printer. The d-Flex Hi-Q hybrid line from Focus Label Machinery is configured with two flexo stations and also offers full finishing in-line, including laminating and die-cutting.
Last Bros (Tabs Direct) and Last Bros (Labels) were amalgamated into one firm operating as Last Bros (Allprint) on 1 of August 2017. Latchford does not disclose company turnover but aimed to add 20% in 12 to 18 months through improved efficiencies, more label work and more targeted cross selling to beef up sales in tabbing.
“The intended goals; to ensure the capital investment in machinery benefits the whole company, to make accounting and administration procedures more cost effective and to streamline and aid our marketing effort for this, our 70th anniversary year, have all been realised.
“Amalgamation of our very large client databases for both companies, has helped us to successfully cross germinate tabs business to label business and vice versa and the most powerful advantage of all has been staff camaraderie as they are all now working for one company with common goals for our success.”
After the big investment in machinery, in 2019 Last Bros (Allprint) will focus on squeezing out maximum capability from its equipment. Meanwhile the move is due to take place around 2020 and will be somewhere “not too far away”, he says.
“This will really be the new start our company would like. The move to a bright, modern, cost-effective and fit-for-purpose space in a single unit rather than over two units will find us in a more conducive environment.
“Consolidating different strands of a business is rarely easy because you can never know how it will go or be taken by staff. But perhaps one of the keys to success is to take it gently and work at it as a steady progression rather than a full-blown change of direction with all the fuss and noise that can accompany such upheaval.”
Last Bros (Allprint)
Location Cheshunt, Hertfordshire
Inspection host Dean Latchford
Size Staff: 25
Products Bespoke tabbed page dividers, self-adhesive labels for sectors including pharmaceuticals
Kit Focus dFlex UV digital inkjet label press, Xerox Versant 180 digital press, in addition to existing Edale flexo machines, Heidelberg litho presses, multiple Scott tabbing machines, full finishing equipment to facilitate, guillotining, laminating, drilling and collating
Inspection focus Consolidating different strands of a business
Talk to your staff openly and frankly at the earliest stage of the merging process to explain the benefits of the consolidation and to give reassurance
Don’t underestimate the challenges of amalgamating, as it often involves overhauling all aspects of your print business, from admin and accounting systems to marketing and IT
Keep customers and suppliers in the loop by telling them why you are consolidating and how they will benefit from the coming together of different strands of your print business
Tool up with IT and print technology to ensure your new merged business can deliver the improved productivity, capacity and output you have planned