Print’s dead right? That’s what some people insist on saying. Print volumes have shrunk significantly over the last decade or so and the market has undergone an unprecedented period of consolidation.
While many printing companies have gone bust in this tumultuous period and others have resorted to merger and acquisition activity in order to survive and indeed thrive in some instances, there have also been a surprising number of new entrants to the market.
PrintWeek caught up with some of these ‘printrepreneurs’ to find out why they believe the printing industry has a prosperous future.
To say Sarah Smith is ‘new’ to the printing industry would not be entirely accurate. She spent more than a quarter of a century working as a sales rep in the paper merchant sector before deciding to embark on the next phase of her career in 2018.
In her previous career, one of Smith’s regular customers was Dynamic Print, in Norwich, which specialises in print that incorporates decorative effects such as hot foiling, blind foil embossing, blind embossing and die-cutting.
“Barney and Katrina [the former owners] approached me to discuss whether I would be interested in buying their business,” recalls Smith. “After careful consideration I knew that taking over Dynamic was the right move. Having proved myself working with various paper merchants it felt like the right fit for my future ambitions and ideas.”
She completed her purchase of the business in 2018 and took on the mantle of managing director. Thanks to her former role, she already had extensive knowledge of paper and other materials and travelling up and down the country as a sales rep visiting printing companies of all shapes and sizes also gave her an insight into the print side of things. Despite this experience she admits that she has undergone a steep learning curve as a business owner.
“In some areas it has been more of a challenge than I first thought it would be,” says Smith. “However, I knew going into this that in the early months there would be some long hours and steep learning curves, as I got to grips with the day to day parts of running a business that I had not been involved in previously.
“On the sales side of the business I have felt at home, albeit the customer base and requirements have been interesting and at a different pace to my days in the paper world. This has been good as it gives time for both sides to work out the best possible solution, without the time pressures that selling paper naturally came with.”
Smith was fortunate to inherit an experienced team, which aided the transition process. “My business partner, Mark Critten has over 20 years’ experience operating our wide selection of hot foiling machines. These enable us to achieve complex foiled, embossed or debossed results to meet our clients’ intricate designs,” she explains.
As to those people who argue that print is dead she says the answer isn’t a straight forward yes or no. “It is extremely complex given the changing world and with it, the types of print that are in demand,” says Smith. “The technological age has clearly had major impacts on various elements of print that were huge in years past, but have dwindled as society and computing moves on. Yet at the same time it has opened up other avenues and markets.
“The internet has also enabled far easier connections to customers up and down the country and with the right product there is still a bright future in the industry. The tactile nature of high quality paper grades and the power of skilful print techniques to communicate and market effectively will be with us for many decades to come.”
A chartered surveyor by qualification, Egerton joined the printing industry in 2011 after spending the bulk of his career in the corporate property world – at one point he was managing a portfolio of thousands of UK properties worth circa £5bn. Egerton, who is an expert in business analysis and cost management, was brought in as a consultant by Staffordshire-based B3 trade print house KJB UK in 2011 after it noticed its margins were declining rapidly.
“As a result of the analysis, we saw that B3 work was being poached by B2 and digital,” says Egerton. He recommended the company invest in digital equipment and thanks to the investment KJB enjoyed a “massive growth spurt”.
KJB’s owners were so impressed by his insights that Egerton was invited to join the business as a director. His appointment coincided with a significant period of activity at the printing company.
To start with there was a frenzy of investment in new equipment from 2011-16, which allowed KJB to bring a significant volume of work in-house.
Then, in 2017, the company made its first business acquisition, snapping up Shrewsbury-based wide-format specialist Creative Digital Printing Solutions. The following year Egerton was at it again, this time buying Walsall-based WM Printing Solutions.
“Last year we did £4.45m [as a group] and in 2019 we’re forecasting £5.35m – that’s a £900,000 increase through organic growth,” says Egerton.
And he’s not done there. Egerton, who today serves as group commercial director, says he’s looking for a further acquisition of a printing business with a turnover of between £400,000-£2m in the Midlands.
“Our business model is hub and spoke. The KJB group is the hub that does all of the HR, finance, credit and procurement. That supports the other production sites, wherever they may be. This model allows us to be more streamlined and efficient and the turnover per employee is better.”
To Egerton, the key to future survival in the printing industry is scale and commercial awareness. “Those that aren’t prepared to evolve and fail to acknowledge that scale is important will not survive,” he adds. “But print will never be dead because we produce a tactile product that is required.”
Former TV journalist Deadman grew up immersed in the printing industry. As a child her mother, Terrye Teverson, who bought KCS Print in Cornwall nearly 30 years ago having spent five years as managing director of the business, would regularly discuss the industry’s fortunes with Deadman’s father over dinner.
Deadman joined her mother at the Launceston-based print firm in 2013. She readily admits she didn’t think she would stick around for the long term.
“I started here working in sales and I enjoyed the role much more than I thought I would,” says Deadman. “I realised that, especially in our sector, it is far more about building relationships than ‘sales’ in the traditional sense.”
During the first five years of her employment Deadman says she got to know the company’s close network of customers well. Then in 2018 the opportunity to take over as managing director of KCS presented itself after her mother decided to step down to fulfil a lifelong ambition to study a fine arts degree at Falmouth University.
“When the idea was mentioned of me taking over the business it felt like a privilege to have the opportunity to build on my mum’s legacy, but there was no pressure put on me – it was something I felt excited to do,” says Deadman.
She says that in order to stay ahead in the print sector you have to be “dynamic, focused on the future and constantly looking to evolve”. Deadman doesn’t think that print is dead – it’s just undergoing an evolution.
“We constantly have an eye on the future, and it’s not necessarily going to be an easy ride, but I feel proud of our achievements and I don’t see any reason that we can’t go from strength to strength,” adds Deadman.
Richard and Julie Bennett
Print’s newest power couple bought their first printing business in 2018 when they inked a deal to acquire Newcastle Print Solutions. Months later they were at it again, snapping up Hartlepool-based Atkinson Print in February this year.
And that’s not the end of their acquisition spree, according to Richard Bennett, who has a background in environmental chemistry.
“We’re looking for more,” says Bennett. “The printing industry is ripe for consolidation. I’d like to acquire more because I’d like to have a bigger piece of the market purely for diversity. What we’ve got is a great start and I’m really pleased with it.”
He concedes that print is of course a competitive marketplace at the moment, but Bennett believes there is a place for companies that do the right thing by their staff and customers.
“Some people may say print is dead, but is it? I can still see plenty of requirements for print and what companies like ourselves are trying to do is adapt the latest technologies and move with customer demand. The traditional stuff may be in decline, but we don’t see digital declining.”
He thinks the key to longevity is offering high levels of service and good quality products. “If you get those elements right then you should do alright,” says Bennett. “If you’re going to chase work at a loss leader you’ve got no chance.”
Finally, let’s turn to someone who fell into print by chance, and went on to establish a successful sign and graphics business.
Edinburgh-based Bowes started his print career offering taxi advertising produced from his home back in 2004. The cab driver believed there was a huge opportunity to sell space on taxis.
“I thought I would start this company selling taxi advertising and just try and make £20,000-£30,000, have a company car and then do the taxi driving work on the side, but I ended up doing this full time,” says Bowes.
From tiny acorns great oaks grow and today Bowes’ business First Display produces all manner of printed collateral, including signage and of course taxi advertising. Five years ago the business moved from a 170m² facility to 700m² premises and Bowes now employs 14 people.
“It’s been a complete evolution,” he says. “We’re 15 years old in a couple of months’ time and we have a core of staff who are fantastic and really make the business.”
Over the years Bowes has continued to invest in new technology and although he concedes that the market is tough he doesn’t for one second believe that print’s dead. “The market is so vibrant and I think there is a huge opportunity for print,” says Bowes.