Kirk Galloway describes himself as ‘the hirer, firer, tea boy and the cleaner’ of the family-run Derbyshire magazine printer he leads.
But for the sake of this interview, we’ll describe him as the managing director of Buxton Press, PrintWeek’s reigning Company of the Year, a crown it’s worn an unprecedented four times – although self-deprecating Galloway would be the first to point out that it has entered 16 times over the years.
And numbers are important to Galloway. He’s a man who is driven by a desire to constantly improve his £20m business – not just to ensure it grows in terms of sales and profitability, but to protect the future of its 138 staff, because at the end of the day he sees that as his core responsibility, that and making the tea, of course.
Darryl Danielli How did you get into print?
Kirk Galloway I was previously involved in a sales environment and ironically Buxton Press – this is a true story – were recruiting for sales staff. I applied and I was interviewed by our existing executive director, George Briddon, who wrongly gave me a job 24 years ago. In those days, Buxton certainly wasn’t as controlled and organised as it is now. After a short period of time in sales I realised that it was okay getting in work, but if it gets cocked up in production then what’s the point?
How do you mean?
Back in those days, and I’m talking about a long time ago, we were just not that organised in terms of a workflow when we brought that work in. These were the days of film, bromides, planning and all of that. I would bring work in, see it into the factory, see it though the factory and on to delivery, and I realised that I got quite a kick out of it, the production side, and it was an area of the business that needed some attention.
How big was the business back then?
Probably around 60 staff, because it was still very labour intensive without the modernised kit. Perfecting presses weren’t around 20-odd years ago. Back then we had two Aurelia single-pass presses and now we have five Heidelberg perfectors, so we’re probably producing 100 times as much work today as we were then, with only double the people.
You mentioned you had a sales background, prior to Buxton, what were you doing before you joined?
I’m not going to give you any indication of some of the jobs I have done before in my life [laughs]. I don’t want to see some of them in print – let’s just say ‘various sales roles’, but I will say they weren’t really offering me the challenges I was looking for. So I gave print a go and the challenges here weren’t really from a selling point of view, more around getting the job through right. So, I developed a passion for nuts and bolts, machinery and processes, I suppose and that’s how my career developed – and I served my apprenticeship, say, on the factory floor. So, they locked me in the factory, never to be returned [laughs].
So, have you pretty much done every job in the business then?
I have indeed.
It must have been a steep learning curve?
I didn’t know one end of the press from another, but back then we had started to introduce an internal apprenticeship scheme. We took people and gave them experience and training across the whole business – that was everyone from account handlers to production staff. I was probably one of the first to go through it. It’s been developed and expanded since then, but it’s essentially the same process.
And what was your favourite bit of your apprenticeship?
Going home [laughs]. Back then, I have to say it was all fascinating, and I still find print and print businesses fascinating. There wasn’t really one discipline I preferred, because print is one of the few businesses that really has three entities; people at the front end, the latest technology in terms of electronics and software, and heavy metal – the presses. There aren’t many that have all those.
How wold were you when you joined?
Were you involved with the company before your dad [Buxton chairman, Bernard Galloway] then?
No, he got involved prior to that. He was part of a group of investors that initially purchased Buxton Press around 30 years ago.
So, did he put you up to joining the business then?
No, he was dead against it.
Was there a family connection to print, though? Did Bernard have a background in the industry?
Not really, he was involved in many industries – engineering, printing, finance, electronics. In those days he was part of a consortium that bought, invested in and then sold on businesses. That’s how he got involved with Buxton, but they decided to hold on to Buxton a while longer and over time it was bought by us, the family – probably about 20 or so years ago.
And back then it was still a magazine printer?
Always has been, certainly for the last 70-odd years. It was formed in 1932 and it was started by an engineer I believe who wanted to produce his own machinery manuals. It then started to produce magazines for publishers like Morgan Grampian.
And it’s still purely magazines, you don’t dip your toe in commercial print?
Well, we don’t do business cards, we don’t do leaflets, we don’t do ‘tens’ of things, we do hundreds or thousands, we don’t do 10- or 12-colour type work. So, if that’s what you mean by commercial work then no, we haven’t stepped into the commercial ring. We would rather stay in the area that we believe we are very good at, that’s paginated work: catalogues, magazines, that kind of thing.
You just focus on the products that fit your production processes?
We changed our view many years ago when we looked at printing as a commodity rather than a work of art. That’s one of the things that we believe has made us very successful. We brought in the equipment to maintain the ‘work of art’ if you like, but that also enables us to treat it like a commodity and that’s what manufacturing efficiency must be about. The days of being able to have the luxury of a two-, three- or even four- hour makeready are long gone as the clients can’t afford to pay for that. Also, there are alternative production means to litho that some would say are as good as litho, but with almost zero makeready.
Is that part of the secret of the success of the business then; treating print as a commodity not a craft?
I believe so, but I believe a higher percentage of businesses have also taken that view now. When you look at the technology available, it’s all there to enable you to look at it as a production process, provided you put the quality assurance aspect into it so that you’re not just relying on the technology. Even so, if you look at the newest presses, they have taken away a lot of the old skills that were required to run a machine.
Does that also mean that you look at customers differently too? What I mean is that you look for customers that fit what you do, rather than looking to see how you can fit in with your customers?
In many ways, yes. We channel all of our energies in the areas and fields that we believe we excel in – so that we know that we can offer the client the quality, the reliability and the turnaround and, the big one, the price, that they’re looking for in this tight market.
Is that an approach that evolved over time?
I don’t think we identified it straight away, I think it evolved as the technology became available that would enable us to become a commodity printer. It’s not easy though, because to do that we had to drive the business hard to generate the profits we needed to invest in what was becoming even more expensive machinery.
I was going to ask you about that, you do seem to invest a significant amount in kit and seem to be on an almost constant re-equipping programme – aren’t you tempted to take your foot off the gas and sweat the assets every so often and be even more profitable?
The simple answer is that technology moves on in a three- to five-year cycle, so what you bought a few years ago will not match the requirements of today’s market. The technology changes are what keep the efficiencies going and that, in turn, is necessary to keep the profits going. If you look at a lot of the companies that have demised, I would suggest that often it’s down to a lack of investment, where they try to sweat the assets, then the assets keep breaking and they don’t have the money then to reinvest. Most recently, Anton is a case in point. It’s about matching the level of investment to profitability, there’s no point investing for investing’s sake, but you need to be efficient. It’s about marginal costing. We’ll never be one of those businesses that is doing work for work’s sake. We always make sure we’re competitive in the marketplace, but we’re not just chasing turnover.
But you acknowledge that print is a commodity market. So, if you’re producing work as efficiently as you can but might still be losing work to people chasing turnover to keep the lights on, how do you compete with that?
I believe the clients out there, the publishers, are more intelligent than your question suggests. They recognise ‘here is a cheap price but how sustainable is it?’. Publishing is a tough market for everybody, including publishers, what publishers want to focus on is what they’re good at: generating sales, creating content and serving their readers. What they don’t want to be doing is looking over their shoulder wondering if the magazine will arrive on time – will it be right? Publishers know what a fair price is and what they look for is the reliability and security of a business to be there long term. In the past six months, it’s become even more pronounced that publishers are looking for dry logs, somewhere they’re safe. Buxton is a very dry log. So we don’t need to chase price, we’ll walk away, because we know the client will probably come back soon enough.
You mean when they’ve been let down?
We have to be honest, mistakes happen in any business. No manufacturing business can produce 100% perfect products, 100% of the time. It’s about how you deal with the issues when they happen and that’s when an underinvested business will fall down. Think about consequential loss; if the ‘cost’ of printing a page of advertising in a magazine is say £50, but the publisher sells it for £1,000 if something goes wrong with the advert is the publisher happy to just get the ‘cost’ back?
Back to your favourite subject though, technology. You touched on digital earlier, is that something that you’re looking at?
It’s not on my horizon, purely because the technology on our [Heidelberg Speedmaster XL] 106s, and probably with other machines too, mean that you can get down to very low runs with not a lot of waste and still be competitive and profitable. Some people quote a litho/digital crossover of 1,000, I probably disagree, I think it’s lower. And as our market is 500 copies and above, then I don’t see digital being part of the business... yet. It will be interesting to see how the likes of Landa and Fuji and others develop their inkjet technology in terms of speed and cost. But at the moment, in our market, I don’t think there are the advertisers or clients that are prepared to pay the premium for the process.
Who are your typical customers?
We don’t really have one; it can be anyone from a publisher that works out of the garden shed to the biggest corporate – the full spectrum. All I would say is that our work is purely UK based.
Getting back to your point earlier about focus, do you purely offer them print rather than things like digital editions and the add-ons that others offer?
We do have those offerings for the clients that want them, but many don’t. Most can’t generate the revenue that justifies the investment for things like apps, but we offer apps, page-turn those sorts of services. And we have associations with other companies that can help in other areas too, so that we can facilitate any requirement a client might have, just not necessarily out of this building.
You mean partnerships?
Correct. We have them in print too. We have a great partnership with a company not a million miles away from here that does all our cover treatments. Not all our covers are treated, but some might be UV or laminated, but rather than me have the machines that might be used some of the time, why wouldn’t I work with a specialist that runs them all the time and can offer me a 12-hour turnaround door-to-door?
It makes sense. You have the efficiencies to make money out of your business and they have the efficiencies to make money out of theirs?
I know how to squeeze my assets, but I wouldn’t know how to squeeze a UV varnisher or laminator.
In terms of the management team though, is Bernard still involved?
He’s still heavily involved with the business at a strategic level, helping us look at the future of the business in what used to be called short-term planning – three to five years – but what is now probably called long-term planning in print.
Is it a challenge being part of the family business though?
It works. It’s been a pleasure and easy to do. Part of that is because it is the three of us, and I include George in that because he’s an extension of the family, believe me, that have changed and grown the business.
What about the next stage of growth, is there a new generation of Galloways waiting in the wings?
No, there isn’t. Succession planning is on the go, and we know it’s something we need to look at, but it’s on the back burner because I enjoy my job, I enjoy working with the people employed here and I see myself being here for at least another 25 years.
I was thinking more that perhaps Bernard and George might be looking at retirement?
That’s where we’ve been looking. Over the past few years I’ve been taking over a lot of the responsibility and we’ve created new positions and promoted people within the business – so it’s an ongoing process, because we like to nurture from within, rather than bring people in.
Do you generally develop your own people then?
That’s my preference. I would say 98% of the people we employ have been employed from the local area and not from the industry, partly because there aren’t any other printers nearby that people can move to or from – so we look for the right people that we then train and develop.
And with this year’s PrintWeek Awards now launched, can I ask what has been the secret of your success – is it the people?
I’m not going to tell you.
Printing £50 notes every other Sunday night helps. But yes, it’s the people. It’s a culture within the business of everyone being responsible for their part of the process and an understanding of what that means. But it’s taken a while, it wasn’t overnight. But as you and the accountants that judge have seen, we’re making very good numbers and investing heavily while we make them.
But we’re in an industry where profit almost seems to be a dirty word – does making good returns cause you problems with customers?
The simple answer is that if we don’t make good numbers, we can’t invest, and if we can’t invest then we can’t offer the service, and prices, that the customer expects. Our next planned investment will probably be in excess of £10m and you can’t plan for that without building up the funds to pay for it, because we won’t go to the bank as everything needs to be self-funding. So, there are no difficulties with clients, the price is set by the market. Also, we still have our own costs going up, transport is going up, ink is going up, paper has gone up and god knows where that’s going to go. If you look at it, the difficulty we have is that paper represents 50% sometimes 60% of publisher’s invoicing, so there’s not a lot left for printers to keep reducing costs.
I take your point, you need to be able to invest, but it must be daunting spending that kind of money?
It is, but you must believe in your business. Don’t get me wrong, if Heidelberg started giving me machines for free I wouldn’t mind, but I tried that and just because we bought five, apparently, that doesn’t mean I get a sixth one for free.
You mean you haven’t got enough stamps on your Heidelberg loyalty card yet?
I haven’t even got a card, I keep asking Jim Todd [Heidelberg UK sales director] for one.
So, if you can’t get any free machines, how do you plan to keep growing the business?
We’re going to keep going back over the wheel again and again to fine tune and tweak, and then just keep repeating the process. If you can improve a process by 1% and you’ve got 10 processes you’ve suddenly picked up 10% and if you can improve a business by 10% then you’re talking big numbers, simply by doing small things. We’ll stick with what we’re good at and just keep refining processes and bringing in the technology when we need it. We could just look at the numbers today and sit back and do nothing and make good money for a while, but very quickly it would become a downward spiral.
But is the market improving?
We’re seeing a slight growth in paginations and run lengths. Generally speaking, it’s quite solid.
So is it getting easier?
I think it remains as tough a challenge as it has been for the past five years, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because, if you sit back and rest on your laurels then the way that the industry changes so quickly then you could very quickly become another Anton.
But if it’s constantly challenging, then doesn’t that grind you down?
I feel sorry for the people that wake up in the morning and don’t want to go to work. I get great job satisfaction; I enjoy the challenges and believe me, if I didn’t enjoy them we would have sold this business years ago because it takes over your life.
Is there anyone you admire in the industry, who inspires you to rise to those challenges?
I’ve never really given it any thought, other than the obvious – but I’m not going to say it.
Because he’ll never let you forget it?
Correct [laughs]. But irrespective of work, you always look up to your parents.
What about outside of Buxton, any businesses you admire?
I’ve never really thought about it. I’m too absorbed in my business, I’m not interested in what others are doing, I’m interested in protecting the jobs of the 138 people here. That’s my job and it’s a huge responsibility and I think some don’t recognise that. I’ll do whatever’s necessary to keep that moving forward, with the investment, with the growth and with the security.
Last question, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
I suppose it’s probably ‘don’t be afraid to put right what’s wrong’.
So does that mean there are things you would have done differently, looking back?
The only thing I can think of is not to have come to the job interview in the first place.