‘It’s always about pitching ourselves at the right place’

By Darryl Danielli, Monday 01 October 2018

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Boss Print managing director Fenton Smith is passionate about print – the technology of it, but more importantly the possibilities of it.

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Smith: “If all I do is produce... beautiful projects... I’ll be very happy”

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Darryl Danielli How long has the business been around? 

Fenton Smith Boss was originally was set up by Phil Ash and Joe Kilmurray as a digital printer around 2000.

So when did you become involved?

Around 2004. I knew Joe because he used to be a client of Litho-Tech when I worked there. At that time I worked at First Impression in Camberwell, but I wanted to set something up on my own.

So how did it come about that you ended up joining Boss?

I’d put a business plan together and was talking to a few people to see if they wanted to come in with me, and they weren’t too sure, so I thought I would give Joe a ring to see what he was up to as he didn’t have a litho offering, just digital. So, we put our heads together and met up for lunch in June, and by November the press was in and we were up and running.

In this building?

Yes. Before they were in a small unit around the corner in Acton. So, we found this unit and in the meantime First Impression had gone bust, so a couple of guys I worked with came and joined me, they were brothers, Matthew and Dave [Turner]. As luck would have it I had done some building in my youth, Matthew was quite good at electrics and his brother could do plumbing, so we spent three months fixing up this place.

And Joe and Phil were still running the digital business?

Exactly, and when we finished and the new [six-colour] Speedmaster CD 74 was in they moved over and we started this up as partners. I wouldn’t say that we were the last, but I can’t imagine there are that many litho companies [in London] that have started from scratch since then. I can’t think of any anyway. Even at that time, people thought we were a bit mad. We just thought we would give it a go. I was the production guy, Phil was the repro/digital guy and Joe was the sales/finance guy. It worked quite well for a while.

Quite well?

At the time, I didn’t know Phil at all and I didn’t know Joe that well either. But we had a common interest and complementary skills, so we went for it. We picked up some good work, including a lot of work for Apple Computers and that really kept us going for the first few years. And because it was Apple everything had to be perfect, so it was all about the quality, and that was where the stochastic screening came in useful, because we’ve done that always.

You’ve always been about the quality then?

Well, First Impression was quite high quality, and Litho-Tech before that was reports and accounts, so it’s always been that ilk. But setting this up was always about being the best. I’m not saying that we are the best, I’m not that arrogant, but we always try to be the best that we can be.

It’s a constant journey?

Of course, it changes all the time so you have to stay on top of it. I remember going to Drupa in 2016, which was a year after my business partner Joe passed away...

I remember the PrintWeek article about that at the time, was it a complete bolt from the blue?

It was. He was walking in the mountains on the west coast of Scotland with a load of his mates, and on the way down they were walking to the pub and he just looked up to the air, said he just wanted to catch his breath and that was it – he had a cardiac arrest and he was gone.

That’s awful.

It really was, especially for his long-term partner and family. We had also become firm friends during our 10 years together in the business – the whole team was shell-shocked.

Was Phil still around though?

No, he had left in around year five or six [around 2010], it just wasn’t working out. He was a little older, had been there, done it, got the t-shirt and wasn’t really into what we are doing. It was the right thing for all of us at the time.

So, it was just you and Joe?

Yes, and because he wasn’t married to his partner and didn’t have a will, it took about a year to sort everything out with the solicitors. During which time I knew I would have to reinvest in the business to buy Joe’s half, so I started to think about ‘am I future proof’, ‘what am I doing’, was it the right thing, the wrong thing?

In terms of the direction of the business?

Exactly. So, I went to Drupa with Julian Hocking [managing director of Nationwide Print], who I’ve known for years. So, I was walking around the show, looking at all the new stuff, digital, litho, everything and looked at what was being produced and I thought to myself on a good day, which is most days, we could out print anything I could see there. Anyway, on the way back I got stuck at the airport for three hours and bumped into Omran [Anwar], who works for Service Offset Supplies. He helps sort out our proofer every six months or so, so I got chatting to him and we started talking about Hexachrome [the six-colour, extended-gamut printing process developed by Pantone] of all things.

Slightly random topic of conversation?

[Laughs] Well, I had been wondering what had happened to it as it had always struck me that the reason it had never worked was because people were using conventional screens and they only had four angles, but we used stochastic – so although there is a pattern, it’s very hard to see because it’s so small. We put our heads together, he spoke to a software company and blah, blah, blah and in the end, we came up with Vivid Colour, where we use CMYK plus violet to achieve stunning results. Sorry, I’ve gone right round the houses. I get a bit carried away sometimes.

[Laughs] It’s okay, it’s good to hear someone talk passionately about ink on paper. But at the end of the day, you didn’t buy anything at Drupa, you just did your own thing?

I couldn’t buy anything, even if I’d wanted to, I didn’t have any money [laughs]. I’d just had to pay off Joe’s family, so it was like starting up all over again. Besides, I read all these articles in your magazine about someone buying a new machine and saying how it’s going to double their turnover and all that. And then the next time I see their name, a year later or whatever, it’s you writing about them folding. A new machine doesn’t solve your problems, there’s no point having extra capacity unless you know where the sales are going to come from.

That must have been a tough year though, running the business on your own while having to sort buying Joe’s stake, dealing with solicitors…

It wasn’t just that. Immediately after he died, I couldn’t even pay the wages, I had no access to the bank – because he had looked after all the finances. I had never made a payment, because a lot of those happened online, and they all got stopped. It was awful, two hours after I’d been told that my friend and business partner had died I was on the phone to the accountant, because nothing stops.

Suppliers still want to be paid, customers still want their jobs?

I know it’s not funny, but it was just so surreal, I had people phoning me up saying how sorry they were about Joe, but when was I going to pay this bill, or can I supply a quote for this job. In the end though, it took a month to sort everything with the bank – so I had to find the money to pay the staff wages myself.

It’s not something you can really prepare for though is it, losing your business partner?

I suppose one of the positives, if you can say that, was that we had been through a succession of different sales people, one was very good, but she left after having a baby, all the others were alright, but we never really found the right person. So, about a year before Joe died I said: no more idiot sales people that are promising the earth, but not delivering. So, I said I would have a go. At that time, Danny [Ball] was ready to step up. So I said I would continue to head up production, but take on sales too and Danny would run production day-to-day. I did that for around six months and was holding my own, I was a bit stretched, but it was okay. But looking back now if I hadn’t have done that then we would have probably lost the business after Joe passed.

Because you wouldn’t have been close enough to the customers?

I wouldn’t have known anyone, I wouldn’t have known if I could have taken it on.

It must have still been a struggle though?

It still is, I suppose. It wasn’t that long ago really, not in a business cycle. Basically, we started all over again [in 2016], we refinanced, not to the same tune when we started 14 years ago, but back then there was three of us, we were all up for it. This time it was just me, and that was scary – but it certainly focused my mind. I basically worked like a slave, and still am now – and that wasn’t really part of the plan.

Is it ever?

[Laughs] Probably not

Is running the business simpler now though, as it’s just you?

I suppose you could say that, but I miss not having someone to bounce things off.

Did you not want to get anyone else to invest in the business and come in with you?

I did think about it, but who? Having been the production director and living and breathing the business inside these walls, I didn’t really know anyone outside. So, my other priority, after Joe died was, bloody hell – I’ve got to make some friends. I’ve got to get to know paper people, press people, everybody – not in a horrible, using way, it was reciprocal.

It was about building a network, I guess?

Crikey, and then some. Then there was the marketing side, a few years ago I realised that if I wanted the business to succeed I needed to understand marketing. I needed to do a degree in marketing, but I didn’t have the time to do that. So, I bought about 10 marketing books and found the cheapest possible Travelodge, booked myself in for a week and just read and read these books, made notes, just locked myself in to see if I could find a magic formula – I managed about four solid days. I couldn’t take any more after that.

And what did you learn?

What I deduced was that there’s a massive element of luck in business. I think people underestimate just how much. So, you might have a fantastic product, but if you put it in the wrong place, in front of the wrong people – it doesn’t work. A few years ago, we produced a series of [greetings] cards; we basically got a load of submissions from art and photography students, picked the best 20 or so and printed them up. We took them to a massive boot sale in Denham [Buckinghamshire] to see what would happen. It was a day out really, to test the market. Over the whole day, and it was a really hot day – not that that was important, but it was really busy – we sold one pack of cards. One. All day. It was the wrong place, wrong crowd – simple as that. The lady who bought them looked different from everyone else, she clearly thought she was going to a craft market – but she liked the cards and didn’t care how much they cost, she just wanted them. So, I read all those marketing books, but the most valuable marketing lesson I learned was probably at a car boot sale in Denham [laughs].

Is that part of the reason that you do some of the intense collaborative projects with artists and photographers, because it gets you in front of the right crowd?

Exactly.

So, I suppose if their purpose isn’t to pay the bills, but get the brand and what you can do in front of the right people – they have a value beyond their revenue?

That’s right, we always learn something new from them too. They’re all real jobs, but they also give me a set of file copies that I can take around any gallery in London. We’ve already won one significant job off the back of the one of the collaborations, so it’s beginning to work.

And it’s a proof of concept too, so even if you don’t make a fortune out of the collaborations, it’s still a live client, a real project.

Absolutely, and sometimes they’re with clients who work with you on other projects and it’s almost like a thank you for all of the other stuff.

So, it’s not just out of the kindness of your heart then?

[Laughs] No, there’s always an angle.

You punch well above your weight in terms of profile though?

I like to think so. That’s been an active ambition and it works, we’re getting new business coming in all the time. If I look back on the job bags in the system, not so long ago we were heavily reliant on one or two accounts, like a lot of businesses our size, but while we still have those clients, we have a much wider range today. 

It’s interesting though, you position yourself as a high-end printer in an era when most people are focused on removing touchpoints, streamlining and standardising processes to take out the variables, but you embrace the variables?

It could just be that I’m wrong and everyone else is right. Everything we have here is about being versatile, not massive output – it’s more about getting it right, rather than smashing it out. That’s why I like the luxury book market, we’re trying to find a market that is sustainable for us and enables us to do what we’re really good at. We can’t compete with people that are about smashing out the work.

Fair enough.

Some people will buy a Porsche, others will buy a Ford Fiesta. They both do the same job, get you from A to B. So, why does anyone spend all the extra money on a Porsche? It’s the brand, the image, the performance. It can be all three reasons, or just one completely different reason – but everyone understands it’s a quality item. So, what I’m trying to do is the same thing in this game. Not everyone gets it, but enough do and we’re very fortunate to have some really nice clients. We bounce around the £1.5m-turnover mark, and if all I do is produce beautiful books, beautiful projects, but never grow any bigger than that, I’ll be very happy.

Does that mean then, and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, that you run it like a lifestyle business?

Pretty much, yes. We never planned to have one machine, two machines, three machines and then take over the world – that’s not what we were ever about. It was about getting to the right level, having a good base of clients; we don’t run 24 hours a day all the time, we run days, but we can run 24 hours to accommodate our clients – it’s about flex. It was always about pitching ourselves at the right place, at the price and making a profit.

Thank god.

[Laughs] It doesn’t get any easier though, the profit part. There’s a book printer in Italy called Trifolio; they have one B1 press and do a lot of work for galleries and museums and 80% of his sales are in America. He’s not about price, he sets the price and you either want him to print your book or you don’t. That’s sort of where I’m trying to be.

Presumably it’s not just fine art books you’re looking at though, there must be other markets that require the same production values?

Of course, but it’s about identifying sustainable ones. We used to do lots of beautiful property books, coffee table stuff. But that market just stopped overnight, we haven’t really done any in the past couple of years. So that’s £300,000 worth of business that just stopped. We haven’t fallen out with anybody, it hasn’t gone elsewhere, it just doesn’t exist anymore. Which happens, and we’ve been successful in replacing that with clients in new markets. And you never know, if Brexit is the real reason that stopped and that situation changes, then that might all come back, but that’s out of my hands.

So, it’s about working with clients that care as much as you do, because price isn’t the be-all and end-all for them?

It isn’t. I just need to get us out there, win some awards, hint, hint [Boss is shortlisted in the PrintWeek Awards].

But presumably you still take on ordinary work too?

We do, although I wouldn’t ever call any of it ordinary. Look, I don’t go around telling people that we’re a high-quality printer, what we produce is what we produce. If people look at it and say that’s a beautiful piece of print, I’ll take that. Nice one. I just tell people that we’re a printing company that does this, this and this and we do it to the best of our ability. Whatever it is. We’re never going to be the cheapest, though, when it comes to regular work – because we can’t suddenly pretend that we don’t give a shit about the grain direction, or care that it’s cut properly. My staff don’t think like that, they always push to be the best – so if someone is just crashing the work out we can’t compete with them. We’ve made our bed and have to lie in it.

You mentioned collaborative projects with artists earlier, but you’ve also led a few collaborations of your own, I’m thinking Robox and Boxes in Boxes?

We have. They were about something else I’ve been trying to do. I don’t think people in the industry talk to each other enough, we don’t work together enough. Paper people don’t really know what printing is about and printers don’t really know what paper is about and as an industry I don’t think we really celebrate what we do enough, or tell enough people about it. Particularly young designers. So, the idea was to link up with designers, paper companies and demonstrate what’s possible.

And what is possible? What takes you beyond the norm?

That press downstairs is 14 years old, but if you went and bought one now they haven’t changed fundamentally. Sure, it can run 18,000 an hour and ours can only do 15,000 – but have I ever run it at that? Of course not – you can’t print the way we print at that speed. But with stochastic screening and Vivid Colour, I don’t think you can get litho to print much better than we can.

But if you had a brand new press with all the bells and whistles, ultra-fast makereadies, getting up to colour quickly…

I’ve had heated discussions at different exhibitions with various press manufacturers. With stochastic, because the dots don’t get bigger you get hardly any colour variation, we’ve got temperature controlled inking rollers too – it was fully loaded when I spec’d it. If you look after a press, put new inking and damping rollers in more regularly than you have to, and stay on top of maintenance, they go on producing the highest quality for years. Personally, just because your machine has all the bells and whistles, closed-loop this and that, and even gives you a report that says the print is perfect, that doesn’t necessarily make it so. It doesn’t matter what the report says.

You clearly put a lot of stock on stochastic, how come it’s not more broadly used?

We got hardly any manufacturer support with it when we started and we still don’t, to be honest. I think that’s why it’s not more widely used. People have a little dabble, get their fingers burned and run away. Personally, I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t use it all the time, but that’s just me.

There must be more to it though, is it more time intensive or…

Possibly, it’s slightly more expensive too and there’s a steep learning curve. Maybe it’s also because we run 10mic dot which is super fine, but that’s on B2 and I think you would struggle with that on a B1 sheet.

But also, not everyone is in the same sectors as you?

Print is a funny market; a lot of people treat it like a commodity product and can’t see a difference between what company A can do and company B. There can be a massive difference, but not enough people put enough value on that. But some people do, and I want to swim with them. Whether it works or not as a strategy, I don’t know, we’ll have to see.

It will if you find enough of them.

Exactly. Being proud of everything you produce is important.

More important than making money?

Well no, because a business has to make money to reinvest – but I don’t see why you can’t be proud of what you produce and make money from it. But it’s hard work. This industry has given me a lot though, I wouldn’t have done it for 25 years if it hadn’t.

Have you always been in print?

I started off as a baker.

Really?

Yes, it taught me a lot. I worked as a baker all through my three years at the London College of Printing and I didn’t have any debt – because I was working a 40-hour week in a bakery while I studied. The downside is that it also taught me that I can easily work a 70-80-hour week.

Any similarities between print and baking?

Some. In baking once you start the first batch, if you mess anything up that’s it, you’ve ruined the whole offering – the shop can’t open. There are also lots of stages and lots of different products using essentially the same processes and ingredients.

You’ve mentioned the new markets you’re entering, how do you spot them?

We got into boxes because we used to do them now and again and use another company to produce them for us. These were all bespoke though and produced by hand. The problem was that sometimes the artwork wasn’t always supplied correctly, and we were relying on the box maker to sort it – and in the end, with the deadlines we were often working to, it was too scary to be one step removed from the process. So, I sent three of the guys on a lid and tray box-making course, then as soon as they came back I gave them probably the most complicated project we’d done at that stage. You should have seen their faces [laughs]. After that I told them we could do anything, and we have. So, back to your question: I could lie and says it’s very strategic, but in essence it’s driven by our marketing where we just show people what we can do, and how well we can do it, and then people come to us with their challenges – because they trust us. It seems to work.

And it means you’re always learning something new too?

Oh yes. A lot of people think they know an awful lot about this game, but I don’t think any of us know as much as we think. I keep my eyes and ears open all the time. I think that’s because of my background. The thing with production management, especially in a company like this one, is that you’re always learning something new, every day. And that translates to other areas too, because it makes you questioning by nature. 

Any examples?

Well, I’ve started to question how we charge for the service we provide.

How do you mean?

We’re very fortunate in that we usually get involved at the early stages of a project, but we’re not really charging for that, the creative input, the R&D. Of course, we charge for producing the job, but we don’t charge for the bit in the middle.

It’s consultancy, really, isn’t it?

Precisely. You often have the end client, and then someone in the middle, who charges for their consultation fee and time, and then there’s us – and often we’re doing a lot of the work in the middle. I do think that there might be a bit of a renaissance in print, and that bit in the middle could be part of it. When I started, print was a bit of a dark art. What I mean is repro knew what they were doing, printers knew what they were doing and the finishers knew what they were doing, but as a collective no one knew what everyone did. But that’s changed a lot over the years as we’ve all bought those services in-house. Before that happened though the design agencies got smart, they used to have buyers, artworkers and designers – but now it’s just designers. And judging by the amount of calls we get, increasingly designers don’t always have the print knowledge – because it’s just one aspect of what they do. And a lot of the print knowledge has gone out of the agency world.

And that’s good news?

That means that the with the knowledge we have as printers, a lot of designers really need our help, our expertise. That’s an opportunity we should all be looking at. 

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