Tony Campbell began his career in print 33 years ago in the production office writing out job dockets. He plans to bring the career to a close later this year as chairman of Bell & Bain, one of the UK’s largest book printers.
When he started, book printing was a major force in the UK, but companies like Purnell & Sons, Cox & Wyman, and from Scotland William Collins have all vanished along with many other once renowned businesses. Bell & Bain, however, remains thanks to a dogged commitment to quality, service and in more recent years to continual investment.
And as Campbell moved quickly to the sales office, becoming sales manager and then sales director, he has been crucial to meeting the changing needs of the customer base.
Bell & Bain staged a management buyout in 2009, which has triggered a cascade of investment. It installed a first high speed MBO folding machine in 2011 and the spending has not stopped since. It means that the main factory has two large format KBA Rapidas, both eight-colour perfectors, in addition to a large format four-colour KBA; there is a B2 format KBA for covers along with a ten-colour Heidelberg SM52. In the bindery the company now runs two high speed Muller Martini lines and on a separate site, a Diamant casing line.
The separate site also houses its digital investment, a Ricoh VC60000 linked to a Horizon SmartBinder finishing line. This is far from a one off investment in digital printing. Bell & Bain started in digital with a Delphax, moved on to Canon, then became the first with the Fuji 540W colour inkjet press and now has the latest generation inkjet press with the Ricoh. “It is definitely better than the Fuji for us,” says Campbell.
“Putting in a new machine is never easy. There are always issues that need to be sorted. With digital it is usually about the software.”
The press has taken a long time to settle in because of the software and the files that the Glasgow printer has to deal with. These are on the large side, often the very large side. This is because most are academic journals, a collection of different papers interspersed with illustrations, graphics and diagrams. Each will have been produced by a different author with little or no idea how his or her research will end up on a printed page. A single publication can have 20 or more papers and authors.
As a result each will be constructed differently and attempts to reduce the file size may end up compromising the information that the paper is intending to convey. And nobody at the printer will realise.
This means that Bell & Bain needs to accept the files as they come from the publisher in Illustrator, Corel Draw, and whatever other format the authors have used. That makes the software challenge so complex.
In comparison the printing is straightforward and the print quality from the Ricoh investment has delighted even managing director Stephen Docherty. “I have been really impressed with the print quality,” he says. “And also with Ricoh. It’s nice to deal with a company that do not dominate the market, so are trying to get the quality right and production at a reasonable price. The print quality is wonderful.”
But while digital is a significant investment and is growing, it remains responsible for less than 10% of the turnover. Litho dominates. The investment in the long perfectors enabled Bell & Bain to service publishers in academic and reference books with a limited amount of colour printing, in the main for charts and other graphics.
This has grown into full colour illustrations, partly as the printer has acquired greater knowledge of colour book printing, partly as publishers have few alternatives in the UK, and partly because being sited here means that publishers do not need to go abroad for colour books, especially for shorter runs and speedy turnarounds.
It means that the company is taking on more and more illustrated trade books, the sort of work that Butler & Tanner used to produce, the sort of work that has headed to China. Bell & Bain is not competing for these sorts of volumes, but it is serious about colour books.
This culminated at the end of last year with production of the surprise Christmas best seller, Tom Kerridge’s Lose Weight for Good cook book. “We do a few cook books,” says Campbell. None before has had the impact of the Tom Kerridge. In the run up to Christmas the company had produced 150,000 copies, but the reprint orders kept coming.
In January, publisher Bloomsbury reported sales of 70,000 units in one week, making it the highest ever sale for a single title in that month, surpassing even the same publisher’s Harry Potter titles.
The nature of reprints means that the publisher needs the books in the shops quickly, which is where production in the UK comes into its own. “They need books from start to finish in ten days,” Campbell continues. “It has helped us to a record January, coming on the back of record sales in 2017 when we reported sales of £14.27 million.
“We don’t see an end to the boom. In the colour market there are not many companies left that can do everything that we can do. This puts us in an advantageous position. If somebody wants copies of a bestseller printed within seven to ten days, there is no chance of going abroad for that.”
The investment, amounting to £12.5 million over the last seven years Campbell reckons, has lowered the cost base for Bell & Bain and brought in the full range of publishers. “Our pricing is not far out compared to the Europeans and we have won new business because of that,” he says. “There has been a big rise in the number of people interested in books and publishers are doing all sorts of things to help.”
Consequently Bell & Bain finds itself producing a whole range of different titles, from the high profile cook books to children’s titles for the likes of Harper Collins, Pearsons, Scholastic as well as Bloomsbury. And as well as the television chef, Bell & Bain last year has a top seller with the book tie in for the second Paddington film.
“We are still printing for the many academic publishers, OUP, CUP and Taylor & Francis, but we are really starting to see quite a bit more commercial publishing. Tom Kerridge is the perfect example,” Campbell continues.
These are printed litho because of the run length that is needed. And the company can be competitive in litho down to 300-400 copies depending on the extent of the pages. Fast makeready, even on the eight-colour presses, sees to that, as well as fast set up for the binding lines.
Last year it installed its second Muller Martini Alegro A7 binder which is integrated with the first so that one line will be binding and the second can run as a gatherer. One has 18 gathering hoppers feeding a 19-clamp binding sector, the other has 18 hoppers feeding a 27-clamp preparation and binding section.
As well as perfect binding Bell & Bain has been offering case binding for almost four years. Demand for this is growing, says Campbell. “People who are looking on the quality side are looking for case binding. And it opens so many doors for us.”
The Ricoh should open up many more doors and may in time challenge the strong preference for litho, but for the moment it is very early days for the inkjet press. It will be printing mainly academic journals with the same format and limited requirement for colour, where digital overcomes the problems of constant and multiple plate changes for very short print run jobs.
It is about a solution for publications like these that have a limited print run, at least for the moment.
Ricoh boasts of the technology being suited to colour book printing and from examples seen from the same press type using a new ink, this would appear to be the case. First Bell & Bain needs to walk. It has been tackling the bedding in issues that are normal for a technology that is itself in the ramp up phase.
It would be easy for the company to take on increasing volumes of digital colour printing, for illustrated books as well as journals and there will be pressure on the business to do this. Ricoh has also been on a learning curve as this is its first major installation in the book market in the UK.
With previous digital presses, the company has run inline to finishing, and this was the intention with the new press. However, this has changed. The press will run reel to reel and the printed reel will be fed into the Horizon SmartBinder. The reason for the change is simple. Bell & Bain wants to run the press at 130m/minute while the maximum speed of the finishing line is 120m/minute.
Inkjet printing is also very much about enabling the company to produce in any way that suits a publisher. The requests for quote and information forms all require the supplier to be able to offer digital printing, even if there is no immediate need for this form of production. Bell & Bain can tick this box, ready for when the publishers have all their ducks in a row, because digital printing is just the end of a process that addresses the entire supply chain.
As publishers seek additional efficiencies through reducing stock levels, supply chain management software and cutting warehouse costs, the printer needs to evolve in order to match the needs of the publisher. And the publisher that wants to order in small batches can believe that digital is the way to achieve this.
“Most of the time it will be up to the customer to decide how something is printed,” Campbell says. “Some people don’t care too much what we print it on, others will be more prescriptive. We have been providing samples to show what they can expect and demonstrate we can give them the choice of what they want.”
If what they want is faster, digital printing may be able to shave a couple of days from a production cycle, particularly when numbers are low. “Digital will alway be short run for us, perhaps no more than 300/400 copies,” he says. “We do not yet offer Print on Demand, or the print run of one, but we could do it. We have the Horizon SmartBinder, but as we remain very busy on litho, I can’t see us rushing to offer Print on Demand.”
The inkjet press is using CVG paper, accepted by many as the best coated paper for inkjet printing currently. It will also run Munken uncoated, but not yet the GPrint that is the standard coated paper for books that are litho printed.
The investment in technology is matched by investment in people. The company currently has 18 apprentices on its books, more than any other printer in Scotland. “We started a few more this year and all are doing well.”
And there is the opportunity to grow with the business, Campbell reels off the names of print managers, production managers and others that started with the business as 16 year old apprentices and have climbed to positions of responsibility in the business.
None are starting by filling out the production sheets as Campbell did when he started in the production office.
The technology has moved on. The commitment to book production remains as strong as ever.
Tony Campbell began in the production office, moved to sales and is now chairman of Bell & Bain. There have been massive changes in that period culminating in colour digital printing.
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Tony Campbell with Karen Baillie and Stephen Docherty are the team of three that has led the book printer following a management buyout at the start of the decade. The company has been constantly investing ever since, helping keep it ahead.
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Bell & Bain's cascade of investment includes two large format KBA Rapidas, in addition to a large format four-colour, and a B2 format KBA used for covers. Now the company has invested in a Ricoh inkjet press which is starting to delivery the colour quality it wants on standard book papers.
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Bell & Bain installed its first high speed MBO folding machine in 2011.
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