There have been many successful trios in the history of popular music from Cream in the 1960s, to the Police and the Jam in the 1980s to Muse for the current generation.
There are rather fewer examples of printing companies led by a directorate of three sharing the title of managing director. In many of the companies started in the last 30 or so years, directors may have shared responsibilities across finance, sales and operations, but usually reporting to a single managing director.
“The two previous owners started the company 30 years ago. I joined 29 years ago, Richard 28 years ago and David 27 years ago, two of us as estimators and David on sales,” says Baxter. “We formed the junior management team and bought the business 11 years ago.”
At the start it had been a business operating two- and four-colour Solnas where a job of a 1,000 four-page four-colour leaflets might take nine hours on press, perhaps with a double hit to achieve a dense black.
By the time of the MBO, the Solnas had given way to Komoris, but if reasonably equipped, the business they bought was not as the trio anticipated. In the years while they had been kept as the new owners-in-waiting, having been given a 10% stake some years earlier, the previous owners had stepped away from driving the business, taking lengthy holidays, working four- and then three-day weeks.
There had been little investment and Central Colour was all but insolvent. “The company was in a poor position when we bought it,” says Baxter. Only a smart revaluation of the stock of ink made the sums work.
“It was virtually insolvent as a business,” he continues. “We each made big personal commitments and it took two or three years to get back on an even keel, to cope with the inherent problems we had inherited.”
“We had looked at the option of starting a business from scratch,” says Limer, “but we decided that even with all the problems, the brand was worth the risk. We had created the brand as it stood through our own energy.”
If the previous owners had enjoyed extensive vacations, there were none for the new directors. They put in 12-hour days and drove delivery vehicles to get the jobs to customers, as staff numbers had to be cut. Many businesses might have succumbed, yet the business has survived. Says Fortune: “We still don’t go home and leave a job. We stay because we care.”
Central Colour had acquired a reputation for fast turnarounds and taking on jobs that were too daunting for others. It had meant that a commercial print business in Nottingham was able to work for London agencies.
“We had started this in the Solna days,” says Baxter. “Our niche was being able to turn work in two or three days. At that time nobody else could do this and we have maintained that reputation for doing what others can’t.”
That edge has been blunted and what was once a niche has now become commonplace. Fortunately Central had developed from offering a problem solving fast response reputation to one based on general problem solving. The company takes on the jobs that others shy away from. In a recent quote for a tricky job, Central found it had been the only company that had put in a price.
“Agencies knew that they could trust us to get them out of trouble,” Central says. This approach introduced the company to the automative business, which has become one of the key sectors for the Nottingham printer.
While many printers are happiest running 130gsm coated papers, Central almost seeks out the challenging jobs, those on unusual materials with colours to balance and which might throw up screening issues. As a result the company started to form relationships with the clients that the agencies worked for.
“As a customer moved on from one agency, they continued to place work with us,” Central adds. It shifted the focus from agency work to working directly. To this day, Central handles very little work for print management companies.
“Print management is good for commodity work,” says Fortune. “It suits some people, but that is not our market.”
Central's market is most definitely at the high end. Work for luxury brand car, construction and textile companies means an attention to detail that goes well beyond standard screens and dot gain curves. In prepress, the company will apply custom curves to a job, working with ultra fine screen rulings to achieve an exact reproduction of the stitching on a leather car seat or the walnut veneer of a dashboard.
Reproduction of white leather, metallic paints and so on is meat and drink to Central. Each case bound finished brochure may cost £8-10 a piece, but compared to the price of the car it is marketing, this is small fry.
A job like this may need 14 colours, will need to match precisely across sections and will need to be flawless. The quality of the print matches the luxury of the product. At the Geneva Motor Show, where this type of brochure can end up, Limer says he was taken aside by the customer and shown a magazine printed by another printer. “They asked what had gone wrong with the magazine, why the colours were dull and why there was so much spray powder on the job,” he says.
Needless to say there was no spray powder on the job Central had delivered. Fortune says the same applies in other markets. “We were the printer for a fabric company and scheduled a two-and-a-half hour makeready on press because this is how long we knew it would take to get the colours balanced. We lost the job to a printer that had quoted a 40-minute makeready.
“In the event we were told it had taken that company 11 hours on press and four full sets of plates to get to the point of printing. We got the job back and it took us one-and-a-half hours to make ready. When that sort of thing happens and you lose a job you can question yourself.”
“Were we doing it wrong?” says Limer. Clearly not. The fabric company is less likely to take a chance next time, but will rely on Central's ability to look at the job, to understand what tracking, screen resolutions and angles and other colour balance issues might be exposed by the artwork and then decide how to lay down and run the job to minimise these issues. It is the sort of challenge that all three, backed by the prepress and operations teams, enjoy rising to.
“This type of work is a growing part of our business,” says Fortune. It is squarely in the part of the market where the physical impact of print is setting print apart from digital marketing collateral.
The luxury market, whether fashion, cars, holidays or property, is leading on this and looking for high impact through choice of substrates, finishes, image and print quality. Print of this nature is achieving the impact and what is called cut through that digital simply cannot deliver.
“Commercially acceptable colour is simply not in our vocabulary,” says Limer. “We have to work to standards of quality that are well above commercially acceptable to satisfy our customer base.”
When the trio bought the business it was limping along with B2 and B1 Komoris, impossible to match across because of the wide discrepancy in age and condition. In 2002, a visit to Ipex threw up the possibility of buying a Mitsubishi rather than a press from one of the more traditional suppliers.
Central had an awkward job where a vibrant green needed to be printed from four-colour process inks. Only the Mitsubishi could manage it. Ironically, after the order for the press was in, the company lost that job.
Nevertheless the Mitsubishi duly replaced the two Komoris. Central has remained a single-press operation since and last summer installed its fourth press from the manufacturer. This machine is a six-colour V3000LX B1 press with coater and extended delivery.
LED lighting running up the press units changes colour to display the status of the press and impress onlookers. It is described as a Ryobi MHI press on the feeder, since changed again to RGMT, the identity the manufacturer has taken on since last year.
It has been installed along one wall of the factory, painted a similar colour to the press in order to show it off to best advantage. A viewing platform gives clients an ideal view over the machine.
Elsewhere pallets of paper and work in progress are neatly arranged and the floor kept clear of rubbish. It may not match the obsessive cleanliness of a food or pharmaceutical packaging plant, but for a commercial printer, Central is presentable indeed.
At the far end of the factory a new Muller Martini stitching line is in place, next to a freshly painted and upgraded MBO folder. A Heidelberg folder and die cutter ensure that the company can handle the bulk of work under one roof.
It has strong connections with a local foiling business, with a nearby trade binder and laminator for work needing the additional finishes. Thread sewing and case binding in particular are right on trend.
On an upper mezzanine level are offices, the viewing gallery and a hand finishing area where staff can either take on a full job or else produce hand made samples for a client. This cardboard engineering can include direct mail work and should pave the way to offer more styles of packaging.
The press can certainly cope. It has skeleton transfer cylinders and will handle substrates to 1mm thick as well as the lightest weight materials it is possible to feed. There has been little hesitation about sticking with the Japanese press supplier. The third press it operated earned a certificate for running for 1,500 days without the loss of an hour’s production due to press breakdown.
The company notched 140 million impressions on that press before replacing it after seven years. This is longer than Central had planned, but neither had it anticipated the drawn out recession.
“We found the recession tough,” says Baxter. “People were reducing run lengths which made life difficult. Now we are emerging thanks to people being prepared to pay for luxury goods. What has saved us is our ability to produce this complicated work.”
Some print jobs, he adds, have disappeared altogether and have become downloadable apps, travel being particular susceptible.
This expertise has enabled Central to get off the hamster wheel of taking on jobs just to keep the cash coming in. The business is structured to cope with a quieter month without resorting to predatory pricing. It is able to remain flexible enough to take on jobs for the core client base at short notice if needed.
There is about two or three days’ visibility on schedules. But it does not mean that more mundane work is turned down. “We are happy to do 80,000 A5 flyers,” says Central. “The press makes ready so quickly on this type of job. We are looking for the happy mix of work.”
“We had another printer who approached us about 18 months ago asking if we would handle their overflow work, at their rates naturally,” says Central. “We were easily able to turn this offer down.”
Clearly the approach is working. It is now in the happy position of being able to be selective about the work it wants to do. And the investment in press and now stitching line for the £3.5 million turnover business, demonstrates this.
The reliability of the Mitsubishi press means that Central has never needed to take out a service contract, saving on the annual cost of press ownership.
If there has been a problem in the past, it has been resolved quickly and the ability to exclude one press unit while continuing to print ensures that the company does not lose production. Hence the recognition for reliable performance.
“A business needs to continue to invest,” says Baxter. “It needs a good front end and good press.” The company’s front end is from Kodak: Prinergy, Magnus platesetter and Electra XD plates plates. “It’s a false economy to hold on to a press for too long,” Fortune adds.
There is no JDF to automate workflows and no MIS is subtle enough to cope with the knowledge built into each customer. Production meetings take place on the fly and informality prevails. Somehow this organised chaos, as Baxter calls it, works. There is tremendous trust in each other, in the staff (most have been with the business for many years), and in the machinery.
“We have great confidence in our press and that helps on sales,” says Limer. “The press can do so many things.”
Recruitment of new staff is tough. An attempt to build a new management team headed by a sales director failed and bringing in apprentices is also difficult. Baxter reckons that this has had a 50% success rate with some leaving quickly. Nevertheless there is a print apprentice who is highly praised and a finishing apprentice described as “a natural”.
The new machine arrived in July last year and has delivered a leap in capacity because of the speed of makeready on those jobs that do not need a press pass. “The night shift can get through quite a number of makereadies,” says Limer. “It took a bit of getting used to because it is so efficient, especially on work that is straight on and off rather than that needing a press pass.” The closed loop colour management and Color Navigator controls have also made an impact.
Along with the efficiency, it is a highly versatile machine, coping with cartonboard at one end and linen and silk at the other, the latter being used on a marketing brochure for one of London’s highest profile property developments.
There is a strong relationship with a number of paper merchants. Around the floor are pallets of Gmund Tactile Blanc, Claro, Olin Extra Rough, Garda Satin and so on. It printed the sample book for one merchant’s range of creative papers. At one time, says Limer, the company was the biggest consumer of GF Smith papers outside London.
Relatively little work comes from the capital. The task of spending three hours travelling from Nottingham is disproportionate for the business. It means perhaps that the quality of work that the company produces can lack the recognition that it is due. “We are a little under the radar,” Baxter admits.
That deserves to change. The urge to test the boundaries leads the company to trial different substrates and the coatings it can apply with the press. It runs what it calls evasive varnishes, combining oil based and aqueous varnishes, double hit coatings that result in a highly tactile finish, not unlike a soft touch laminate. If a customer has an unusual request, Central takes on the challenge.
Limer explains: “One customer asked us for an embossed cover, but without the debased effect on the reverse. We printed and embossed a thinner version of the material and then glued another sheet of the cover stock to the inside so that it was now smooth. The customer was delighted.”
The level of service provided is very much hands on and face to face. “This type of high quality work requires a personal relationship,” Limer says. There are no thoughts of trying to extend these relationships into other forms of printing, digital for example. Again the response emphasises that need to hold to what the company knows best.
“Why would we risk a £500,000 contract for a few business cards? There are only three of us doing this, so why would we want to tackle a £50 job,” says Fortune. “We would be in danger of taking our eye off the ball.”
In the early days Central Colour registered a suitable name for a digital print company. However, as the business has evolved there is less and less chance of it ever being needed.
Limer adds: “Digital print technology is getting better in terms of quality, it is getting faster and offering larger formats. But still the jobs that we do are not suited to digital printing. We like what we do. We are litho and will always be litho.”
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The Mitsubishi V3000LX is badged as a Ryobi MHI on the feeder, since changed again to RGMT, the identity that the manufacturer took on last year.
The machine was supplied by M Partners.
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"But still the jobs that we do are not suited to digital printing. We like what we do. We are litho and we will always be litho."
Story 3 of 3