07 May 2018 Business

Clays optimistic for growth under new owner brings a touch of Italian colour to its strength in mono books

Fast expanding Elcograf has made its first non Italian acquisition with the purchase of the UK's largest single book printing business.

St Ives has sold Clays, its last printing business, to Italian print group, Elcograf for a total consideration of £23.8 million, severing an involvement with printing that dates back more than 50 years.

The deal is the largest yet for Elcograf, formed by the amalgamation of the Mondadori and Pozzoni in 2008. It since acquired web offset printer Roto 2000 and book printer Amilcare Pizzi. The acquisition propels the Italian company to a European scale group, while presenting Clays with the opportunity to direct some output to Europe and to offer the publishers it works with on trade and academic books, access to colour book printing.

Clays has been investigating whether to extend its print on demand service into full colour book printing. This is tied into the fully automated warehouse that was inaugurated in 2009 to handle automatic stock replenishment for major publishers, including HarperCollins. However, unwilling to match CPI on price, St Ives relinquished this contract, leading to redundancies at the plant in Bungay. The factory now employs 700 full time staff and there are no plans to trim the workforce further.

Paul Hulley remains managing director. “This means we can continue our investment plans with confidence. The plans themselves don’t change. We will continue to adapt the business to its evolving market.

“We will offer the Elcograf colour capability to Clays customers. Elcograf is investing heavily in that colour capability at the moment, at the Verona site, and the resultant capacity will enable UK publishers to order colour books on shorter lead times; supplied in the UK through Clays own distribution network. It is a strategic opportunity for the UK market.”

That investment has included new web presses and four Heidelberg Speedmaster XL162s. As well as books, printed on Timson web presses which it has in common with Clays, Elcograf also operates a Cameron belt press to deliver completed paperbacks. The group also includes gravure printing, used to produce the Ikea catalogue and the majority of Italian newsstand magazines.

However, Elcograf does not yet have the inkjet and digital capacity that Clays has built up with Kodak, HP PageWide and Indigo presses. “We expect to invest further in our capacity in Bungay,” says Hulley. “The UK mono market is moving further down the run length scale and we will ensure we are able to continue the re-positioning of our business as a logistics function within a more agile publishing supply chain.

“We are part of a print group again; committed to print and with a passion for books. From our customers' perspective, we are able to offer a complete solution for the physical book. And we represent a substantial European opportunity for our suppliers. It’s a very good fit.”

The deal ends an association with print that began with the Bob Gavron’s purchase of Enderby Litho in St Ives, Huntingdon, in the mid 1960s after previous venture caps came to an end. Clays became part of St Ives in 1986. It had been founded 200 years previously growing to be one of the UK’s leading book printers at the time, and had given Pat Martell an apprenticeship before he progressed to become St Ives CEO in 2009.

“We have thrived in public ownership, but this is time for a change,” Hulley says. “Our new owners are one of Europe’s largest and most ambitious print groups, strongly backed by the Pozzoni family in Italy, and is the best possible home for Clays.”

Earlier this year St Ives sold the SP Group and Service Graphics as part of a strategy to move away from commoditised printing businesses. Chief executive Matt Armitage says: “The sale of Clays is a major milestone for St Ives, which will allow our senior management team to focus entirely on growing the group's strategic marketing businesses, both in the UK and internationally.

“Over 50 years ago, St Ives was founded as a print business. But as our markets and customer preferences changed, we too evolved, reducing our exposure to the commoditised print markets while embracing the digital world, becoming a leader in the marketing services industry through acquisition and organic growth.”

It was not the only deal last week for Pozzoni and Elcograf. It completed the purchase of Eurogravure and NIIAG. This consolidates its position as Italy’s largest print company. Eurogravure runs four gravure operations, NIIAG can call on three 80pp and a 48pp web offset machines.

Gareth Ward

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Bungay factory

Bungay factory

St Ives will remain landlord of the Clays business even as it sells the book printer to Italian company Elcograf which is itself leading the consolidation of Italy's volume print sector.

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