25 March 2019 Print Companies

ImageData is open for business as an outward looking print group

ImageData Group has grown to be one of the largest print groups in the UK while remaining very much under the radar. With a new team driving the business, this is starting to change.

There is a mission statement on the wall of the foyer at ImageData Systems head office in Willlerby near Hull. It declares that the company aims to be “the leading independent print and communications company in the UK and beyond by continuing to invest in fast secure cost effective technology driven print solutions…”

This is a far cry from the original mission statement, assuming that there was such a thing, when Roger Birkin formed ImageData Systems 35 years ago to create and produce printable barcodes. In those days barcode identification was new and there were frequent problems caused by unreadable and inaccurate barcodes. The mission of the young business was to sort this out. It did.

Clients in retail for whom it printed stock lists, pricing lists and ticketing were grateful. ImageData said yes when retail customers asked it to produce more instore print, culminating in the business today.

There are production sites in Willerby where the group has its head office, a few miles west in Howden, its vast large format site and in Brighton, where Xerox iGens are used to print high value personalised printed documents.

Outwardly it is a very different business to that Roger Birkin started 35 years ago, but beneath it remains focused on finding solutions to problems with print at heart. There is a team of ten software developers, the successors to the barcode creators, who write bespoke software solutions to solve customer problems: whether that is delivering precisely the right amount of print to each outlet in a supermarket chain, whether producing manuals to operate bespoke items of medical equipment or building a personalised prospectus for someone looking for sheltered accommodation or a care home.

It is a broad spread of work, something that Helen Birkin, daughter of chairman Roger and now managing director, acknowledges. “We’re not averse to anything,” she says. There is trade work in the mix, magazines (though not as many as in the past), work for print management companies, public sector contracts that involve pick and pack overnight delivery and of course all manner of print required by retail.

She stepped up to the managing director’s seat after David Danforth retired at the end of last year. She is joined by finance director and company secretary Steven Hadfield who joined the company nine months ago and Paul Price, managing director of the Howden site.

It is a team that is very much about the passing of the baton to a new generation. Roger Birkin will still come in each morning to open the post, and remains chairman, but the days when what was in the post – invoices and payments – was enough to keep track of what was going on in the business, have ended.

And with it the culture is shifting. Darren Moulds joined the business as marketing manager last year, Glen Patrick became group commercial director and Matt Howlett stepped up as group IT director. “Most are people that have been in the business but have not had as much of a voice in the past,” she says.

The new managing director’s style is going to be more open, more communicative and transparent than in the past when the need to protect the trade secrets behind the company’s prowess at barcodes was crucial. That led to an internal first focus and some suspicion about outsiders. That attitude is changing both inside and outside the company.

Helen Birkin makes the point that trying to keep a lid on information is almost impossible due to social media and the internet. “People can find out everything about you if they want to, so why not shout about what we do?”

The marketing manager joined to improve staff morale in the first instance and immediately created a staff newsletter, Image Matters, to communicate what was happening with investment and clients, who had joined the business and to celebrate participation in charity fund raising efforts. And employees are encouraged to submit money saving or money making ideas with the promise of a reward.

This is leading to an increasing openness in its locality. ImageData Group has just joined the Hull Chamber of Commerce for the first time as the marketing effort starts to move into the community. It had produced a number of building wraps in 2017 for Hull’s stint as City of Culture, but sales opportunities locally have probably been missed because of the company’s low local profile.

“We have been a bit of a sleeping giant,” says Moulds. He has proposed that Helen Birkin judge the Hull & East Yorkshire People in Business Awards later this year and participate in the Women 4.0 event.

It recalls her own success earning ‘young woman of achievement’ for those under 25, in the industry and later ‘woman of achievement’ and her participation in the YMPs in first years in print.

She had only just completed her A levels and, before being able to consider alternative careers, her father put his daughter on sales for the litho printing business that had just joined the group. She quickly learned about litho and after pulling in a £20,000 contract, payment by commission rapidly became a salary and a career was forged.

“I have never regretted not going to university,” she says. Her elder offspring Oscar is too young to decide his future, but times have changed and he will most likely head to university and to gain at least some experience in the wider world before considering coming into the family business.

If Oscar maintains his interest in IT, it will certainly be a useful asset. IT is the spine of the business, building on the foundations set by the early barcoding days. A pitch to a new prospect is frequently less about price and quality than it is about how an IT driven solution can reduce the costs of print and improve its impact for the customer.

Birkin explains how a care home client would previously send out piles of printed material promoting all homes in its national network of residences regardless of the individual’s profile.

Now in response to information provided through the website, each potential resident receives a prospectus that is relevant to the style of accommodation they are looking for, the location, style, cost and gender. Images and necessary details are generated automatically. And when a new care home is opened, its managers can go to the portal to order everything print related, from banners and displays for the day, mailers, brochures and so on.

The secret, says Howlett, is to make the ordering system as simple and painless as possible so that untrained staff can “get on with it straightaway”. Complexity acts as a barrier to acceptance of the new way to manage print requirements.
The IT department has also built an automatic artwork generation tool, matching product images and details from a database and a series of templates coded to retain corporate design guidelines.

When a spreadsheet containing orders for display units, window graphics or shelf pricing arrives, the software extracts the pricing, attaches it to the templates and creates the print order. Just 30 minutes after receipt of the spreadsheet the job can be on press.

If it is for one of the supermarkets ImageData works for, the printed items will be packed not only in the quantities required for the individual store, but also in the walk sequence for that branch. The first aspect saves money by eliminating the excess print that then has to be thrown out for recycling, the second saves time, cutting a 10-12 hour task for remerchandising a store to two to three hours.

When ImageData can make this kind of offer part of a contract proposal, it can be compelling. “We can offer this type of bespoke software as a belt and braces approach to problem solving, then if the print requirement is big enough we will carry the development costs into the contract so that the client starts saving money immediately,” says Birkin. “We are even providing the ability for some clients to print in store.

“In the past it was always about us doing all the printing: we did the development to get the print. We are thinking a little bit differently now.”

That extends to staff. While she says there is a very loyal team, this is never without some grumbles. Press operators at Howden, for example, were pleased with a switch to a Continental shift pattern meaning a five-day week became four days to travel to work from the Leeds area. This will also make it easier to find staff for Howden as the site has grown.
There is to be more staff engagement throughout the business. Birkin explains: “When we recruited someone in the past we would meet at interview, then six weeks later, then after six months when the probationary period ended and then perhaps after 18 months to make sure there were no problems. Then we would find that we have people working here for ten years and we have not reviewed them. Now the plan is to review staff annually.”

That amounts to around 220 meetings “to make sure that people are happy and to find out that they might need a second computer screen or faster computer, or perhaps more training. In short we are investing more in our staff”.
It is a big challenge, but one she takes seriously. This interview was postponed because of her commitment to the review process. “I’m determined to do this. I will not be one of those people who say they will do something and then not do it. I don’t want to be one of those people,” Birkin says.

Better trained and more committed people should result. A group of account managers has been sent on a management training course and there will be apprentices taken into the company for the first time for a while.

“There is lots more training of all kinds taking place, advanced training in Excel, for example,” she adds. “Previously we placed a lot of emphasis on the kit. Now it’s going on the people.”

The kit, however, remains vital. At Willerby a new Stahlfolder has been installed and its operator needs to get to grips with the computer controls rather than the dials and knobs used to set the old machine. “Keeping the old folder running with rubber bands and string is simply a false economy, says Birkin.

The folder sits in a factory with three B1 Komori Lithrones, one a ten-colour perfector, another a five-colour with coater and H-UV. The company has after much effort mastered the art of printing on plastic with it, opening a whole range of different products. “It is also ideal for the last minute brochure printed on uncoated stock,” she says. “It has been a good investment.”

The presses run on Fujifilm plates. Beyond folding and guillotines there is a Sanwa auto platen and Heidelberg Cylinder for die cutting, Muller for stitching and a ColTec collator for building the sets for retailers. Down to an adjoining building, once home to a greetings card company, now houses the company’s three giant screen presses, two two-colour machines and a four-colour press.

This can be silent for most of the week, but when the company is called upon to print high coverage whites, fluorescents, and what Willerby production director Pete Shaw dubs “glittery things”, inkjet falls short and the screen machines are called into action. They are also needed to print the markings on the green felt pitches used in Subbuteo.

At Howden there is a second large format ColTec collator along with four Durst roll fed printers and two Inca X3 high speed UV flatbed presses. Two HP Indigos, one a recently installed 7900, complete the line up. It amounts to vast firepower that can be called on at the peak periods when “everybody wants everything at the same time”.

It is to fill the quieter periods that the company has been looking to diversify into adjacent sectors where the combination of print capacity and IT can be brought to bear. It has public sector clients where ImageData handles everything from design to delivery. “It’s almost a print management solution,” says Birkin.

Sales director Russell Thomas has been charged with developing the new areas having identified what were hidden USPs in the business that can appeal to a different clientele. One major pitch has been about delivery of training manuals, certificates and potentially large format printer. It is out of the company’s traditional comfort zone, but the core skills are in place.

In Brighton, ImageData’s southern offshoot, Xerox iGen3s provide the print firepower to produce pension reports and other material with a variable data and security element along with manuals, certificates and so on. A Duplo booklet maker was installed towards the end of last year, while a Muller Martini perfect binder which had been part of a plan to produce home information packs, has been moved on.

Teams from the company have visited HP in Barcelona and Durst in Austria recently in order to keep abreast of the latest and next developments. It has always aimed to stay at the forefront, investing in an image on press Komori at one point, and with more success on the first B1 H-UV Lithrone in the UK. The B2 inkjet Impressia 29 is now under consideration, she says.

A new Panotec NextMode box making machine has been installed in Howden to improve the way work is packed, reducing waste levels by creating custom sized skillets rather than generic sizes that need fill to protect the work in transit. It is one of the first fruits of the new collaborative way of operating as such investment decisions would previously filter down from the top.

Ultimately, however, the phase of the business that depended on technology for its success has come to an end. For the generation of managers now in charge, ImageData’s people are more important.

Hadfield, for example, comes from the betting industry. “He has been a game changer,” Birkin says, “bringing in lots of interesting new ideas.”

Three operations directors responsible for each site report in to him: Shaw at Willerby, Lee White at Howden and Jason Vivian at Brighton. Previously the group had a single operations director with responsibility across the business who inevitably came to focus on the Howden large format inkjet business to the detriment of the other plants. This change has addressed that deficiency and invigorated people in those locations.

Along with the new clients there are customers who have been with the company for more than 30 years, long enough to have become firm friends as much as business colleagues. To have achieved this suggests that ImageData has been successful in providing the levels of service that customers want. IT solutions are helpful at tying customers in, but they will not stay if the basics are not right.

“We are continuing to evolve, and have never rested on our laurels,” she says. “It means that they do not feel the need to go back to the wider market.”

Alongside the people focused initiatives, there have been changes to formalise other processes, budgetary for example, so that the business knows where it is in almost real time. “We can now see where we are every day,” says Birkin.

Seeing where the business will be in five years is trickier. “We would like to increase our turnover to £30 million – profitably.” That may involve acquisitions, though with Hadfield only in situ for nine months, nothing can be expected in the immediate term.

The emphasis is on running what exists rather than taking on more. It is about growth and expansion and optimism for the future.

“Print is still a good business to be in,” says Birkin. “We have so many success stories, where the office junior has become a senior account manager with the benefits in terms of salary and status.”

The business though is changing under new direction. It has never been purely a print operation, she says, print being the product of a data led business that, to complete the mission statement in the foyer, is about “…providing our retail, corporate, trade and public sector clients with outstanding visual communications.”

By Gareth Ward

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Helen Birkin

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“In the past it was always about us doing all the printing: we did the development to get the print. We are thinking a little bit differently now,” says Helen Birkin, managing director.

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