15 December 2014 Print Companies

Park life: where print and communication go hand in hand

Park Communications has moved from Hackney to Beckton and into the premier league of sheetfed printers.

Park Communications has come a long way in the last seven years, even if the physical distance travelled is less than ten miles. It moved from a red brick factory on the fringes of Victoria Park in the East End of London to a set of modern industrial units in the shadow of the Beckton Alp, using the opportunity of the forced relocation to completely reposition the business.

In the old factory, demolished to make way for the Olympic Park, corporate research work had accounted for 40% of sales. While the business is now one of the very few printers capable of handling report and accounts work for the FTSE listed companies, typesetting and printing overnight research reports have all but gone. In their place Park has earned a reputation for top quality printing, underpinned by winning awards for customer service and its environmental policies as well as its print quality.

Customers are an enviable collection of luxury retailers, property companies, auction houses and niche magazines, leavened by what managing director Alison Branch calls bread and butter work, for charities, education and the Liberal Democrats.

“With the move we have maintained the core bedrock of mid-market work and have been able to replace the financial work with work where customers are looking for differentiation through quality and creativity. It is work that requires a lot of project management and that has been built around the core values of Park,” she says. It remains work where price is still a factor even if the competition is less intense.

Those core values have also helped establish a financially strong business without borrowings and which is preparing to embark on a major investment programme next year. After a period with VC money to fund a management buyout, the business is fully owned by its directors, Branch, Heath Mason and works director Paul Walker.

Branch continues: “We are known for print quality and for the importance we place on the environment and CSR. All that has stayed from before the move and we have added to that the expertise, for customers who have the budgets, the ability to handle beautiful creative projects.”

The proof is displayed in a rack of samples showing the use of different papers, creative finishing, case binding and in one instance, an acetate cover that has been screen printed. “The customer was delighted,” she says. Such work requires close cooperation with outside partners and their importance is acknowledged: “The right partnerships are critical. We are careful about protecting our brand.”

Brand building has been a slow process. It has, however, put the company in the top echelon of London’s printers. Indeed of the few printers who regularly handle report and accounts work for FTSE corporations, the company, just seven minutes down river from Canary Wharf, is the closest to the City and the client. Among those it has handled this year is the St Ives report.

Other printers that in the past have gained the sort of reputation for quality that Heath Mason is acquiring have fallen by the wayside, from Oakley Press, through CTD, Royles and St Ives subsidiary Westerham. The company knows this. Indeed it bought Granite, the Southend company which had quickly earned a name for the quality of its printing, when that company failed in 2011.

The skills in prepress and pressroom were retained and moved to Beckton where they been encouraged. Branch explains: “We bought Granite for its craft skills and to enhance quality. The challenge is how to keep those skills and to commercialise them in order to make money,” she says, adding: “Others have tried and failed before us.”

It would be equally fruitless if there were no demand for print of this nature. Branch is convinced that not only is there a market, but that it is a growing one.

“There is a real opportunity out there. Print is coming back into fashion as the effectiveness of email falls away. It’s because of the emotional response that print can generate through image quality, tactile papers, finishing and where colour is important. It’s about high fashion, how you make a statement about a luxury lifestyle, yachts, expensive properties and creative publishers where magazines can sell for £10 each.”

Print is finding its place in the marketing spectrum, alongside digital products rather than instead of them as a vibrant medium rather than one that is passé. The nature of the customers Park works with have also changed in recent years. Many designers have little if any experience in print, so while there is renewed interest in the impact of print, they need assistance to get there.

This demands project management, one of Park's core skills have been nurtured from its financial sector background where working hand in hand with corporates, investment houses and banks is critical to delivering documents presenting complex financial information on time. Projects are managed through three teams of account handlers supporting the sales teams.

One of these teams is specialist in financial work, another focuses on complex jobs. “In the luxury end of the market customers love advice on the papers they can use and the finishes that are possible. They are looking to extract the most from their budget. It means that we get involved at the early stages of a job – it’s almost account direction,” Branch explains.

She retains a couple of personal accounts to keep close to market trends and thinking. However, there is no complacency. She says that while the company’s reputation is continuing to rise with every award, the amount of churn on the market means that acquiring new customers is a constant requirement. It is one in which the whole business is engaged.

The move to Beckton provided the opportunity to lay the business out in a way that was impossible previously. There is a bright entrance to greet visitors who can be directed to a meeting room on the ground floor. A waiting area has a cabinet for the company’s awards. Upstairs is a boardroom with striking pictures of wildlife photographed around the capital.

It fits with the Park Communications name. This is deliberate Branch explains. The name was chosen because the previous factory was located close to Victoria Park, a vast open space in the East End, and because it reflected the sustainability that the company aspired to. Victoria Park was also the location for many management meetings she adds. “It reflected how we wanted the business to be seen,” she says.

The commitment to production in the most environmentally friendly way began before the move with Park becoming one of the first printers in the UK to gain the ISO 14001 standard. It has since joined the more exclusive group that have Emas.

This certification adds a layer of robustness to an environmental management system by publishing figures about impacts and being more rigorously audited than ISO 14001. Both emphasise continuous improvement, which a decade on remains possible. Current projects including adding insulation to the roof space which will cut heating needs by 1°C across the factory and installation of fast opening and closing shutters to reduce heat loss. Heat generated by its five server cabinets is also ducted into the factory rather than to the outside air.

There are other certificates, for FSC and PEFC to support the sustainability ethos, ISO 9002 to underpin its management process and soon to be joined by ISO 27001 for data security and Heidelberg’s implementation of ISO 12647-2. It already runs to the standard, indeed work for the Christie's auction house demands tighter tolerances than the ISO, but the certificate will provide outside rigour and further proof of the company’s approach to prospective customers.

The standards are equally important as tools to install process control through the business. “We are one of the not so many companies that try to make these work for us,” she adds. “For that reason implementation has to be top down.”

Where the directors have led, managers are empowered to follow. Any mistakes are reported and customer claims thoroughly investigated. In the manner of printing this can be challenging. A job rarely completes as estimated, Branch explaining that the initial inquiry is often to get the go ahead and the budget for a project.

By the time the files are sent to Park, the job will have changed several times. Keeping track of these changes is critical. Files are preflighted rigorously with around 60% containing some error that needs attention. Image quality is a key criterion.

Park has developed its own way of handling images for quality work, being able to combine FM style screening and AM on the same page, according to image requirements. This is called XD Screening and is a key differentiator even if as Branch says “most images are not good enough for FM”. Instead is used for charts, property plans and tables, especially where reversed out text is needed. “It allows us to print with much more detail and works well on flat tint areas, but we have to decide job by job whether to use it,” she says. This is another of the skills brought over from Granite.

The system is set up so that there is time for this type of image processing work, hence the importance of preflighting early to pick up any problems before they become expensive to rectify and to be capable of coping with inevitable last minute changes.

A Tharstern MIS is at the heart of the process, tracking every job from estimate and order through to delivery. Park Communications has customised the core system to meet its requirements including the addition of a module to track a job through the bindery. The scheduling module is also integral, the flow of jobs being shown on screens across the departments. “Autoscheduling is fantastic,” she says, “particularly with the extension for bindery and outwork management. It shows everything, every job and everything about that job.”

The level of detail is typical of the way that Park has always worked, causing the VC shareholders to comment that Park Communications is organised like a much bigger company, says Branch.

In production management there is an overview of jobs in progress, in prepress the jobs being processed using colours to show status and alongside the presses, the schedule of jobs that can be expected that day.

The company currently runs two ten-unit Speedmasters, an eight-unit machine and a two-colour, all B1 machines. These are supplied with ink from a Technotrans pumping system delivering Huber ink, which minimises the ink wasted compared to tins or cartridges and fits with the sustainability ethos. It is an investment that not all companies make. Likewise every Fujifilm plate emerging from the two Screen platesetters is checked for quality and accuracy before being delivered to the Heidelberg presses.

This may change next year as the next investment for the press room is being investigated. The service and support offered will be key parts of the decision she says, just as it is for Park's customers. The investment will be rigorously tested according to return on investment criteria, just as the company learned when it had private equity shareholders. “We do not buy as a reflex action. Everything is thoroughly costed,” she explains. “We have no gearing, so have plenty of borrowing capacity.” This would also allow the company to make acquisitions should the need arise, but Branch is aware that acquisitions take longer to integrate that anyone anticipates. “There is so much more we can do as we are,” she says.

The bindery has gained a Muller Martini Acoro binder with long gathering section to cope with report and account work. A barcode reader is fitted to spot that the correct sections are being fed as the camera systems do not help distinguish between one page of financial data and the next. Next comes a mailing line and further digital print capacity to handle short run work and to provide the capability for variable data.

Digital, however, is not going to oust litho. The company needs the firepower and the perfecting that litho still provides. Likewise the process offers more potential in the form of special colours and effects and the consistency of printing to the ISO standards. “Digital will be for existing customers who wouldn’t have considered Park for digital printing, and for short run where we might migrate some litho work,” she explains.

If the presses are the heart, IT is the brains managed by two full time employees for the 130 total. The server room is accessed through a security pass available only to a limited number of relevant staff. Doors around the factory are all pass key controlled and 28 cameras keep watch. “We have always offered security of data for customers, so it makes sense for us to take that to the next step and go for the ISO 27001 badge,” says Branch.

It ties in with investment planned to expand its digital capability, currently built on a brace of Xerox 8000s for short run colour and some variable data. In January a mailing line will arrive, extending what is a limited service to one able to take on direct mail projects.

Confidentiality has long been part of the culture, thanks to the financial print background and to the reports and accounts business where the numerous figures and tables are guarded during the production process. This will entail teams from the client coming to Park Communications to pass sections for press, sometimes for 48 hours at a time. The guests have a choice of three rooms, decorated differently and distinctly and with creature comforts that combine home or office with a hotel. One of the three has a pool table, another a dartboard. All also have room to work as well as play.

Retailers and agencies will also come for a press pass, if only on the cover and the first section of a project. This also applies to the range of design led magazines that has been spawned by London’s creative sector.

“For all our customers we will produce a beautiful quality. It is just that the luxury jobs have more complexity to them, but with all our jobs the creatives know they will get a beautiful product. Even if it’s black only, the blacks will be consistent and the customer will get the job on time.

“Whenever we ask customers what it is they value about Park, they say project management and that they know they will get the job that they want on time. And then it’s about how you deal with a problem. Previously employees may have been scared to raise an issue, but here people really aren’t and the problem will be tackled, right the way to the directors if it is a serious problem.”

This helps account for the low staff turnover at Park Communications. In turn this helps build the long term relationships with clients that help communication and jobs to run smoothly, especially as time scales are under increasing pressure. There is constant training and during quieter periods it organises workshops to find ways to improve the process. The aim is to empower people at all levels.

Another difference is that the account teams will handle fewer jobs than equivalent teams in other printers says Branch. If there is less pressure service can be better and fewer mistakes made. As with the environment where Park Communications has won Print Week’s environmental printer of the year award three times in the last four years, this is recognised in awards for customer service.

Park Communications runs regular Teach ins to provide some print knowledge to designers; it sponsored Kinetica as part of the Frieze Art Fair in London; it enters and wins awards for quality, for its environmental stance and for customer service. “It’s about providing clients with a great customer experiences,” she explains. “It has taken a long time to build our brand and reputation. Now we are much better known in the markets we target.”

In the end Park Communications will thrive if its products continue to deliver for its customers. And this is where the emphasis on quality, on being able to print on different substrates and managing complex projects in a low impact manner will pay off. Its management systems are honed to show where the company can make money so avoiding work that carries no margin, while identifying opportunities as the tide turns in favour of ink on paper.

For Branch, the use of email has peaked, at least for the moment. Email boxes are clogged and although cheap, many now resent having to handle unwanted email, the junk communication of the 21st century. Instead print is coming back into fashion (and into a host of other sectors). She says: “Even the charities are using print because you cannot differentiate yourself using email. There is still a massive market for print in London.”

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Alison Branch: 'Core bedrock'

Alison Branch: 'Core bedrock'

Park Communications managing director Alison Branch says: “With the move to Beckton we have maintained the core bedrock of mid market work and have been able to replace the financial work with work where customers are looking for differentiation through quality and creativity.

"It is work that requires a lot of project management and that has been built around the core values of Park,” she says. It remains work where price is still a factor even if the competition is less intense.

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Park Communications website

Story 1 of 4

Park's portfolio

Park's portfolio

Customers are an enviable collection of luxury retailers, property companies, auction houses and niche magazines, leavened by what managing director Alison Branch calls bread and butter work, for charities, education and the Liberal Democrats.

“With the move we have maintained the core bedrock of mid market work and have been able to replace the financial work with work where customers are looking for differentiation through quality and creativity. It is work that requires a lot of project management and that has been built around the core values of Park,” she says. It remains work where price is still a factor even if the competition is less intense.

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View Park Communications' work

Story 2 of 4

The Factory

The Factory

The company currently runs two ten-unit Speedmasters, an eight-unit machine and a two-colour, all B1 machines.

These are supplied with ink from a Technotrans pumping system delivering Huber ink, which minimises the ink wasted compared to tins or cartridges and fits with the sustainability ethos. It is an investment that not all companies make.

Likewise every Fujifilm plate emerging from the two Screen platesetters is checked for quality and accuracy before being delivered to the Heidelberg presses.

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The Heidelberg Speedmaster range

Technotrans ink supply system

Huber inks

Fujifilm plates

Screen platesetters

Story 3 of 4

Customers, confidentiality and comfort

Customers, confidentiality and comfort

Confidentiality has long been part of the culture, thanks to the financial print background and to the reports and accounts business where the numerous figures and tables are guarded during the production process.

This will entail teams from the client coming to Park to pass sections for press, sometimes for 48 hours at a time. The guests have a choice of three rooms, decorated differently and distinctly and with creature comforts that combine home or office with a hotel.

One of the three has a pool table, another a dartboard. All also have room to work as well as play.

Explore more...

The customer facilities

Story 4 of 4

Picture Gallery