Robert Lockwood is relaxed.
So he should be. The CEO of Taylor Bloxham Group has just returned from brief holiday driving from New Orleans to Nashville – in a Cadillac of course.
He is relaxed too because the business he heads is performing well. A six-colour plus coater Koenig & Bauer Rapida 106 has just finished installation at the original Taylor Bloxham factory at Tongwell Drive in Leicester; a few minutes away, fulfilment operation Fastant is bursting to the seams; Instore has already filled all the space available when direct mail arm Mailbox moved out in August last year to its own site just a few minutes away, and it too is growing in double figures. The four separate entities, each an expert in its own field says Lockwood, are now collected together as the Taylor Bloxham Group, a new umbrella company.
“We want to develop expertise in areas we want to service,” he says. “That’s complex if you try to do that on one site, because it’s very easy to drag people off to tackle a problem over here.” There is also the problem of trying to create a common culture across the four sites and brands, retaining the core brand while also exploring and exploiting the opportunities of the brands combining forces.
That common link is print, ink on substrate. “We are more than a print business,” Lockwood says. Eighty years ago when Taylor Bloxham was founded in the city, it was 100% print. Now print accounts for 46% of a turnover that could reach £30 million this year. And the print element will shrink. Litho printing is not growing, despite swallowing the large investment needed to add another HP Indigo 7900 and replace two Heidelberg presses with the new K&B Rapida 106, joining new stitcher and perfect binder installed last year.
“Print is faced with its own challenges,” Lockwood says. “We recognise the rising paper costs and that pulp prices are continuing to rise, energy costs are up and there is still over supply in the market and print is under margin pressure.
“And there are a lot of struggling companies in print that can trade for quite a while, taking years to completely disappear. The smarter printers have invested in the latest technology to become as efficient as possible.”
That is what has driven the investment programme for Taylor Bloxham. There were raised eyebrows when the company that had never moved from Heidelberg in living memory, switched to K&B, “our first press investment not with Heidelberg, and making a change is always a worry” he says. The decision, he insists, was for the right reasons.
With print runs shrinking, the press needs to be fast to makeready and fast in running and a month in, it is hitting the makeready times and target speeds expected. “We are getting a strong level of support to ensure that we meet those times. Each of the suppliers we have here, Muller Martini, Friedheim International and K&B are service focused.”
That chimes with the strategy that the business has across its four brands. It is the way to differentiate the company and thus stand aside from the world of ultra commoditised print. Currently 50% of the customers the company has do not print with the business.
Taylor Bloxham has long been associated with high quality colour printing, its regular resolution is above 200lpi and success with paint cards being testament to its colour knowledge.
The company uses its own colour experts to educate and guide its customers where in depth knowledge of the printing processes is rare, let alone the sort of colour experience that the printer has. And for some clients this pays off.
Lockwood talks about a catalogue for the leading supplier of roses in the UK. It was about working with them to ensure that the reproduction of the often subtle differences in shades in the perfect bound catalogue are accurately reproduced on the page.
“It’s not the sort of showy print that wins awards, but their marketing people are really passionate about roses and they expect the marketing material to be consistent and reflect that.
“Our people have never worked as intensely as they did on that project and the final product went beyond the client’s expectations.”
That the client appreciated working closely with the press operators, benefitting from skills and experience that are so inherent to a company like Taylor Bloxham, is missed by most in print. “I don’t think that printers are good at marketing themselves. A lot of printers deliver a lot for their customers and just do not promote it properly,” he says. This applies to the conversations that the company’s own minders had with the customer to help achieve with quality required.
The press passes that this entailed are not as regular as once they were. “There’s a layer of buyers out there who don’t have the the print expertise which was there a few years ago. Many don’t understand the process and are entirely price led. This is where we need to fill the gap, to provide the expertise about what can be achieved in print. Many do not understand the impact of changing the format by a few millimetres can have on efficiency and costs.”
It means running seminars to educate these decision makers about print. It means the services of a paper expert who is effectively acting as a back selling operation, advising clients on what is possible with which papers. “We understand that substrates are important and we have someone with more than 20 years’ experience in paper supply and who knows his way around the paper supply side, better than some paper merchants.
“He knows his way around the GF Smith, Fedrigoni and Favini papers and which print well for which jobs. The job is not to be the naysayer, but to explain the limitations of a paper, so that we know if we put it on press it will print.
“We have to demonstrate the value that we add to our customers. There are some customers who see quality as everything, and then will move the job for a very small premium on price,” says Lockwood. The performance of the new press will help should this be needed, Lockwood saying that speed of makeready will enable the B1 press to compete in the B2 sector if necessary.
However, the strategy is to work with customers over a long term relationship. That applies to the other brands. Fastant, named after the industrious insect, necessarily works with customers, providing fulfilment services from a vast warehouse holding samples of all types of products.
Typical is a tile company working with architects and builders which need samples to show their clients before placing a major order. Fastant receives these small batch orders, collects the samples, adds the personalised letter, and sends them out. It is also acquiring data about which lines have been ordered and where the orders are headed. The corollary is that it also knows which lines are not moving. And it adds up to data that a customer can use.
“It is probably the least sexy part of what we do,” says Lockwood. It does not mean that it is the least important. “It is probably the most profitable part of what we do,” he adds. And there is scope to add value to the process of storing and retrieving samples of tiles and carpets or marketing literature.
“We have developed a range of tools that provide the customer with the ability to measure and manage the effectiveness of their marketing materials. We can show where the stuff goes geographically and demographically though a dashboard that provides the analytics to show what’s happening and we can advise them on how much to print. Our job is to point out that there is stuff on the shelves which is not moving.”
It means that the company may end up printing less, at least in the short term. The task is also to respond to requests as quickly as possible. If a consumer is asking for brochures via a website that consumer is likely to be trawling more than one website in search of product information. The company that responds fastest with the brochure is in pole position.
At the same time, says Lockwood, these businesses are looking to optimise their spend on warehousing and every square foot under their control. “Why should they leave space for marketing collateral and then mail it out themselves when we can manage that on their behalf, and we can provide further insight to the client about where any piece of collateral is going,” he says.
“We accept that marketing budgets are falling and that therefore digital will come into play at some point. The challenge for us is to find a unique approach that is consistent with their budget restrictions, which means coming up with a high quality solution across all our markets.”
It is working for Fastant. The pressure on its space is growing to the point that having pushed both the display design and production arm and direct mailing out of its building, it has more than filled the space remaining, spilling into other parts of Leicester. A move to larger premises in the same area is on the cards as soon as the company finds a suitable location.
This has already happened to Mailbox, the group’s direct mail arm. Until August last year it shared space with Instore in the adjacent unit to Fastant. Direct mail was initially part of the Fastant service offering, gradually becoming a specialism in itself according to Lockwood. “We have clients who come to us just for direct mail. Mailbox has a dedicated sales force, dedicated production facility and has its own identity which we needed to carry into the market. Mailbox says what it does.”
There is no ambition to be one of the biggest mailing houses. Its target is instead the next level down where service is as important as price led volumes. “Mailings from 250,000 to 400,000 is what suits us,” he says. And those that require the value that Mailbox can impart through its own expertise in postage rates, formats and so on.
He mentions a project for the Woodland Trust, the charity that Premier Paper supports. “I don’t think it would have been successful without the team, the service and expertise we could provide,” Lockwood says. It was of course printed on paper provided by Premier.
The division has been growing quickly, at a 20% year on year rate. “We believe there is still a market place for direct mail, despite GDPR. We believe that sophisticated clients understand that GDPR doesn’t affect printed communication with customers and subscribers. And all the research says that written communication is more sophisticated.”
That said, Taylor Bloxham is cautious about the impact of the regulation on the eve of its introduction. “We are seeing a bulge in mailings as we approach the deadline, but there are also clients targeting campaigns post 25 May.
“However, we are still in territory where we can’t be absolutely certain how clients will be reacting after GDPR is implemented. We have contacted the Direct Marketing Association to understand best practice and we remain in communication with them on a regular basis.”
This uncertainty means that the company has put on hold plans to upgrade its equipment: two continuous feed Xerox machines are reaching the end of their useful life Lockwood says.
“We are looking at the next phase of investment, subject to understanding the post GDPR landscape. We know we need to make some choices about where we go next. It is not our ambition to be in high volume; there’s significant demand in that smaller arena to be providing a tailored solution using investment and customer service. It’s what we do well.”
This is a similar approach at Instore, the display print brand in the group. It works with high street retailers and brands, but not necessarily the multiples or supermarkets. “Instore provides both creative and manufacturing solutions for our clients. The approach tends to be creativity led; we will engage with clients on a creative brief before considering manufacturing.” As a result the factory has samples of 3D engineered display stands for sports shoes or health products, sectors where Instore has developed expertise.
A nine-strong design team feeds ideas to the prototyping department where a Kongsberg table cuts out the pieces to slot together to create anything from a simple FSDU to a postbox. Speed is of the essence: the FSDU can be turned around the same day, the postbox may take three days for start to finish.
Once accepted the project can be European or even worldwide, Instore organising local production and installation as much as shipping the components as a kit to be assembled on the spot. This entails dealing with clients based overseas and flights to Germany or elsewhere in Europe to discuss a project. Back inside the factory, there is a complete shop front to test out ideas for window displays on behalf of customers.
And it has the production equipment to support a campaign where the order is placed on a Monday for delivery that weekend. A Scitex 11000 is the flatbed workhorse supported by a Fuji Acuity Select HS flatbed and Acuity 3200R LED for film and banner materials. The operation is considering a one to a 5 metre machine to add a further 50% capacity to this aspect. A 3.2 metre wide cutting table is fast enough to cope in the more frantic periods.
“Instore is growing rapidly, and we can see it becoming responsible for almost 50% of what we do by the end of next year,” says Lockwood. “And until two months ago, all business was through word of mouth, based on the designs and service we can deliver.
“Our guys try to get into the DNA of a customer, it is not just quoting for a number of pieces, not just a tick box approach. We want to understand where the brand is coming from and what it needs to communicate to its customers.
“This approach differentiates us from the production houses. We have a level of experience that means we can go in to a customer as experts, I believe we know more about the sports footwear market than anyone else in the UK.”
A project will start from the design concept leading to the mock ups and finished units. If there is call for monitors, touch sensitive panels and the like, Instore can provide. It cannot yet provide the digital content. To this extent Taylor Bloxham remains in the physical world.
And while there are no immediate plans to bolt on a fifth digital marketing or content brand to the four that comprise the group, it is something that Lockwood admits people ask about. “Our strength is that we are trying to be experts and deliver products to our customers. We don’t want to go into a sector where we are not providing real expertise and solutions that work for brands,” he explains.
The challenge Lockwood sought to take on when he became group CEO after Chris Bowen stepped aside for personal reasons, has been to smooth out the pendulum swings between profits and losses to follow.
The four-prong approach should mean that each can support each other, that print, while delivering the greatest sales, can operate with a lower margin and can invest in the technology needed to remain competitive in a market that is in gentle overall decline.
The future though is not as bleak as it might have appeared a few years ago. Consumers have become swamped in digital communications and are headed back to print, understanding that they need to pay for quality content. This has kindled a rise in niche magazine publishers with high design and production values and in-depth content, the sort that Lockwood himself would be prepared to pay for. “People are getting around to the fact that they need to pay a reasonable price for reasonable content and they like to see quality content,” he says.
And there is a harnessing of the different strands that the Taylor Bloxham Group has into a group sales approach where display graphics can work with direct mail and commercial print and fulfilment to deliver a useful service to companies offering subscription and membership models. It has worked in this way in the education sector where recruiting a next generation of students is vital. Sometimes a pull up banner is simply not adequate.
“We have expertise in the customer journey, understanding what a brand needs to do to communicate to their customers,” says Lockwood. For education and membership organisations, the group sell means addressing these issues through the capabilities of each business. “It is not your traditional print solution,” he says. “It’s about how you demonstrate to the customer that you are adding value to their business and not just engaged in a cost fight.”
The group approach applies to the 210 staff that the company has across the four sites. Culturally they need to understand the challenges that the company faces and how their jobs are changing. At the print arm, the next project is implementation of a workflow management system that starts with a Tharstern and Switch solution to ensure a flow of print ready files, then to include planning and delivery of a file direct to the press.
“It is an issue for staff, but they have to embrace it. Our people have relied for a long time on the skills of the individuals involved. Now they have to understand that if we follow the process, we will get the same result.
“This will release people to gain new skills,” he says, adding: “We want to encourage staff to think in terms of the group – it would be very easy to become a silo type business, so we are trying to come up with ways to avoid that. I have started a CEO Blog as part of a way of thinking how we can communicate across the four sites.
“It’s about making that communication current by using the technology instead of relying on quarterly staff meetings as we used to. People want to know if we have won a contract, or lost one, and which people have moved between the sites. We are not a big company, but we need to address it so that they understand that they are part of a group.”
It is a strategy for a forward looking print centred business that is about using modern technology to deliver communications to customers with the right message, in the right form at the right time.
But Lockwood understands that print can be more than this. That the physical format remains important, hence the failure of ebooks to wipe away printed books. His experience on holiday affirmed this. There following the music trail from the Deep South towards the north and in New Orleans, he says, he came across a thriving letterpress print business.
“We have become so used to digital communications that well presented print can be something new, something that people value.”
“We are more than a print business,” says Taylor Bloxham CEO Robert Lockwood.
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A 3.2 metre wide cutting table can take work from any of the three large format inkjet printers that Instore has.
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A nine-strong design team feeds ideas to the prototyping department.
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A six-colour plus coater Koenig & Bauer Rapida 106 has been installed at the original Taylor Bloxham factory at Tongwell Drive in Leicester. A focus on service, as well as fast makeready and running won the investment.
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