There are two pictures on the wall of Bruce Podmore’s office at Windles. Both represent the fulfilment of dreams for the chief executive of the greetings card printer. One is the plan for the new factory that is being built for the company a mile from the three factory units it is spread over on an industrial estate in Long Crendon. The other is an image of a powerful Italian-built motor boat, the rewards for founding and running a business that employs 87.
However, the office is not Podmore’s natural home. That is an eyrie on a mezzanine above the main press room where there are lathes, drills and all the other paraphernalia necessary for the adventurous engineer and inventor.
It is here that Podmore came up with, invented and developed the cold foiling system that has been installed at 30 printers across the world and which has since been replicated by major press suppliers.
He has also built other machines that are dotted around the business, including a system for casting holographic film into UV varnishes and a machine for digesting wooden pallets and spitting out pellets to be burned in the company’s biomass space heater.
The cold foiling unit installed on a six-colour Speedmaster 102 is the fourth version of the technology and can now handle multiple ribbons of foil using a system of differential chucks to cope with different diameter reels on the same set of axes. And there is a new PLC managed control system to drive the unit.
As a result the first version of the foiling technology has been fitted to a two-colour press and has been modified to apply the holographic film effects to cards, to packaging and covers where the impact delivers more effective eye catching stand-out in more cost effective ways than hot stamped foils.
It was the cost and inefficiency of the conventional hot foiling technology – a B1 die can cost £1,200 to put together and makeready can stretch into hours – that spurred the printing industry’s James Dyson into action.
“I’m a machine man,” says Podmore, the sort that looks at a machine or process and tries to think of ways to improve it. “We started looking at other ways of doing the same or slightly different things,” he adds.
That sparked the idea of applying a cold foil by using two units of a conventional printing press. The first unit applies an adhesive using a plate to carry the blind image to be foiled with glue instead of ink. On the following unit, foil is pressed against the glue and adheres the coating, pulling away where there is no image.
Then comes four-colour printing to deliver a dazzling array of metallic effects and finally a coater to apply a UV varnish “all in one pass through the press,” says Podmore. “This delivers decorative embellishment for greetings cards much more productively because cards are heavily finished and the cost and time tied up in foil blocking is significant.
“We wanted to try and make Windles different from regular greetings cards printers.” He has succeeded and by producing inline the company has cut costs, waste and has a machine that offers huge opportunities for creative designers.
This has come at a time when greetings cards have seemingly fought off the threat of substitution by emailed greetings and remain a regular purchase for British women in particular. It is reckoned that Britons buy as many as 60 cards per head a year, covering Christmas, birthdays, weddings, redundancy and newer traditional occasion days, many imported from the US. But if the US leads in stimulating demand, the UK is acknowledged as the design leader for all types of cards.
Impact and fashion are key to success, driving quality up and driving consumers to be more selective in what they buy. Michelle Mills points out that there are around 800 UK card publishers in the UK, 600 mid-sized or large businesses and 200 being what are called bedsit publishers.
In any year, 100 of these will disappear to be replaced by another 100 optimists. However, during recession buying cards has become more discretionary and there have been casualties in the retail trade. Among printers too as Hallmark has closed its card printing operations in the UK.
For Podmore this decision is a signal that a company which started out as a card publisher is returning to focus on what it does best. “Hallmark seems to think that they can print in America and China, but it is going to be difficult to service a modern stock control system from a distant location because they will need a much faster route to market for repeat manufacture, so the UK will continue to manufacture for Hallmark.”
Changes in the way the market is served have moved the business from being wholesale focused to a retail focus, the same change in supply chains that it changing book production and sales. To emphasise this change, cards are now supplied individually wrapped in cellophane and with the correct envelope rather than in batches of six or 12 cards, sometimes in boxes with envelopes, sometimes without.
Windles has invested in two Kora lines for inserting and wrapping these cards, taking production to 120,000 cards supplied like this a day per line. And because retail now drives the system, the printer needs to be able to respond quickly, which is difficult with supply lines spread over huge distances, but somewhat easier when within easy reach of the M40.
Response is crucial too when the market is driven by innovation for new features and treatments. This plays to Windles' strengths. It has the foiling system, it has worked with many different styles of varnish including high build UV coatings to provide a highly tactile finish and varnishes that include different effects, including flitter. This is the reflective effect of metallic pieces trapped in the varnish.
True to form, Windles examined the best ways to treat the particles so they lay evenly and produce a classy, not cheap, effect, either alone or in conjunction with other what it calls Creative Varnish effects.
The company initially took a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude to its range of innovations, but reckoned without the reluctance or lack of knowledge of card and packaging designers. This changed when Windles engaged its own designer, not to create original designs and therefore to compete with its customers, but to talk the same language as the publishers and creatives and help them understand how to use the new processes that the printer was introducing. “And that led to the process taking off,” he says.
That in-house design resource has also proved useful as a help for publishers who might at times be under pressure to complete a project, by taking on the excess. “We have a broad customer base and will not become a publisher ourselves.
“Nor are we interested in becoming a Moonpig,” he says, explaining that overall volumes of cards produced by the online retailer are relatively low, that purchasers tend to be the disorganised who suddenly remember that a card is needed for the next day or day after. This is not Windles' market.
“Figures show that 80% of cards in the UK are bought by women, “ he explains. “The young do not buy lots of cards, but when women settle down and have children there are cards to be bought for birthday parties, there are thank-you cards and invitations.” And this is without the regular reminders from the greetings cards publishers that sending a card is much more personal than a text message or email.
The all-year nature of the business today means a steady flow of orders for Windles, reducing the cyclical nature of a sector that used to be focused on a few big occasions a year. Nevertheless the company has developed SIS as a separate arm to exploit the experience the company has developed with UV to print on non porous substrates, covering an array of plastics.
“We started the specialist plastics division about six years ago, offering to print on impervious substrates,” says Podmore. “It has grown and grown in conjunction with the greetings cards activities.”
It is this consistent growth that is placing pressure on space at the current site. When Windles moved here in 1989, it occupied a single unit. Today it leases three, two on one side of the yard, one on the other. Moving material from across the yard is scarcely efficient, especially as the business has grown. One set of units houses the two long perfectors arranged in line, digital printing and platemaking with card wrapping above the main floor.
One the side with the offices, the company also has die cutting, hot foil stamping, card folding machines and the press used for holographic effects. In all the company has 2,500m2 of space.
The new building will have 4,000m2 of space and will bring all production operations together on a single open plan floor with offices above which will have glass walls to look out on one side into the Oxfordshire countryside and on the other into the production space. Podmore has meticulously planned the position of every item of equipment, movement of materials and power requirements using the Cad software used to plot impositions of cards to plates or the position of dies on a matrix.
The local council has scored the development according to cycle to work friendliness, proximity to public transport, environmental impact and so on. These are the sorts of considerations that will be commonplace and essential in a few years, believes Mills. Even so this will be a statement development for Thame, which still considers itself to be a market town, not an industrial town.
Construction has started and the building ought to be complete by November. The move will increase efficiency and bring an immediate £100,000 a year saving to the business through reduction in overhead, even without the full impact of greater lighting and heating efficiency.
Podmore has planned the sequence of moving machines into the new space beginning in December. As the company has two of everything, disruption to production will be minimised. The company will take the opportunity to renew some equipment, not the major items. It will expand its digital side, currently built around Epson inkjets for proofing and an HP Indigo.
The digital operation, while not able to foil or produce most other effects in line, is becoming crucial to the business. “We set up the digital department two years ago to enable us to compete for the bedsit publishers, particularly for those that are going to succeed and become mainstream businesses.
“Some can grow to this point in 18-24 months and we found that we were failing to develop a relationship when they were small. We wanted to catch them when they were up and coming and the digital gives us a much better offering to businesses at the early stage of their career,” Podmore explains.
Digital has however been more than this. If Windles has proofed on its Epsons, it could not show the impact of foiling and hand foiling does not give the real effect that inline cold foiling and over printing produces. The Indigo can fill this gap. Again the machine man took over to reflect on the problem, looking at what might be done and resulted in Windles coming up with a solution that is unique for its purposes.
The digitally printed sheet has the range of coloured effects that the proof needed, both to show customers ahead of production and to help them design new cards as proof of concept.
The capability has also helped overcome fixed ideas about what can and cannot be printed. Most jobs will be batched on a plate according to customer and design, a number of linked designs for a batch.
Digital allows Windles to produce small numbers of reprints if one design proves more popular than others in that style, and to get across what it calls Flexifilm, where it uses the inherent advantages of inline foiling and computer to plate to mix and match different designs on the same plate because there is no cost to producing a die and tooling up for the platen. Customers tend to think that if a job was batched in a certain way, it will always be like this.
Foiling is not the only tool in the box. Podmore spreads samples across the table showing different styles of varnish, thermography and the latest development of Retro Press, a letterpress effect created using appropriate varnishes to produce some stunning effects, which are bang on trend. It is the finishing that sets cards apart and by extension their producer.
“The print aspect is often a given,” says Podmore. “It is about the creative effects of finishing. We can create textures using high build UV varnishes at full press speeds and these produce all sorts of effects when they catch the light.”
The appeal moves across to packaging where the company has samples of work produced for DVDs, drink and gift sectors. “A number of large packaging companies have come to use to provide these effects,” he says.
Through Mills’s long experience on the publishing side of the greetings cards fence, through sponsorship of the sector's annual wards and through trade exhibitions, Windles gets a feel for the emerging trends which can guide the direction of its developments. The company likes to release three each year, either using consumables, finishing processes or both.
“We want to be leading the market, providing the ideas and sparking the conversations which begin ‘Have you seen this?’ We are telling customers that we can use the process to enhance your product and we have the designer as part of the team to show you how to use it,” says Mills.
“Where we can work with the designers, we like to push the boundaries of what they can achieve. And we are working with designers and suppliers of high end luxury packaging as a result.”
She keeps track of the styles that are selling in the leading outlets thanks to a symbiotic relationship with these retailers. “It also helps that we are a mature and established business, our name is known and has been around for some time,” she adds. “Our ethos is to help customers, not give them excuses because they don’t understand why it’s not possible to print and get the job back to them tomorrow.”
Not everything works. Podmore says that an attempt at inline embossing was able to produce an effect, but not the deep draw embossing that a platen delivers and that publishers are seeking. Instead it was more like adding texture to the material, he says. It was dropped.
One development that has worked is an industrial strength chipper that chews up wooden pallets and turns them into pellets to feed into the 500kW biomass space heater the company has. As Windles receives anything up to 50 tonnes of material a day, there are plenty of pallets to go round, perhaps two tonnes a week.
Pallets are usually anathema to biomass heaters as the wood can have too high a moisture content, though not the pallets that come from Finland carrying board. Any moisture would move into the substrate consequently pallets for paper have moisture levels that are within the parameters of the boiler.
There are enough pallets to keep the factory warm and provide excess for staff to carry away. The scheme is part of an environmental strategy that has led to awards, not least for Zero Waste. “Paper and board has always been recycled,” says Podmore, “but it was a trip to the US where a friend introduced me to dumpster diving that I realised how much is thrown away needlessly.”
Instead of a waste stream, pallets became a source of energy, likewise the various styles of plastic, drinks cans, corrugated boards. The different bins are lined up to the side of one of the units along with a sign declaring “Windles Wormery", where nematodes digest sandwiches and other food items to turn them into a nutrient rich soup. “What was waste has become a revenue stream worth £30,000 a year. This is just common sense and it makes us feel good,” he says.
What makes the managing director feel good is another question. “This is not work for me, not a job,” he will say. “This is what I do and it’s fun. I’m here most weekends and rarely leave before 7pm.” However, he is easing off the accelerator. There will be a long weekend once a month to enjoy the recently acquired motor boat.
He is proud too that his daughter is studying engineering at Manchester University and that his elder son is following suit at Warwick. His second son has still to choose a career path, but is talented enough to do anything says Podmore.
This is a big change from how Podmore started out, running a print business in Aylesbury aged 21. The company ran a George Mann Quad litho press printing a 1,200x1,400mm sheet. Podmore had a contract with publisher Marshall Cavendish to print dress making patterns on 80gsm paper to insert with one of its magazines. This was enough to keep the company busy for six months at a time.
He also printed direct mail for a credit card, 15 million envelopes at a time when demographic information was all but non existent. “They would say ‘let’s do East Anglia’, and we would print for every household in the region,” he says.
Meanwhile his father had a greetings card business which had hit difficulties. The business moved to Rickmansworth and then to the present site in Long Crendon where Podmore realised he would have to focus on one type of product, greetings cards becoming the choice.
And more recently Podmore has adjusted his management style. “For the first ten years, I battled away to manage the business. It was a case of telling staff: Don’t think, but do what Bruce says. And I found that I couldn’t get beyond the 11th floor. The management style was the biggest single restriction to the business because we had created a culture of ‘Ask Brucie' before anyone could do something,” he recalls. “Then over the last five years or so, we have begun to set up a proper structure and to start working as a team. Getting that to work has been the most challenging thing, where people have been helping me.”
That is giving him the ability to take his hands from the wheel if only for a short time and indulge outside activities, indicating the picture on the wall of a sleek Italian made boat “I’ve found an interest in something that floats.”
Story 1 of 5
Story 2 of 5
Steven Smith of Benniman Construction, Matt Burgin of developer Stoford, Andrew Groves of joint tenant Groves and Bruce Podmore’s of Windles at the site of the new purpose built factory in Thame.
Story 3 of 5
Striking results are possible by overprinting the cold foil with standard process colours.
Story 4 of 5
Marketing manager Michelle Mills has crossed from the publishing side to the production side of the greetings card sector.
Story 5 of 5