Direct and to the Point: How Production Print Direct Stays Ahead

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Direct and to the point

Production Print Direct has recently celebrated a decade in business and is going from strength to strength as the company stays at the cutting edge of a changing commercial print sector.

A decade in business is something to be celebrated. About one in five businesses in the UK fail within the first year, with 60% going to the wall before they reach three years. Add in a changing commercial print sector, and to it to 10 years is notable – and that is what Burnley-based Production Print Direct has achieved. But Mike Ashforth, managing director of Production Print Direct, is not content with that – he is now looking forward to the next decade for the business.

The genesis of Production Print Direct came, as many business ideas do, when Mike spotted a gap in the market. He had already had a long career in the production print sector, including spending many years working for Konica Minolta, where he rose to become regional manager of the production team in the north, before moving on to Ricoh.

But his move into running his own business came when he spotted a gap in the market for a rental model. “I realised that there was a gap for somebody independent of manufacturers to take the service approach,” he says.

“It was at the end of the credit crunch era that we saw the potential to develop a rental model first, which allowed printers that couldn’t get access to finance of £20-50,000 needed to acquire machines to dip their toes in the water with a production device on a usage only basis,” he explains.

That was the catalyst for setting up Production Print Direct in 2013. While moving from being a sales manager to managing director of your own business can be quite a jump, Mike says it was one he was prepared for.

“I had built up a good reputation with customers within the industry and had contacts with a lot of people across the much wider industry within HP, Konica Minolta, Ricoh, Canon and beyond,” he says. 

“I saw some of the mistakes that were being made by others in the sector, which then allowed us to create this niche business.”

The business quickly evolved from a rental to a sales and service model. “Most people in the channel tend to have some production capability on the back of their photocopier or managed print service business, whereas we did it the other way around. We’re probably about 96% production. That’s given us a niche that so far hasn’t been copied.”

Mike adds that some businesses in the channel shy away from the commercial print side of the sector. “Commercial printers are seen by some as difficult to understand and difficult to please. And to be fair, if that’s not your niche, you’re right. Commercial printers have a different set of challenges and not being familiar with those challenges will just end up costing a lot of time, money and frustration. But because we’ve gone down a dedicated route, that’s what we’re used to. It’s much less of a challenge for us to operate on that basis.”

Mike says that printers in, for example, a firm of solicitors will be printing consistently the same sorts of documents, and it is easier to provide what they need on a daily, monthly and annual basis. “Whereas commercial print might be swapping the media 12 times a day on the same device,” he says. “It may require slightly different setups for everything and then if there is an issue, they need someone who can understand the cause and maybe give advice over the phone or through a visit. 

“When we moved to more of a sales and service business, we found an appetite for small and medium-sized businesses that were looking to sort of divest out of litho because the volumes just weren’t there. So they’ve rescaled their businesses in terms of manpower, equipment and physical space to match the needs of the market. In doing so, that’s led to quite healthy demand for our products and services.”

Now, Production Print Direct focus on the commercial print sector and providing the sales and ongoing support to customers. “What you tend to find is now that a lot of printers operate a hybrid model where they keep the instant print in house digitally, because we have moved to a next day and in some cases a same day print service, which is impossible to do with litho, but where that volume means it’s more cost effective for it to be done on litho that’s bought in from trade printers.” 

Digital growth

But commercial print is a changing sector, and one of the major developments is the rapid growth of digital print, and this trend is set to continue in 2024 and beyond. This is being fuelled by customer demand, with on-demand increasingly being wanted, with order-today print-tomorrow quickly becoming the norm in the industry, Mike says.

To this end, Production Print Direct has a range of new cut-sheet presses from Konica Minolta along with roll fed and flatbed inkjet devices from Mimaki, which provide professional printers with a huge range of industry leading technologies. These offer quality, reliability, ease of use and  productivity.

For those working on tighter budgets, Production Print Direct also has a range of fully refurbished colour and mono presses on offer, with competitive leasing and finance terms available to help customers to spread the cost.

Different approach

But it isn’t just about providing quality products. Production Print Direct tries to stand out from the crowd with its approach to customers. Rather than going in with a sales-led approach, it is service-led, and built upon long-term relationships with customers and, importantly, honesty, Mike says.

“Somebody from our service team would be involved in that buying process early on with customers, so we work with them to understand exactly what the requirement is, so that it gives us an opportunity to say, ‘I don’t think we’re a good fit for you’ if that is the case,” he says.

“What can happen in the sales-led approach is that a solution is specified and provided, the service team is then involved from a setup, installation and training perspective. And then it dawns on everybody that it’s not going to be a good fit for the business. And unwinding legal agreements is extremely difficult to do and it’s something we don’t want to get involved in. 

“If we do it the other way round and we find that it’s just not going to work, we can shake hands with the customer and back away. We’re not just chasing sales for sales sake. We want long-standing relationships.” 

This approach also helps to build the reputation of the business with other customers. “We do very little vertical marketing,” says Mike. “But we do get a lot of inquiries from customers of our customers or friends of our customers who say, ‘these guys will look after you’. Our reputation has grown and grown over the last 10 years.”

Growth of label

Alongside the growth of digital is a need for better labelling products, which offer speed, efficiency and less waste – and therefore greater sustainability for a business.

Digital technology means that smaller batches can be printed, and to different specifications as required. “You can say to a customer, I can produce these labels for you with 24 hours’ notice, and they can be printed as required, rather than having to buy in a year’s worth in one go,” explains Mike.

“Being available to print on demand is attractive to their customers. A lot of companies are now fully realising that they must change and be more flexible in the way that they do things, and this is one way they can do that.”

It also creates opportunities as it means that new printers may be required. “You’ve got this legacy of ageing equipment that needs to be replaced,” Mike says. “When you start looking at the cost of that equipment and the much lower volume requirements of their customers, then digital starts to look like a very attractive option. It’s a market led demand.

“We see label production as coming to a place that cut sheet digital production has been for the last 15 years, and that’s coming at a reasonable pace. I think similarly with packaging, demand is created by end users and that is forcing change on the industry. Nobody now expects to wait weeks for print, and nobody now expects to order tonnes of stuff. They expect to be able to order what they want, when they want and for it to be delivered with a quick turnaround. You only need to go back about 20 years and you would wait two to four weeks for print. A lot of jobs are now required next day, if not same day and it’s driven by customer expectation.”

Konica Minolta partnership

The inclusion of Konica Minolta’s Industrial Print solutions is designed to meet growing demand for digital print solutions. “In the past many commercial printers have outsourced their label requirements believing that it is too expensive or complicated to do in-house,” says Mike. “However, Konica Minolta’s range of digital label and packaging press solutions addresses this by delivering the flexibility of short run jobs with predictable and affordable costs. Working together with Konica Minolta, we can provide cost-effective industrial print solutions that open these opportunities to embrace label printing, enabling our customers to deliver a more diverse offering with attractive margins, with the flexibility and certainty of completing jobs in-house.”

Along with the digital presses Konica Minolta also offers full workflow solutions that enable label printers to optimise their operations, accurately estimate job requirements/costs, and manage workloads more efficiently. These systems also facilitate the introduction of variable data printing, QR codes, and the ability to combine other processes with digital label printing.

“The AccurioLabel portfolio delivers highly versatile and low-cost digital alternatives to Flexo, with a cost per linear metre and options for web-to-print, which work exceptionally well for flexible quick turnaround jobs that our customers need,” says Mike. “Working in close partnership with Konica Minolta, we offer the collaborative benefits of a respected manufacturer and local expert supplier to deliver market-leading label equipment and a fully tailored end-to-end solution.

“Konica Minolta has brought some stunning products to the market that sit exactly where demand is headed. It’s got the quality we know because it’s using technology that we’ve been servicing independently but have been working with for years. 

“We know how to make it produce what our customers expect. Konica Minolta have always built a product that is fit for purpose and very serviceable. So we’re not going to find any nasty gremlins that nobody expected. That’s why we stick with Konica Minolta as a manufacturer almost exclusively on the cut sheet, labels and packaging side.

“We only got the accreditation from Konica Minolta in January so we’re looking to start our marketing campaigns for this with immediate effect.”

With this on board, Mike is looking confidently to the future for Production Print Direct, and, as the sector continues to change, the company is well set to capitalise on this and help more customers to make the transition to digital.