The RyanAir flight from Nuremberg to Stansted is one that Aron Priest has travelled in one direction, Patrick Piecha, Michael Fries and others from Onlineprinters have travelled in the other. Trips between Neustadt an der Aisch and Southend on Sea will become more frequent and will involve more people in coming months as the honeymoon period following the German company’s acquisition of Solopress beds in.
There is no pre-ordained acquisition action plan where a team from the new owner rolls in to implement a new strategy. Solopress is growing fast. This is also the first deal for Onlineprinters and the UK company has stuff to teach the new owner as well. It is not about to become Onlineprinters (UK) Ltd. And as Solopress is very successful in its own right, there is no pressure to impose such change.
Solopress, in any case, has its own expansion plans, an 1,700m2 factory next to its much extended main factory, is being gutted, refurbished and prepared and will become a new production unit, taking overall oor space to 7,500m2.
Managing director Priest is not sure yet whether this will house Xerox iGen digital presses, Heidelberg Speedmaster litho presses or Jetrix wide format inkjet presses, all of which the company currently has. These have helped Solopress into prime position as the UK’s leading online printer, running seven B2 litho machines, five toner machines and two large format inkjet presses.
As Onlineprinters is one of the leading German internet printers, the union offers the opportunity to enhance both propositions. Solopress ships the vast majority of its orders overnight, something that Onlineprinters has not specialised in; Solopress also operates a live chat customer service desk, again something new to the German business.
In turn Onlineprinters will be able to deploy its greater resources to offer an expanded range of products to Solopress customers as well as the speed of service to existing UK customers.
“We provide professional printing products to people that don’t normally have access to them, particularly in the B2B area,” says Priest. “Such as small shops that don’t have access to yers at a good price.” The drive through Southend and its neighbours Shoebury, Westcliff and Leigh, shows strings of carpet companies, small restaurants, window fitters, hairdressers and day spas, tool hire and bathroom suppliers. All provide the fodder for Solopress.
Priest has always worked on the basis of offering a good price. He started on his own in what is now just a corner of the current factory, running a Solna 425. This was ACP Print, the factory extended to 1,000m2 squeezing in a Wohlenberg guillotine alongside the Solna with a Screen AO printing down frame and shower tray to hand process the plates.
“On the day I opened, Andy Smith came in. He added if I had any customers and I said ‘No’.” Smith had a small business called Solopress creating artwork and lms to print on a Multilith. An unfortunate re had put this out of action.
The collaboration between Priest and Smith started as a partnership of convenience and has continued to this day as Solopress expanded from a business where Priest was working all hours to get work out at very keen prices. “Time was very relevant,” he recalls. “I shaved my head so I didn’t need to waste time getting a hair cut, and dinner was brought to me in the factory to eat as the press was running.”
He was able to talk to the printer next door as a there was a hole in the dividing wall, but that did not last. “Andy was doing jobs as a result of advertising in Exchange & Mart,” says Priest. The growth of print using templated impositions and jobs to ll the slots spurred the partners. “We felt we could do better,” he says.
The same year the young business bought its first Heidelberg “that took us to the next level”. A salesman came on board to build business mostly from customers in London. It might have continued to grow at a steady rate. “We weren’t on the internet on those days,” says Priest. When Solopress created the first website business really took off, the company growing from 35 to 65 staff in three months putting the traditional business under pressure.
“People were calling every day,” says Priest. And as they did Solopress grew as needed, adding first SM74s and latterly two XL75 long perfectors; it bought digital presses, fully expecting digital to eat into litho printing.
“When I went to Drupa last year, I was pleased that litho was still very much the number one print technology,” he says. The presses are housed where there is space: the ten-colour machines alongside each other, two five-colour presses here, three iGens upstairs and others squeezed in where there happened to be room.
It is not unlike Onlineprinters where presses were accommodated where there was space as the company expanded, taking on extra factory space as needed. This is a strong point of affinity between the two. Both also use exclusively Heidelberg presses and have finishing focused on Horizon. Currently Solopress has MBO folders, Polar guillotines and a Muller stitcher alongside the Horizon binders and booklet makers. Looking ahead Horizon will take a greater share reflecting the close relationship between printer and supplier in Germany.
This led to development of a folder linked to the stitcher line shown as the Foldline at Drupa 2016. It delivers the quality needed and eliminates further process steps and speeds production. It is the sort of technology that could find a place in Southend.
Print technology itself has become less important to Solopress than the technology on the order processing side. This has become highly sophisticated and automated. It has had to be as order volumes have grown.
In the early days an account handler would be able to cope with 100 jobs in a 14-hour stint. Today 600-800 jobs is the norm in an eight-hour shift. The row of desks working on live chat conversations with customers aim to upsell quantities or materials or cross sell to add banners to an order for yers, for example. Each of the operators is managing five or six conversations simultaneously as different customers come on line.
Another row of desks houses data analysts constantly checking the competitive nature of the company’s pricing against other websites, monitoring traffic and listening to social media. It will order from competitors to keep an eye on the quality, service and how a job is presented. It is crucial that the business can respond to unwanted comments or unfriendly reviews.
If someone has found a good way to package a delivery, Solopress wants to know. All its jobs are sent out in double walled plain corrugated, with a delivery label in clear view. It has taken its cue from Amazon in this regard.
Once a new job is booked, the order is matched with the paper to be used, planned to the B2 sheet in seven seconds and sent to the production queue.
For Solopress this is the cardinal sin. Plates must be at press side when needed. The press must not stop except for the time to lift and replace plates. Other screens in the customer facing areas show how each operator is faring in terms of jobs and order values booked, conversion of inquiries into jobs.
This is welcomed, Priest explains. “People can see the impact that they are having on the business each day,” he says. There is also an element of competition as to which operator is ahead of the other. Not surprisingly all are young, though elsewhere in the business there is a mix of ages.
Jobs are also coming via email and undergoing the same production flow. “We have to make sure we answer inquiries from clients inside one hour,” he says. “When customers come to Solopress it has to be an experience – we have to give them a good experience.” He adds that the company’s email servers “are huge”.
If they do not get this, disgruntled customers will take to social media to vent their disappointment. Solopress lives by the reviews it receives. A picture posted to Instagram with poor quality or damaged work, poorly finished print or where the numbers fall short of the number ordered (and Priest explains that customers will count by hand that they have received precisely the 2,500 A5 flyers ordered) will have the sort of unwanted impact that a dozen perfect reviews will be needed to counter.
If there is a question directed to the managing director via LinkedIn and he can’t respond personally, it is handed off to a team to deal with immediately. The experience of dealing with Solopress is not left to chance.
And for the Solopress team,the clock is always ticking. Each morning two DPD truckers park up outside the finishing unit, a former Customs and Excise office a few hundred metres from the print factory. The first leaves for the Birmingham hub at 1.30pm; the second leaves at 9.30pm for next day delivery to customers.
Everything is geared to meeting these deadlines. It is a cultural aspect that, Priest says, confers an advantage.
“We have built the company on 24-hour delivery,” he says. “Others are trying to follow what we do, but will have to re-educate their staff to do so. Here everybody is working to the same goal, that of getting the job on the truck by 9.20pm.”
It is surprising perhaps,that there are no clocks decorating the walls of the various production areas.
However, there is one on the website. Solopress was the first UK company to add a countdown clock to its home page, says Priest, showing how long a customer had before the production cut off time.
Most of the visitors to the home page are buying business cards and flyers, with perfect bound books and stitched brochures, banners, invitations, folded cards all part of the mix.
The vast majority is purchased by small business owners or the public at large, hence the vital role that reviews play.
There is also a growing volume of trade work as printers realise that they perhaps do not need to own presses in order to service customers, and certainly cannot compete with the prices that the job aggregators can offer.
This is the background that Onlineprinters comes from. Patrick Piecha is marketing director and says that in the early days “there was a lot of commotion around the idea that online printing companies are destroying margins. But now people see that we are printing more efficiently, that argument is over. Printers continue to service their customers.
“The most acute question now is do I buy it or do I make it. In Germany it used to be important to make it regardless of margin: this is over. Now we are delivering to a lot of other printers and send direct to their customers. These printers are our favourite customers because they understand how to create a le for print and as a consequence we never have a problem with them.
“Any fears that we would steal a customer are gone. Their customers still need the service they are used to, and that is a greater level of service than we can provide. Why would we do anything to to destroy that relationship. We see ourselves as a partner to print shops.”
The types of product that Onlineprinters delivers are becoming more sophisticated, albeit remaining within the scope of products that can be scaled in manufacturing terms.
The business card remains key. “It is the entry point to a customer,” says Priest. It is one of the most examined pieces of print. Get it right and the relationship can develop. Get it wrong and the customer will never return. “We always tell our people as we take them on to never forget that the competition is one click away,” says Piecha. “And they are highly price sensitive. A customer has to be satis ed for them to reorder.”
With the trust that multiple orders engenders, the customer is willing to try more sophisticated choices. Onlineprinters is starting to offer more exclusive papers from the likes of Fedrigoni and Gmund to the standard range of coated and uncoated grades. It has an exclusive deal with Gmund for four new styles of paper branded as Art Classics. It has also tied up a partnership to offer letterpress printed business cards.
“We want to make art papers more widely available,” Piecha says. “We are seeing greater demand for premium print products, hence the partnership for letterpress printed business cards. Our approach has always been to produce everything ourselves.
“Letterpress is the first official collaboration. Now we can offer letterpress printed cards to customers who have found it dif cult to nd this product online. We do not need to invest in the technology and can offer that business wider distribution to the 30 countries we operate in.”
It can reach most of these from the plant in southern Germany using the motorway network in continental Europe. The English Channel has always made this difficult for printers on the continent. That plus the demand for next day delivery, a search for instant gratification that has been stoked by Amazon, means that a presence in the UK is necessary to support a growing customer base.
“We already had a focus on the UK and want to be a big player here,” says Piecha. “We are producing a lot of work for the UK from Neustadt, so it makes sense to go to the market leader to do more in the UK.”
For Priest and Smith the appeal of Onlineprinters is the similarity of approach. That the German printers is scattered across several sites in the town points to a similar development history, only the German company is several times larger.
The deal also made nancial sense, other talks that Solopress had had did not deliver this aspect.
There will be no immediate changes. As in a traditional honeymoon period, the two companies will be getting to know each other. Teams from either company will look at options for knowledge and technology sharing. A wholesale move to B1 printing for example is not likely. The B2 format at Solopress suits the speed of turnaround and the short runs that it focuses on, whereas B1 suits Germany where there is a greater volume of work.
Both work the equipment hard. The close relationship with Horizon has led Onlineprinters to making suggestions about upgrading some components says Piecha. “We also have the 100th Indigo 10000 that HP installed and we made suggestions to improve aspects because of the volume of work we put through the press,” he says.
That said variable data printing is off the menu. “It’s nice in theory,” Piecha continues. “but a lot of customers cannot handle data. Therefore they are doing customisation, a garage producing different offers for drivers of luxury, family or budget cars for example, which they can organise from a spreadsheet.
“This makes their mailings that much more effective than those sending out one size fits all. If we have a print run of 1,000 like this, set up and make ready is not a problem. We can check the first and last sheets and if OK, those in between will also be good. But if we were doing 1,000 variable prints we would have to check them all. It does not work if there are 50 missing from the middle of the run.”
The trend towards shorter runs is affecting online print as much as standard print. Customers do not want to pay any more than they need to; nobody orders catalogues to hold on to them for two years.
“When I first started,” says Priest, “people ordered 5,000 flyers, now they will order 1,000. I could charge £350 for 1,000 6pp DL sized flyers; now it’s £37. That’s the way the industry has gone. But in those days, people would pay on 90 days; what I love is that we are getting a culture of people understanding that they have to pay quickly.”
Online printing for consumers will mean payment by credit card before the job is even printed. This means reassurance that customers are going to get what they pay for and at the time they expect.
In a business to business world, a day late may mean the product is useless and means that the agency buying 1,000 brochures is left unpaid.
Says Piecha: “It’s why we always deliver when we say we will. If you are an agency and we don’t deliver you will go bust. It’s an existential risk for them.”
For Solopress, this is literally the case. The company produces a lot of order of service booklets. These cannot be late without adding to the grief already felt. Priest adds: “There was one celebrity funeral where the orders of service were not delivered on time. We redid them and I delivered them to the church in time for the service.”
The concept remains the same but on a very different scale and with much greater sophistication. In the early days the more the press turned, the more money the business could make and the same applies. The greatest sin will be be a press to be waiting for plates.
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The company now has two ten-colour XL75s, along with five SM B2 presses. For digital printing it has settled on the Xerox iGen platform and for large format there are two roll to roll Jetrix machines.
It uses Kodak Sonora plates and Magnus platesetters to keep the presses fed. Paper comes from a number of sources led by Ovenden Papers.
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Solopress and Onlineprinters share a similar growth path. Both have added additional factory space to cope with growth in demand and continue to expand. Solopress is currently refurbishing another factory on the same industrial estate in Southend. While the German company has used outside investors to help it expand, and has focused on B1 litho printing, the UK company has been B2 and has joined Onlineprinters.
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