Changing the face of printing

Friday, 01 June 2018

Jill Cowling’s interview with National Business Review’s Nathan Smith on the place of print in the media.

The digital communications explosion was seen by many business commentators as marking the beginning of the end for the printing industry.

But that’s not a view shared by Blue Star Group Chief Executive Officer Jill Cowling. An experienced industry manager who moved into the top seat from her role as Chief Operating Officer at the Group last year, Cowling says the print industry is facing challenges.

“We see that in the big reduction in the amount of imported paper coming into the country as feedstock for our industry. But I strongly believe print does have a bright future if the industry is prepared to adapt to the changes in the marketplace.”

Cowling believes the key to surviving – and prospering – in the tough marketing promotions business is to understand what customers want – and invest in technology that can deliver a wider variety of offerings to satisfy them. Which is precisely what Blue Star has done. Modern, high-speed digital printers and finishing equipment were installed at the Group’s Printlink operation in Wellington last December and at its McCollams operation in Auckland early this year, as part of a $14 million investment that additionally included the acquisition of a number of print businesses in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The digital investment acknowledges the changing marketplace, says Cowling. “It’s a digital world. Print is still a highly effective medium for messaging but it needs to be targeted and personalised – and engage the reader. Our customers are changing the way they deliver their messages, and we have to change with them – and be relevant and effective.

“That means being more agile around how we deliver our products. We need to use our existing assets – technology, machinery and skilled people – and grow in areas like packaging, sign and display and direct mail. We need to further understand the potential of exciting new areas like augmented reality embedded in print, and leverage our skills in marketing automation and analytics – the use of data to understand customers and market to them more effectively.

“Our job for our customers is to help them get their customers’ attention and engagement – and help them deliver a great experience. Print still has a role to play in that; it has the ability to be a clever, tactile communications channel that grabs people’s attention. That ability to personalise is key. With digital print technology you can send totally individualised offers to people – like a brochure for a new car that’s customised to the model, colours, size and accessories you want. That’s exciting.”

Cowling says Blue Star’s customers are increasingly looking for efficiencies. “It’s tough for businesses out there, especially manufacturing. Customers want shorter runs and quicker times to market, and they want to carry less inventory so they don’t get caught with obsolete stock. They want to simplify and reduce their supply chain – and do more with less. We need to be in tune with that and nimble in our response.”

Cowling says the markets for new, diverse print products are growing rapidly. “We have to understand what our customers want – and respond to that. It will involve a different way of operating and we’ll be talking both with customers about their needs and with employees about how we can make this work. We’ll need to continue to invest in our people; they represent what we are capable of doing and are embedded in our business.”

New business acquisitions

As noted, Blue Star Group hasn’t only been updating its equipment; it’s also grown the Group significantly in the last 12 months. The new business acquisitions – the Group’s first in eight years – comprised Service Printers in Wellington, which has been merged with Blue Star’s existing Format Print business in the capital, Sentra Print in Auckland which has merged with McCollams at a new site, and two Christchurch operations, Wickliffe Solutions at Woolston, which will come under the Spectrum banner, and Maxim Print and Digital. In each case, the acquisitions brought a close alignment of operations and skills, as well as a complementary customer base with little overlap, says Cowling. “They also strengthened our position in the sheet-fed printing market.”

Blue Star currently has 17 business units which, once the mergers are completed, will be located at 10 sites. The Group employs around 700 staff and currently has around 20% of the print market – the leading position in a sector with many smaller players, including around 850 offset printers and 1100 copy shops. And more acquisitions are on the table, says Cowling.

She says the challenges for the Group in 2018 will be to bed-in the new acquisitions and technology smoothly, ensuring their employees understand how the market is changing and how, through the new digital platforms, Blue Star can carve out a sustainable future. “Consolidation is the key word.”

But she’s also keen to change the wider image of print as being “old school” – and encourage more young people into the sector. “The digital changes happening mean it’s going to be an increasingly vibrant sector, with much wider scope for innovation and creativity in areas like packaging, augmented reality and marketing automation.

“This is going to be a busy and challenging year – but also hugely exciting. We’re really reinventing the industry.”