Brisbane-based family print shop Clark & Mackay is celebrating 90 years in operation, having four generations of printers running the business.
Since opening for business in 1928 the company has operated across wooden type, letterpress – which current director Neil Mackay was originally trained in – offset, and now, digital, specialising in self-published books.
Starting in premises in Adelaide Street in the heart of Brisbane, Bert Clark and John Mackay opened a printing business using wooden type, each word being composed one letter at a time using hand fed and foot powered printing presses.
In 1945, following the end of World War Two, John Mackay’s son Ian joined the firm, along with his brother Garth. The company operated as letterpress printers until 1960, when Ian Mackay’s son Neil Mackay, the current director, joined the firm as an apprentice letterpress/offset printing machinist.
Neil Mackay, director, Clark & Mackay says, “My grandfather started the business with Bert Clark, and it has progressed from there. My father joined the business before, and then after the Second World War. Then myself and my brother followed on, and I am still here, my brother retired from the printing industry about 14 years ago to follow other ideas.
“We started off in Adelaide St in the city, and my father moved the business to Montague Road, West End, which was an industrial area close to the city. He was there for about thirty years, and we then moved to Rocklea because we needed more room, and a bigger premises. Three years ago I moved the business to our present location in Acacia Ridge, because I wanted to downsize the building and make it more compact for the print work we do now.
“I presume this will be our last move,” he says with a chuckle.
“I have been here for 50 years. It sounds like a lot, and when I say it I sound old. I started when I was 16, and I have continued. I absolutely love what I do, which is probably why I have never retired.
“I continued because I have a son who is also here, and I thought it might be a legacy for him to continue if he so wished.”
Neil Mackay tells a tale of his own father, sharing, “When I was 20, my father did trade work for other printers. One day he told me he had bought a printer, and to go with him to go get the goods and chattels. We went there, and he said here is the list of clients. This chap was closing down and my dad had bought the goodwill list off him.
“As we were going back to work, my dad said to me, there’s the list of clients, learn how to be a rep. At 20, I wondered if I would be okay.
“I remember him saying, you will son, I think you’ll be good at it. Once a week I brought in my good clothes, and went out and saw these clients. Today, 50 years later, I still have some of them as clients. They have been getting old with me.”
Clark and Mackay once acquired a business doing the print work for the Catholic Church, but never printed bibles.
Neil Mackay says, “We purchased Leader Press, which was a part of the Catholic Church. That was another good purchase, besides getting good equipment, we got some good clients which we kept for an amount of time. We still have some.
“They did not print bibles, mostly administrative type-printing, quarterly magazines, things like that. It would have been interesting to see bibles coming off one of our printing presses.
“More recently I had looked at a couple of businesses to acquire, and had a few that interested me, but instead I decided I should look at winding down instead of adding more work. They would have taken another two years to come to fruition.”
Clark & Mackay’s 90 years of operation has seen major changes, not just between technologies, but in the type of print work that customers request, and Neil Mackay says the key for them has been an ability to move with the times.
“We used to produce continuous stationary. I have tried to move with the times whenever something progressive has come along. When computers came, everybody wanted sprocket-fed paper, so we moved into that, printed invoices, letterheads, statements, all with the sprocket holes down the side.
“That lasted about 20-odd years, then laser printers and computers got smarter, and continuous stationery became nowhere near as big as it once was, so I decided to not bring those machines to our new location, and move more into digital printing.
“Those were sold overseas, to some third-world countries that still used the older technology.
“The investment in digital paid off. I think each move we have made has been a successful move. If you let things stay like they are, don’t think about them, and don’t progress you are going backwards. Moving into digital 10 years ago was a good step.
“The first digital investment we made was with Canon, which I felt was the best production-type machine out there. You then had other people come, Ricoh, Fuji Xerox, the latter of which we use now. There are other good options on the market, but that is what I run.
“We have found ourselves a niche market in the self-publishing world, in books. That has grown over a period of a few years, and we have become known for it. We advertise on Google for it, and get a lot of recommendations through word-of-mouth, and repeat jobs.
“Some people have found success with their books, and return, others want to make family history books, children’s books, novels, exercise books, training books. It is a big part of what we do, and successful.
They were supplied by Currie Group, and I have been happy with the quality of the machines, and servicing as well.
“They are all machines that I have purchased as it has grown.”
Neil Mackay has had loyal customers over the years, but it is a two-way street, as he stands by the people he deals with.
In his words, “Once I have had good associations with people, I don’t change just for the sake of it. The service you get is important in this area, if a machine goes down you can’t wait for three days for someone to come, and Currie Group has always been good at getting us out of trouble.”
“Digital print has lots of areas that people can do, and if you are a small to medium printer you have to find your niche market. You have the big printers out there that are amalgamating all the time, and they are printing the big magazines, large volume work, which smaller companies could not do.
“I still think its service that will sustain you. I think there is a future for printers, but I am not exactly sure how long. From what I hear there are so many printers that would like to get out but do not know how. I still enjoy what I do, and while I am having fun I will continue. When I don’t, that will tell me I should retire. I do not agree that you should retire when you reach a certain age. If you have your health and enjoy it, keep doing it.”
“We have eight staff at the moment, we used to have more, but as you have more automated equipment you do not need as many people. Everything is done quicker and easier so you can use less staff. In my dad’s time we used to have four and five tablehands collating books, making them up, finishing in the binding area. Now we have one and we are doing more business than we did back then.”
Being a printing business for 90 continuous years is a remarkable achievement, as is being in the printing game for 50 years for any one individual. Neil Mackay has his finger on the pulse when he says that it is by continuously moving forward and investing in the latest technology that print companies will continue in the market.
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