Building a business with a passion for print

You don’t forget your first meeting with Graham Deaner. The Evolve Printing founder is a contradiction. He looks like a nightclub owner but talks like a print evangelist.

He’s no ‘suit’. Sure, he may wear suits, but they’re sharper than the average printer’s wardrobe. He finds they look best with modish shirts, a buzz cut and just the right amount of designer stubble.

It would be easy to prejudge the 40-year-old as a brash glad-hander, but he’s down to earth and speaks from the heart. He loves discussing print. This is a man who is desperately in love with print and its creative possibilities. The word ‘passion’ recurs constantly.

The nightclub look makes sense once you learn about Deaner’s unusual professional journey. He entered the workforce as a 15-year-old, having been “kicked out of every school I went to”. His first job was as a barman at the Exchange Hotel on Sydney’s famous Oxford Street. When he was 18, he moved to the nearby Q-Bar, where he worked his way up from dogsbody to manager. It seems strange that the man who now has ink in his veins once “literally got paid to party” – and that he was only lured into print by an astonishing coincidence.

It was 1994 and Deaner was on the lookout for a change of direction. Early one morning, after another night of partying, he headed across the road to unwind in a café. A newspaper was lying open at the job section. An advertisement for a second-year printing apprentice had been circled. It seemed like fate.

He was upfront when he went for his interview at Bertram Printing in Chats­wood. He explained he knew nothing about print, but would prove his worth if given a one-week trial. He got the job.

Over the next 10 years, Deaner worked on and off across the industry, as a press operator, consultant and business owner. “I moved around to a few different print companies, sometimes getting fired, mainly because I was partying way too hard. Print was really easy to pick up and it was something I was good at – it’s just that I was partying too much.”

He ran a print management firm called Integrity Press from 2003 to 2004. “I turned over about $500,000 in my first year and went surfing three times a week,” he says. “The business went really well until a major client went into liquidation.”

Deaner’s next stop was Signarama. He took a consulting role at the Chatswood franchise, and claimed to have led a major turnaround at the operation. Changes included trimming the headcount, hiring a good production manager and building up strong relationships with reliable suppliers. Within two-and-a-half years, turnover had doubled to $1 million, says Deaner.

Forced to liquidate

After Signarama, Deaner joined Central Coast shop PK Printing. The three-month stint ultimately led to the birth of Evolve Printing. Deaner says he tried to turn PK Printing around but it became clear the business was terminal. The decision was made to liquidate.

Deaner says he had impressed two of PK’s employees. They offered to back him, and Evolve started trading out of the old PK site in April 2009. One of the investors, Helen Stewart, is now Evolve’s general manager. Deaner also took PK’s equipment.

Evolve had four staff, a factory and machinery, but no database, so Deaner made a list of 10 high-end clients for which he wanted to work. First he called on Park Hyatt Sydney. “We got the first job from them 72 hours later,” he says. The Shangri-La hotel, Wild Fire restaurant and Opera Bar were also on the list. “Within two weeks we started doing work for every single one of them.” Eight of the 10 are now Evolve clients, he adds.

Deaner admits he was “nuts” to have started a print shop during the global financial crisis. The first year was hard, because Evolve struggled to turn over the $45,000 per month it needed to remain afloat. “We were basically working to keep the doors open,” he says.

The firm managed to pull in $57,000 in its first month and built up to $120,000 in its fourth. Evolve finished its first full financial year, 2009-10, with an annual turnover of $650,000. Revenue then hit $1 million in 2010-11 and $1.75 million in 2011-12, says Deaner.

Evolve’s expansion has been driven by an increasing volume of work from those four foundation clients. Evolve has gone from producing a postcard for the Shangri-La to handling much of its design and printing work. It now handles all of Wild Fire’s design and printing, having started with a small invitation. The Opera Bar account has grown from business cards to encompass the venue’s entire design and print portfolio, he says.

The Park Hyatt now represents 15-20% of turnover – a big jump on the $9,000 the hotel spent in Evolve’s first year. Park Hyatt’s first order was for 2,000 DL cards; these days, he says, it uses Evolve for all its branding, including in-room collateral, luggage tags, booklets, invitations, pack­aging, laundry bags, umbrellas and pens.

Buying from China

Deaner boarded a flight to China soon after becoming Park Hyatt’s sole supplier. He says he was committed to keeping the bread-and-butter manufacturing in Australia, but realised he had to look abroad if he wanted to remain competitive on bulk orders and specialty items. He had 14 meetings in 13 days in four cities before he found his dream agent, a woman who understood his drive for excellent service and fast turnarounds. “Ever since then, she’s been my go-to person and has never let me down.”

He has remained loyal even when he has sourced quotes from other agents for particular jobs and found her to be the most expensive. He says he is prepared to pay for quality. It’s the same way he wants people to think of Evolve. “I tell everybody, if you’re expecting the cheapest price, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

Deaner has tried to position Evolve as an innovative firm that produces superior work. His logic is that treating print as a commodity leads to a race to the bottom on price, whereas promoting it as an artwork gives a business a point of difference that allows it to charge more. “Print has a value and you’ve got to start thinking it’s worth something,” he says.

Marketing has always been high on Evolve’s priority list. When the business was launched, Stewart allocated Deaner a marketing budget of $345.75 per month.

“I ignored her and spent five grand,” he says. “You need to spend money to make money. Marketing has to be up there with your top investments.”

The industry has begun to take notice of this six-person regional print shop. It bagged the ‘self-promotion’ gold medal at the 2012 National Print Awards for a 60pp high-end promotional magazine called Evolve Volume 1. Later that year, Evolve won the ‘self-promotion’ categories at the New South Wales PICAs and the Printovation Awards, this time for a magazine called Think.

Deaner wasn’t shy in splashing out on Think. He estimates he spent more than $30,000 to produce the 124pp magazine and then another $5,000 for the launch party. Think featured an array of stocks and embellishments, which were designed to showcase the firm’s craft skills. Some 1,500 copies were printed and distributed to clients, leads and suppliers.

There’s no plan for Evolve to rest on its award-winning laurels. Innovation is key, such as undertaking considerable testing of papers and inks for the past 18 months. But he stresses there is more to innovation than experimentation or capital investment. The most important step is to bring efficiencies to the workflow, because the more productive the business, the more scope it has to explore new ideas.

He also believes firms should play to their strengths by sticking to what they do best and outsourcing the rest of the work. Goldcraft Embossing handles Evolve’s foiling and embossing, Horizon Graphics does the screenprinting and UV work, while SOS Print & Media Group handles the A1 printing. Evolve is an A2 house, with a five-colour Heidelberg Speedmaster SM 74 and two-colour Heidelberg GTO.

Gratuitous purchases

Given his love of print, it’s probably no surprise that Deaner is the sort of person who enjoys stumbling across other people’s work, speculating about the production process and then dreaming up improvements. He’s already looking forward to the mid-year trip with his wife, Ronelle, to Japan, where he expects to make a whole stack of gratuitous purchases just to analyse the exotic packaging.

Evolve doesn’t just print and design; it also offers marketing services. Deaner describes it as an advertising agency that manufactures. He tells the story of one client that was sending out 100,000 pieces of direct mail every two months and losing money due to low response rates. Something had to be done to make the brochures stand out in people’s letterboxes. So the brochures were redesigned from rectangular to square and the stock changed from 250gsm gloss art to 300gsm offset. Response rates jumped from 0.5% to 6%, he says.

He offers a simple moral: “Give people something they want to touch, feel and experience. When people look at it, it should make them want to think.”

Keeping fit

Deaner derives almost as much pleasure from fitness as he does a killer brochure or a sharp suit. He takes advantage of his laidback Central Coast surrounds to surf and play soccer, and also hits the gym. He recently competed in a 21km Tough Mudder event. The competitor in him can’t resist pointing out that his team’s time of 2.55 hours placed it in the top 5%.

But when he’s outside the office, his mind has a way of drifting back. Deaner has big plans, tempered by realism. When he spoke to ProPrint last July, he forecast 25% growth in 2012-13; he now says the firm is aiming for 10-15%, having recognised that taking such big strides forward could prove unsustainable.

One medium-term goal is for Evolve to add short-run digital capacity to what is currently an offset-only line-up. Deaner also wants to open a new factory in Marrickville within four years; Evolve’s regional location means it loses work with high-end Sydney agencies because of the distance for press checks.

“Our ultimate goal is to have an office in every state in Australia and New Zealand,” he adds – which might be factories, but would most likely be sales offices or design studios. The expansion plans have been inspired by Evolve picking up clients with national and trans-Tasman footprints, he says.

Those long-term ambitions confirm the obvious: the former nightclub manager has fallen deeply in love with print and is not contemplating another career change. In typically passionate terms, he explains why. “I can’t see myself moving from print. It’s a part of who I am. I’m looking forward to the future. I know it’s going to be an amazing journey. My way of thinking is that it’s going to be limitless.”




Age 40

Career history 2009-present: managing director, Evolve Printing; 2009: consultant, PK Printing; 2004-08: consultant, Signarama Chatswood; 2003-04: managing director, Integrity Press; 2001-03: consultant, various printers; 1999-01: freelance press operator, various printers; 1995-99: Bertram Printing, print trainee; 1990-96: glass collector, bartender and bar manager, Q-Bar; 1987-90: bartender, Exchange Hotel

Hobbies Surfing, soccer, gym


Graham Deaner on…

His wild nightclub days

They were insanely fun. I wouldn’t change a thing. I literally got paid to party. I was meeting all different people from around the world, different walks of life, who loved dancing and having a really good time. Especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was all about doing what you wanted with who you wanted when you wanted.

Falling in love

It took a good couple of years to fall in love with print. When I really fell in love with print was when I went out as a contractor, because I was determined to find out what else print could do. Learning all the different presses from packaging to label printing made me fall in love with it.

Print’s allure

It’s the creative edge of knowing that you’re starting off with an idea, and if you can sit down with a designer and create something that’s tangible and a true reflection of that business and you go beyond their expectations, for me that’s a turn-on.

Choosing a business name

‘Evolve’ is about growth and constantly moving forward in knowledge and imagination. There’s no limit to the word ‘evolve’.

General manager Helen Stewart

We’ve got a perfect partnership because we complement each other so well. Her strengths are my weaknesses and her weaknesses are my strengths. If I had to look after bookwork, we would be broke or the tax department would be after us, but if she had to look after the creative side, I don’t think Evolve Printing would have opened its doors.

Workplace culture

The atmosphere at work is fantastic. All the staff get along really well. They’re true professionals and know exactly what they have to do. Everyone has ownership of their own positions. You need good people who know their job. The last thing I want to do is be a dictator. Obviously, you set a standard that people have to meet. They know me, and treat every job as if I’m their client. They know my expectations.

Sharing his experience

Evolve has come a long way over the last four years. If there’s a company out there struggling that needs some advice, I’m happy to do that.

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