Committed to quality

By the time Robert Soutar took the stage to receive the highest honour at the 2014 National Print Awards for Adams Print, he was barely holding it together. The small family-owned Geelong printer had already won four other honours and each time he walked up the stage steps to thunderous applause he got more and more emotional. “We weren’t expecting to win any, I’ve been calling Geelong all night saying ‘we won another’,” he told ProPrint on the night. His brother and managing director Shane Soutar remembers that night. “I was here working and the calls from Rob just kept coming. The guys on the table were saying ‘mate you should be here you would be so proud’,” he says. “It is real passion. If you live it and breathe it and fight as hard as we do, you get that way about it.”

The Judges Award, and the two gold medals it won this year, was the culmination of a decade of dedication to quality at Adams Print, upon which its success is built. The walls of its factory office are lined with the almost 100 awards it has won since 2004, including 17 NPA gold medals and two Heidelberg Awards, 16 Victorian PICA golds plus the 2013 Judges Award, and even a few Bennys. The winning has become so prolific the company has a procedure for selecting its entries to make sure no brilliant jobs are forgotten. Over the course of a year, staff will put a box of 20 copies of work they think could win into a room until applications for the awards open. “That way instead of wondering what we did this year it is all there for me to look at over a weekend and choose the best,” Shane Soutar says.

Awards success has also encouraged everyone in the company to lift their game and strive for the best quality job, and Soutar stokes this by sending a different group of floor staff to experience the awards night, instead of just the sales reps like most printers. “They are so inspired and realise what their work can lead to and come back with a mindset to excel, knowing that near enough is not good enough. It is almost like a quality assurance program,” he says. “I think if you know what was wrong with your entry that made it unsuccessful you can channel the energy back into making yourself better. One year, we asked for our entries back and there were sticky notes with comments showing the matchup on a saddlestich project was half a millimetre out. I showed my bindery guys and it was great for them, really motivated them to be even better next time.”

Growing business

Not only is Adams Print a perennial award winner, it is a growing and profitable business celebrating record turnover and profitability despite tough times for the industry. Soutar knows not every job can be award winning – there’s no point getting awards if you go broke. “I have been very conscious from day one that awards do not pay the bills,” he says. “You cannot go around  chasing trophies, you have to focus on your bottom line and paying the bills first and foremost. There are potatoes and there are sweet potatoes. The tradie who wants docket books is just as important as the big art gallery, because that stuff keeps the lights on.”

The company needed to make a lot of potatoes when Soutar bought it with his brother, and bindery manager Peter Bracks, in 2001. They built the current factory from scratch, upgraded much of the equipment, modernised procedures and created a night shift. They wanted to pay off the new kit as quickly as possible to have the business unencumbered and be paying the bills, and that meant getting a lot of new work in the door quickly. “It put us under a lot of stress, if you plonk a new A1 press in a town like Geelong there just isn’t enough work so we had to get up to Melbourne and shake the trees as hard as we could,” Soutar says. So he did what he had always dreaded doing and became as sales rep, running around Melbourne all day and then working on the floor with an apprentice at night until the business grew enough. “It would have been easy to give up and say it was too hard, but that is not what we are about,” he says. “Eventually the word got out and people started coming to us, but I don’t think it will ever go easy. We still get out of bed every  morning worrying about the next day. That is how you survive in a horrible market.”

Adams Print has a proud history, one to which Soutar is forever linked, as it is where his career began. It was started by Hubert Adams 120 years ago printing mine claims in the gold rush, then moved into newspapers before setting up in Geelong as a commercial printer. Second generation owner Bruce Adams was later mayor of Geelong. Ian and Dot Winchester bought the business in 1995 and gave Souter his apprenticeship. The weight of this history plays on his mind and motivates him to make the company the best it can be. “When a business is 120 years old you don’t want to muck it up, you feel the burden forever,” he says.

Soutar has seen what happens when printers lose their focus. He worked as night production manager for 20 years and one day at Sands Print Group, while Robert was day production manager. Some 11 years after they left, Sands collapsed, in 2012, with debts of more than $5m. “It was a good lesson of what not to do. It had become potatoes in and potatoes out and I decided that is not what I wanted to do,” he says. “We are not aspiring to be big, I have already been part of a big organisation and seen that bigger is not always best. Attention to detail and care factor is more what we are into, we always know where our jobs and our clients are at, and what needs to be done and work in a team that is there for each other. We are growing but we try not to get out of control.”

Their hard work has paid off and the growth over their ownership is impressive. In 2001 Adams Print had 10-12 people, some who have been there for 40 years, and now has 40 and has quadrupled its turnover to $9m, with more profit than ever. Soutar does not want to pigeonhole the business, and grows it by attracting new clients with its quality and service, preferring to have lots of smaller ones. “I have seen what happens when you put all your eggs in one basket – and it scared the hell out of me. Clients come quickly and go quickly so you can never get complacent,” he says.

The product range is varied to include general commercial printing like docket books, business cards, letterheads to car brochures, case-bound books, fashion catalogues, point of sale, art catalogues for galleries around Australia.

Soutar gradually brought in a hand-picked group of people from Sands to combine with the existing Adams Print staff, people who care about the craft of printing and creating beautiful work. “I tried a lot of printers at Sands so I knew who could print, who couldn’t print and who understood what I was looking for. It is all about character, you can teach people skills but you can’t change their character,” he says. Soutar wants people who are hardworking and care so much about the quality of their work they worry about whether they made any mistakes and sometimes call in to check after they go home. “I fall into the trap sometimes of thinking like a printer not a businessman, because that’s what I am at heart – I can’t help myself. I love it and we make sure things are amazing,” he says.

Adams Print used to work around the clock but now runs two flexible shifts depending on how much work there is, using equipment with quicker makeready times to reduce work hours and allow it to increase hours or add weekend shifts when necessary. An average day is two 10-hour shifts on weekdays, but when the pressure is on it is all hands on deck. “All three of the directors are hands-on and we work incredibly long hours. We didn’t shut for Christmas this year we were so busy, and we take deadlines very seriously,” Soutar says.

Adams Print uses a Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 106 and four-colour Speedmaster 52 Anicolor offset presses. The Anicolor with its fast makeready is used for short run work and aqueous coating. Soutar says the XL 106 is the best press he has ever owned and has been a ‘tower of strength’ for the business, and they go to extreme lengths to make sure it stays in amazing condition. “You don’t turn up to a race with a car that isn’t ready,” he says, and it is the same with the press.

Soutar is a big believer in the future of offset and the company has no digital printers at all, saying the print quality of digital machines is not yet up to the standard he expects from his business. “Maye it is something we will look at going forward but we are pretty happy with our situation right now so it is not high on the agenda,” he says. “We are more into stepping carefully.” Instead all digital work is outsourced to a Melbourne printer with similar values that also like to ‘push the boundaries,’ often collaborating on big jobs.

Even with its reputation for quality and upgrading kit and processes to be more economical, Adams Print still feels the industry-wide pinch of falling prices from overcapacity. “We have the quality and service aspects locked in but price is something we sometimes struggled with,” Soutar says. “There is a lot of stupidity in our industry at the moment and I feel sad for companies out there that are caught up in price wars. Sometimes I want to call them and say, ‘You don’t need to do that, you are not going to be okay if you keep this up’, but it takes 10 beers at the print awards for printers to talk to each other. I don’t know what is wrong with everyone. I think it is because people are insecure because times are tougher now than ever.”

Soutar says there are monetary benefits to winning the awards, not just ego or bragging rights, and that more printers should get involved to benchmark their work and develop a reputation for quality that clients will notice. “I don’t know why a lot more printers don’t get involved in the print awards because they produce amazing work, I would encourage everyone to get involved,” he says. “Clients do not come here to win awards, most have not even heard of them, but it can’t be a bad thing to be associated with that level of quality. It is not like there is downside.” He attributes the declining number of awards entries and attendees on the night to hard times in the print industry. “It takes a bit of effort to submit entries and it costs money to attend and go to the evening. I wish more printers would get involved because it is more rewarding if you win over more competition. And it is good to know there are others out there giving a damn about quality.”

Soutar says clients notice the company’s commitment to high quality and going above and beyond to make sure work is of the highest standard not just good enough, and as a result will recommend them to others. “Word of mouth has been a hot ticket for us for quite some time. Sometimes it costs us money to get things just right, but it’s like marketing from the ground floor,” he says. “I see a lot of the people we work with move around and suddenly a door opens at a company we never thought we had a chance at. People don’t want to know you because they have 30 printers ringing up every day but if the reference comes internally from someone we worked with and impressed before, next thing we know we are doing their work.”

“I think print has a future if it is high quality. People want to do something special now, with online advertising people can be on a competitor’s website in one click but if you give them a beautiful hardcopy brochure they will remember it. I have seen clients get out of print and do everything online but then a few months later they will be back. I am biased, but I am seeing it and I don’t think it is game over.

I think if we maintain the rage and keep reinventing ourselves with new techniques and ideas in the changing world around us we will be ok.”

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