When asked about the future of the Australian print industry, there is one thing Bambra Press managing director John Wanless is clear on.
The industry will be around for a “very very long time” and will definitely see him out.
But the flipside?
For the industry to achieve longevity, Wanless says further consolidation and sharing of commercial print equipment will be definitely required.
Both Bambra and Wanless have a long connection to the Melbourne print scene with the business itself beginning in 1980 and named after the street in which it began.
Wanless himself came into the industry a year later as a fresh out of high school teenager unsure about taking up a spot at Swinburne University. Instead of plunging into tertiary study, he took up a family friend’s offer to work at a paper supply company and from there you could say the rest is history.
Wanless joined Bambra Press in 1993 and eventually took it over in 2006 with Troy Riley returning as general manager and shareholder in 2014. Wanless remains deeply connected to the industry while continuing to expand, develop and bring innovation to the company as it grows outwards.
Along the way a well respected reputation has been built around both the company and its owner and the happy buzz of the 60 staff at Bambra’s bustling Port Melbourne production facility further supports the success.
Wanless is a current board member of The Real Media Collective which is a group of associations that have banded together to form a powerful group that promotes the value and power of print as a way to market to consumers.
He has also featured in the upper reaches of the ProPrint Power 50 for a number of years, which acknowledges leading print innovators in Australia, including a No.4 finish in 2018.
Not that he’s willing to boast about that and chuckles at the suggestion that he is considered to be one of the country’s strongest print leaders.
But he is open to talking business and sharing ideas with other printers, to a point that is, and is chairman of the Melbourne Print Group that meets up in Melbourne bi-monthly to share non competitive information with like minded business owners.
Wanless is also no stranger to buying printing businesses and bringing them in under the Bambra banner.
The pace has been brisk.
Most recently there have been three buyouts in a six year window beginning in 2012 with the takeover of the $1m revenue Printwize. The 2014 purchase of 50-year-old family business Allardice Graphics came next. Then in 2015 McKellar Renown, also a well respected and long running family business, joined the Bambra ranks bringing with it 22 staff, $6m in annual revenue and a specialty production area of stamp printing.
For Wanless it’s this kind of consolidation and continued evolution that is necessary for commercial printing to not only survive but thrive long into the future.
“Printing will be around for a long, long time. It will see me out,” Wanless tells ProPrint.
“I think there is still a need for some consolidation in the commercial printing market certainly in Melbourne. That could be through a whole lot of different means, but people getting together makes a lot of sense. Sharing machinery makes a lot of sense so I don’t know where it’s going to plateau, but it will level out at some stage.”
Instead of liquidations, Wanless is hoping that business owners who find themselves struggling to keep their heads above water will opt to merge.
“Honestly, a business owner should know if they are struggling well in advance of shutting the doors. If you are struggling and have no dynamic plans for the business – seek help, don’t just hope it will get back to normal, because normal is not coming back,” he says.
“Some people do it not by choice but you can see there are some distressed businesses out there by the prices they are selling at.
“It’s unsustainable and it can’t last forever. Unfortunately there will probably be a few more liquidations to come. Hopefully there will be more mergers and acquisitions.”
Seventeen months ago Wanless and Riley hired Steven Haas as Bambra’s chief executive officer, who since walking through the door has enthusiastically examined every aspect of the business to hunt out opportunities for efficiency gains and identify areas for further business and cultural development.
“There were many processes and contracts that needed to be addressed, and a full analysis of the business financials from top to bottom to put a strategy in place to make Bambra a much stronger company,” says Haas, whose own business was acquired by Bambra 18 years ago.
One of the key initiatives set in play by Haas has been the rollout of a tailored PrintIQ management information system, which was installed in January 2019 after months of development.
Haas says the Print IQ implementation will vastly change the way Bambra operates and open up opportunities that will allow some current staff to be re-trained where they can contribute to other, more profitable parts of the business.
“It’s completely transformational,” Haas says.
“The opportunity to access high quality reports out of IQ is a vast improvement and the ability to bolt on automation for different components of the process is really significant.
“The MIS system is really quite modular so you have the opportunity to combine additional software or processes that we can develop internally to further systemise different aspects of the business.”
Bambra Press has many strings in its bow which is one of the reasons why it has stayed competitive despite the ongoing challenges.
Leading the charge is its twelve colour + coater Heidelberg Speedmaster offset press which since being installed in 2011 has continued to account for 60 per cent of total revenue for the business.
The Speedmaster has the capacity to produce 15,000 sheets per hour and despite it hitting the usual changeover period, Wanless feels there is no need to upgrade at the moment as there has been no significant improvements to the technology to date.
“They can’t really improve much on what they’ve built because it’s already pretty smart,” Wanless says, also adding that many consumable parts of the press have been replaced recently making changing over unnecessary.
In the digital sphere, the HP Indigo 10000 was installed in 2013 and has the capacity to produce 3000 single sided sheets per hour. It operates with two other smaller Indigos and together these digital machines generate 40 per cent of company revenue.
“It (the Indigo 10000) is just bigger and is more of a production press while the 7600 Indigos are more jobbing machines. We got into the digital printing 15 years ago so we were reasonably early users of the Indigo technology,” Wanless says.
“We are a B2 format offset printer, not A1, so it suited us to go bigger in size while still doing smaller value jobs. It suited us to go into digital because we already had customers who were buying small jobs and some of the bigger A1 printers didn’t get into digital until quite late because they were doing big runs and they didn’t really want to get involved in doing low value jobs.”
And then there’s wide format.
A brand new 1.6m Mimaki UV roll to roll press was being installed as ProPrint toured the building and will complement the 2.4m SwissQ, meaning Bambra is all set to print CMYK on up to 50mm media.
“It’s a new string to our bow – it’s an add on that our sales team can now go and sell to existing customers,” Wanless says of Bambra’s expanded wide format offering.
Marking a mix in new and old tech arty finishes including formecutting, flat sheet debossing and letterpress are handled by the rock solid Heidelberg Cylinders and Platens.
Having set such a cracking pace of acquisitions, the question does come to mind about whether Bambra may be on the lookout for any future purchases.
Haas is pretty clear on this one.
While he, Wanless and Riley aren’t on the lookout so to speak, they are open to opportunities, either of a whole business or equipment, that may fit in with its current operation and future strategic plan but only after the proposition has passed a stringent evaluation process.
“The opportunities do come up reasonably regularly in this industry so there are always a few pieces of equipment or companies up for sale and really if it fits into our long term strategic plan then we would certainly act on that,” Haas says.
“But there’s a pretty serious evaluation process in place at the moment as there is potentially more risk in acquisitions then there was before.
“It is really quite challenging to buy a business and properly capitalise on the acquisition, whether you integrate it into your own business or whether it stands alone, a full evaluation of whether it is the right fit and financially advantageous must be done before we seriously consider any proposal.”
Bambra Press does not stand still which is also part of its recipe for success, but it would be wrong to say it’s focusing on any particular direction, says Haas.
“The industry is changing in so many different directions. It is important to pick a direction that offers sustainable opportunities so we now put processes in place to explore different directions and then choose a path,” says Haas.
“We are constantly evolving. We are looking at the next iteration of whatever additional field we explore.”
Historically, Haas says the print industry has taken over industries that were at one point stand alone.
“That’s the thing about the print industry, it’s aggressively territorial and historically it has tended to steam roll over adjacent industries. For example more recently signwriting was an industry of artisans and print has really taken that over quite aggressively,” Haas says.
“There are a few industries like that, that are currently in the sights of the print industry.
“It’s an interesting perspective but it’s really quite valid if you look back across the history of the industry.”
The questions about what 2019 may bring for Bambra Press are still open for discussion, but have no doubt improvements and further evolutions will continue to come.
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