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Be your own business: Print 21 magazine article

Tuesday, 07 April 2009
By Print21

The drive for independence is an enduring trait in the Australian character. Working for yourself, instead of for the boss is widely regarded as a good thing in itself, regardless of how much money you make. Individuals in the printing trade now have a new option to strike out on their own – become a PMA Solutions agent. Patrick Howard investigates.

There are a number of well-trodden paths in the printing industry that hark back to its craft origins. Progressing from apprentice to journeyman to master printer was a clearly defined career, marked by the acquisition of craft skills and peer recognition. Invariably the goal of every printer was to set up on his own, buy a press, hang out his shingle and let the world beat a path to his door.

In Australia and New Zealand most printing businesses are small to medium-size operations, the majority of them employing between five and ten people. Although the profile of the business owner has changed in recent years, many are still qualified printers who have graduated to running their own operations. It’s not getting any easier out there for them as they battle in an increasingly hostile marketplace with the cost of equipment and the sophistication of the competition making life very difficult.

 

Pictured: The new home for PMA Solutions.

It is Phil Okill’s belief that many of these small to medium-size (SME) battling printers would welcome the opportunity to change their engagement with the industry. As MD and founder of PMA Solutions, one of the largest print management companies in the country, he has the experience to know the real effect of the challenges some printers are facing.

“Many of these family-owned printers are struggling. They are facing hard times with increasing competition and ever more expensive equipment. They can’t get out because no one will buy their business,” he said. “But many of them would if they could.”

Work to your strengths

Okill makes the point that for many SME printers the true value of their business lies in their customer lists, their local contacts and their networking skills, not in their factory buildings and equipment. The days are gone when printers could look forward to retiring on the resale value of their Heidelberg press.

But not every printer is looking to exit the business entirely. Superannuation investments being as they are, a lot of people are looking for new ways of working and of leveraging their years of experience. They want to continue in the business but just don’t want the worry, anxiety and risk of investing in expensive capital equipment in these uncertain times.

These are the people PMA Solutions is looking to recruit into its new agency sales channel. Building on the success of PMA’s own print management and out-sourcing enterprise model, Okill sees the expansion of the company’s reach as its next evolutionary step. More than that, he reckons the agency business model will change how the whole printing industry works in Australia.

To understand the dynamics you’ve got to get your head around the strengths of PMA Solutions. This is Okill’s $50 million per annum Sydney-based sourcing, fulfilment and logistics company. According to Phil Shanahan, national manager strategic sourcing, its strengths lie in a determination to source, store and deliver whatever it is the customer wants, be it print, promotional materials, branded apparel or safety gear. “It doesn’t matter what our customer asks us to source, we will get it for them,” he said.

While the company started off as a print management business, nowadays print represents less than half its turnover. It has now become a rare combination of print management, logistics and IT, with its own programming department continuing to fine tune the central intellectual property – its arsenal of online systems covering client ordering, inventory and supply chain management (SCM).

SCM is the portal through which qualified suppliers bid on jobs – a fast, transparent and secure system that distinguishes PMA from many other suppliers.

Extending the reach
What Okill is doing is opening up the system to a cadre of agents who can take advantage of the company’s back office and logistics network to run their own businesses under the PMA banner. It is similar to a franchise model but with one very important difference – there is no upfront investment. Agents have their own business, can grow it and sell it when they want to, while leaving the backroom administration, invoicing and sourcing to PMA. In fact, new agents are paid a three month retainer when they join so they can gain intensive training on the system.

Okill has appointed Aaron Spooner, as national agency manager, with the responsibility of doubling the number of agents this year, especially in regional areas where many printers struggle to fulfill all their customer’s requirements.

Currently he has 16 agents operating in a number of different business segments, turning over anything from $1,250,000 to $3,000,000 per annum. Many are former printers who have sold off their equipment, retaining their invaluable business contacts and continuing to grow their business while outsourcing production to PMA. Some operate in partnerships, some are sole traders, while others have employed subagents to expand their business.

“I just came back from Orange, where we helped one of our agents put together a complex tender that he would have struggled to do on his own,” said Spooner. “Working in partnership with PMA, this agent stands a much greater chance of winning this new business,” he said.

It is a brave new world for many printers who have decided that their strengths lie in their customer skills rather than in operating a manufacturing business. Okill may very well prove to be right – the PMA Solutions agency model might really change how the printing industry works.

Conact Aaron Spooner for more details

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