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On the chemistry of success: Böttcher Australia celebrates 20 years – Print21 magazine

Friday, 17 August 2018
By Print 21 Online Article
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Mitchell ‘Mitch’ Mulligan … happy to be celebrating 20 years leading Böttcher Australia.

While automation and speed are making offset printing more productive, they’re also throwing up fresh challenges. Mitchell ‘Mitch’ Mulligan has been at the helm of industry supplier Böttcher Australia since its founding 20 years ago. He’s marking the anniversary with trademark optimism and a renewed commitment to the future of print.

Looking back isn’t Mitch Mulligan’s style. The whippet-lean motorcycle racing champion is more concerned with the challenges of ‘future-proofing’ his business as the industry shifts and changes. Deeply engaged with the prospects and opportunities for his company, Mulligan is keenly aware of how offset printing has transformed since he first hung out the Böttcher shingle in Sydney two decades ago. At that time digital printing was scarcely a ripple on the pond of the printing industry; commercial printing meant offset production, and print shops with multiple presses were all dependent on roller repair and replacement.

When introducing the Böttcher brand to Australia and New Zealand, he addressed an industry of an estimated 2500 commercial printers using printing plates. These ranged from large enterprises with full-size presses down to shop-front franchises with a Heidelberg GTO in the back room. No matter their market power or size, using offset presses was the technology that united printers. It also provided a good market for the German-based roller supply company.

Change from a front-row seat

In the years since, Mulligan has had a front-row seat to witness the transformation of the industry. He has seen the market dramatically reduced in the number of enterprises, if not necessarily with a concomitant decline in volume. In this anniversary year at his Castle Hill offices, on careful calculation he estimates there are around 600 “plate-using printers” left across the nation.

For some printing businesses and suppliers, the digital revolution has proved a disaster. Many an enterprise has shuttered and fallen by the wayside, unable to adapt to the new market conditions. For Böttcher Australia, it has delivered an environment where entrepreneurial management and agility has allowed the company to flourish and expand. While dealing with the overall decline in the traditional offset-based roller, blanket and chemistry business, Mulligan points to increased market share and an expanding portfolio of products, many addressing industries outside of printing.

Needs-based development

As managing director of Böttcher Australia, chairman of suppliers’ organisation Visual Connections, and stalwart of the Lithographic Institute of Australia, Mitch Mulligan is the quintessential printing industry professional: enthusiastic, positive and knowledgeable. Now 55, he kick-started the company’s local presence in 1998. Despite Böttcher’s reputation for roller supply, he stresses that the German-based mid-sized global company is really a chemistry enterprise rather than a roller manufacturer.

Printing chemistry, along with blankets and plates for sheetfed and web offset, augment the core offering of rollers for every conceivable style of printing – and not only for printing. Increasingly, he’s moving to explore possibilities of speciality rollers for other industries such as steel, timber and pharmaceuticals.

Team Bottcher Australia.

“It’s still the same story as when we began: looking to where we can add value. It’s about keeping our eyes and ears open to identify how we can assist. Recently printers were really struggling with HUV and LED printing because, of all things, the printing blankets couldn’t take the new inks. It was a period of trial and error for many users. We developed a compound on our blanket that has now stood the test of time. Instead of changing 20 blankets a week, printers now have them on for weeks on end,” he says.

It’s a fine example of what he terms ‘needs based development,’ identifying industry requirements and coming up with a solution. He shies away from the over used term ‘innovation’, preferring to mine the company’s vast technical expertise and global reach to identify new products that will make life easier and more profitable for printers. These he identifies as ‘champion products’ that meet new and developing needs.

Sealing the solutions

“Our ‘New UV’ blanket is one of our champion products. It’s been very well received because it solves the problem. Initially, the new blankets went into CMYKhub, an early adopter of HUV drying. After a trial, they pulled the lever on it and said ‘we’ve got to have it’. So we brought in as much as we could get hold off,” he says.

Another ‘champion product’ is Böttcher Pro-tect Sealer, which protects print from scuff and marking on perfecting presses. According to Mulligan it’s been widely adopted since he first introduced it here.

“Printers run it when they think there might be heavy ink coverage on a particular job. They love it. Some of them have now got to the stage where they run sealer all the time, because it’s cheaper than having to reprint a job. It’s a mixture of risk mitigation and insurance.

“The print goes straight out to the bindery, with no marking. It’s a sleeper product for us. We’re not competitive price-wise, but we’re competitive performance-wise. Printers tried it and they’ve gone ‘yes!’ because the worst thing is to have a sealer that makes your product turn yellow. I’ve seen that time and time again. Ours doesn’t.”

He delights at such acceptance: “It is really interesting for us. We bring something in, try it, and then next thing we know we’ve got an absolute champion on our hands. Those sorts of tailored solutions have been really good for us.”

Family values

In his time with Böttcher Systems, Mulligan has made a yearly pilgrimage to the German HQ for the annual meeting, although in 2011 the company broke tradition and held the event in Sydney. Böttcher is a family-owned enterprise; its current CEO, Franz-Georg Heggemann, is the eighth generation of the family. In 2015 the company celebrated 290 years in continuous operation since 1725, when Johannes Loosen first opened for business as a tanner in Cologne. That puts Böttcher in a very elite group indeed.

Its longevity is no cover for lack of dynamism; over the past 20 years, Böttcher posted an annual growth rate of four percent. “It’s not bad for a mid-sized global technology company that invests ten percent of its revenue in R&D,” says Mulligan proudly. Of course, the growth rate in Australia and New Zealand is much higher. That’s what happens when you come from a standing start with a very competitive managing director.

When it comes to sales, Mulligan is fairly ambivalent. Recognising the need to reach out to his customer base he sees the role more in terms of technical consulting rather than any hint of hard selling.

“I have a very competent technical sales team. They’re first and foremost here for their technical skills to help maintain and develop the relationship with the customer. All of them were lithographers, production managers or demonstrators, who were well-positioned in the offset space when I was lucky enough to pick them up. They came with the understanding of that perspective.”

Böttcher service can be anything from educating customers on best practices for operating a press or upgrading maintenance processes to training and keeping skills up to speed. “It’s all part of the tools. We can go in and put a tailored solution together to suit circumstances. So, if you call sales engaging with your customer and telling them of new opportunities or new ways of adding value to their business, then that’s exactly what we do. When we’re aware there’s something in our tool kit that’s of use, we’ll engage. And we engage robustly.”

Keep rolling along

However, rollers remain the primary identified product. In this space Mulligan is quick to reinforce that there’s plenty of developmental work going on.

“We’re not going to sleep on rollers. It’s a question of getting the compounds right, of being able to cope with faster and faster machines, with the changes in technology in terms of inks – vegetable or oil-based inks. Then there’s the transition to LED and HUV inks and developing compounds that are stable, resistant and long life. That’s still our mantra no matter what the application.”

He continues: “The compounds we had twenty years ago are very different to what they are today. We do around three thousand compound tests a year. Out of that we may find two or three that will stick, and they go to the next phase. The R&D team is always playing with the matrix.”

Changes in printing technology have undoubtedly put the company’s replacement system to the test but some things don’t change. Mulligan says he is still called upon to recover rollers for 46cm one and two-colour small offset presses. That takes a bit of doing, but he’s happy to claim that he can still replace 52cm rollers from stock.

Grapple with change

Mulligan admires the way printers have handled the massive transformation in technology and business over the past quarter of a century. He knows how difficult it’s been. Those who survived and thrived have had more than good luck on their side.

“I think there are those who’ve understood it well and adapted and changed. They need to be applauded. They’ve been agile and adaptive.

“In the main, we all grapple with the rate of change. But those who understand are having that conversation with their mates up the road. They’re putting solutions together. In the future I expect to see more collaboration, more consolidation,” he says.

“That’s a positive thing. It’s better to do it now than wait until you’ve no choice. There’ll be printers that’ve found a sweet spot with unique offerings around for a very long time. They’ll always be there,” he says.

Much as Böttcher Systems Australia, in the lively and skilled hands of Mitch Mulligan, is set to develop its own specialised future for many years to come. 21

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