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Taking the tide at the flood – commentary by Patrick Howard

Tuesday, 15 December 2009
By Print21

As the year draws to a close, Print21 publisher, Patrick Howard, looks back on some of the big events that took place in the printing industry during 2009.

This year was one of massive change and challenges. Crisis is in the air; men, businesses, banks and even sovereign states have gone to the wall. Trillions of dollars have evaporated, never to be seen again. The destruction of wealth is on an unprecedented scale. There can be no business as usual in the face of such dire portents and warning.

In the industry, the rollcall of printing businesses that have gone down this year is relentless. Here at Print21 magazine www.print21online.com we made a decision not to report every time a printing business went bust, when someone pulled down the roller shutter and walked away from a lifetime’s work. Some hung in and walked away on their own terms. Reg Hammond, founder of Lilyfield did well selling to German packager, STI. Tom Szabo of Greenloch, was not so lucky and stood by while David Fuller of Focus picked up the pieces.

In Melbourne disgruntled creditors, led by John Della, Pageset, cried foul over the way the energi print business was sold but Frank Tedesco’s PrintLinx already had the money in the bank. There will never be agreement on events such as this and the liquidator is still to make a decision. One party moved early and gained an advantage; others perhaps extended too much credit. 

Companies big and small slashed their workforce, downsizing, rightsizing, redeploying, reallocating resources … any number of euphemisms to describe getting the sack. Notably McMillan Printing disappeared into Blue Star with a tragic number of job losses. No one likes to do this but for companies with shrinking order books it is imperative to move fast to cut costs. Put off making the hard decisions for too long and it may well cost everyone their jobs.

I do believe there is no class of bastards who take joy at seeing men and women thrown out of work. Owners and managers are loath to terminate workers, no matter how it may look from the perspective of the recently unemployed on the street.

And let’s not forget that there are always winners as well as losers. One man’s lost job is another’s double shift; the failed tender that blows one printer’s overdraft provides the winner with a golden opportunity to buy a new press. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time; mostly it’s being ready to take up opportunities all the time.

PacPrint in May may not have been the best timing for an exhibition and undoubtedly many suppliers would have pulled out – if they could. But it was respectable enough show and the suppliers stepped up and put on a brave face. Once again the industry proved resilient.

Even as the PE funds closed their wallets and new press orders became few and far between, some new money still found its way into the industry notably with the emergence of Opus Print Group. Some players seem impervious to the passage of time with ACP finishing another year still threatening to build its own greenfield web site in Sydney. Meanwhile work on IPMG’s gravure site at Warwick Farm seems to have ground to a halt.

On the supply side the mooted merger of Heidelberg and manroland has once again proven to be a step too far for the Germans. It may seem to be about time to cut the losses for shareholder and financier Allianz, but there are many deep-seated rivalries and historical feuds between the traditional press makers. You wonder if the timing will ever be right for such a merger.

Ironically the Japanese and the Dutch appear to be better able to get together than any of the three German press provincials.

Canon’s takeover of Océ proves again the digital sector is better at adapting to the realities of the market. And what great timing! It took everyone by surprise, including the London-based hedge funds. If the takeover goes ahead, as seems likely, we have a new industry equipment supply leader when 2010 rolls around.

At which time we’ll still be here, doing what we do best … bringing you the latest news online at www.print21onlne.com and the best graphic arts business insights and information in the industry’s favourite management magazine, Print21.

It’s been a tough year, with all the more reason to take advantage of a well-deserved time out over the break.  So, from all of us at Print21, we wish you a Merry Christmas and renewed prosperity in the brave New Year.

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