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Ties across the Tasman – Print 21 magazine article

Thursday, 23 August 2007
By Print 21 Online Article
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A level of trust underlies all worthwhile business transactions. You are never going to feel satisfied in your dealings with an individual or a company you do not trust. Sometimes it is unavoidable and you have to put up with people you don’t believe are fair dinkum, but mostly if there is an alternative you will make the deal with the person you trust.

This applies strongly in the printing and graphic arts industries on both sides of the Tasman where the vast majority of businesses are small, family-owned enterprises. In this situation the character and the personality of the business owner often embodies the profile and reputation of the company. Business is done on a one-to-one basis, phone calls are made and taken between principles, disputes are dealt with at a level where responsibility is recognised and reciprocated. The majority of business for printing companies is generated from their locality, much of it from other family-owned businesses. The local chamber of commerce remains a vital marketing conduit for most printers.

Sure, it’s changing. The advent of larger companies makes a difference, the corporatisation of business sees the local coffee bar become a Starbucks, the butcher become part of a chain. But even here there is a strong tendency to develop local links and managers will usually need the occasional non-corporate flyer printed by the local printing company. It’s not all small-time business either. Mid-size companies are predominantly owner-operated too, and many larger printing enterprises have become more sophisticated in their corporate make-up over the years while still retaining the sense of individual personality.

Dealers hold strong hand

In the recent past, a transformation of the graphic arts supply side has seen the arrival of the large manufacturers as stand-alone distributors – Fuji Xerox, Heidelberg, KBA, MAN Roland, Fujifilm as well as smaller companies such as Müller Martini and Screen – have all embarked on a course of establishing singular representation in different countries. Where once their products were sold through local dealers, the drive for globalisation has seen the requirement for a brand presence and profile in the market. Film suppliers such as Kodak and Agfa were out there by default as a result of their other consumer operations.
Sometimes this makes absolute sense and, in the case of Heidelberg, has proven to be a very successful strategy. But for many others it has resulted in high overheads dedicated to servicing a single brand and a struggle to make it viable.

The alternative business model, and the one that was most prevalent for many years, is the local graphic arts supply company. It made its business and spread its costs through selling and servicing a wide range of products and consumables. Locally-owned and operated, it is type of channel to market that has not gone away under the pressure of globalisation and is, if anything, making a strong comeback.

Two prominent examples of this are the Currie Group in Australia and AM International in New Zealand. David Currie and Ian Wood respectively operate and own their companies and have done so for a long time. They have arrived at their position by different paths but with a common reputation for personal attention to the business needs of their customers and the utmost probity in making the deals. Together they embody the ethos of owner-operated businesses and together they have forged a complex graphic arts supply network across the Tasman.

The long and winding roads

The Currie Group grew from a press engineering operation started by Bill Currie, David’s father, in 1949 in Melbourne. The company changed and moved with the times, taking astute advantage of changing supply lines. David Currie took the initiative of pioneering Japanese products such as Shinohara presses and Horizon finishing equipment at a time when the Australian industry was totally European focused. Curries expanded to become a national equipment and service group to the stage where it is now the largest independent supply company in Australia.

Representing a range of top flight brands that it has acquired over the years, it is unique in the scope and breadth of its offering. Its position and reputation at the top of the sector was cemented when the company was sought out to become the Indigo digital press, later HP Indigo, agent in Australia in 2001. This has transformed the Currie Group, propelling it into the high-tech future of the industry and raising its profile as a leading supplier of digital printing equipment.

By contrast, Ian Wood came to operate his company by a series of opportunities that began when he was transferred in 1970 from Australia to New Zealand to run the local company of the US-based AM International graphics equipment giant. As manager, then managing director, he had a front row seat to the subsequent financial melt-down that saw the once mighty multinational reduced to bankruptcy through a series of catastrophic boardroom decisions. In 1996, after selling its Sheridan finishing equipment subsidiary to Heidelberg, which formed the basis of that company’s move into post press, the corporation disintegrated.

Ian Wood saw there was little wrong with the company’s New Zealand operations that a little bit of dedication, hard work and independent ownership could not fix. Under his stewardship it had proved to be a very successful enterprise over the years with a fine range of agencies and a large customer base. Sensing the direction of the industry, he had transformed the company into a supplies and prepress business, getting out of heavy metal equipment sales. However, he recognised that it would be hugely advantageous to have a second investor and an alliance with a like-minded company. So was born the partnership between the two men with David Currie taking a minority stake in AM International (NZ) and Ian Wood coming into his own as owner /operator.

He ain’t heavy

David Currie’s re-engagement with the New Zealand industry is a testament to his regard for Ian Wood as an individual and as a businessman. Having been badly burned once in his ambitions to forge a trans-Tasman venture – the recession in the late 1980s hit New Zealand harder than Australia – he had sworn never to return. However, Ian Wood’s determination to be his own man and to take up the majority of the company’s capital proved to be a winning combination.

"I never wanted to again have a controlling interest in a New Zealand company. Of course, I recognised that it was a good market to have a presence in but not as a sole owner, not after the first time. I was very happy that Ian’s family would be the majority in AM International. He is a person I like and trust, we get on very well together and the combination, with the Currie Group operating as the big brother across the Tasman, has proved very successful," said David.

The two companies generate a creative synergy that goes beyond a shared portfolio of agencies, such as Horizon, Agfa, HP Indigo and ECRM. Frequent swapping of service personnel, joint approaches to overseas principals and aligned marketing strategies enable both companies to punch well above their weight. This year, the gaudily painted Currie Colour Express mobile printing showroom became the AM International flagship for an extensive tour of the North and South Islands.

Although they have some differences in the agencies they promote – Ian Wood is a big fan of Ideal guillotines – they are the only companies that comprehensively cater for both the offset market through the Shinohara agency and the digital printing sector through HP Indigo. This has gained them the reputation of honest brokers with customers contemplating upgrading their equipment. They know they are dealing with suppliers who can give an unbiased opinion and then supply the appropriate kit.

Although of very different sizes due to the markets in which they operate, both companies have a national presence; AM International has locations in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch; Currie Group has offices in every state of Australia. This is an important aspect of the common philosophy of both men who are determined to be players of the first rank.

"We are the ideal supplier in a small market," said Ian Wood. "We can deliver a wide range of equipment and technology to our customers and a market to our manufacturers by spreading the risk and the cost over our entire portfolio.

"David Currie and I have always got along very well. He is always accessible but doesn’t give advice unless it’s asked for. We’ve bought and sold equipment back and forth. My service people have helped David out in New Caledonia and Perth and he’s sent his people over here when we ask for them. It’s a very good relationship."

While the future is unknown, by definition, neither man openly declares any great desire to change the present arrangement. Troy Wood, Ian’s son, is now deeply engaged in the AM business, especially on the HP Indigo side. The Currie Group is on a growth path that has no apparent limits. With everything in place, the ties that bind across the Tasman seem set to remain secure.

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