The little guy vs the behemoth: Who has it better?

Little guy vs. behemoth printer The current upheaval in the economy and the printing industry has once again raised the question of what type of firm is best positioned in this environment. The discussion has taken on a greater sense of urgency as the pace of plant closures, bankruptcies and acquisitions has quickened.

It has long been assumed that size was a prerequisite for success, and this has led to a spate of mergers and acquisitions. Although it’s not a new phenomenon, in the printing industry, the pace of activity among printers has given way to a new category of printer, sometimes called the “MegaPrinter.” The largest printers have always dwarfed most others, but the size and number of acquisitions in the past few years appear to be qualitatively different. The appeal is easy to understand: the quickest way to consolidate your market position, obtain additional assets and become more efficient is to acquire a rival. The industry is not only becoming more concentrated, but the demands on these large (mostly) public companies to continue to grow boosts the likelihood of increasing size and scale, primarily through acquisition, due to their need to continue to show growth and the difficulty many of them appear to have in generating enough organic growth.

Yet, these acquisitions clearly have not always worked out, as evidenced by the bankruptcy filings of Quebecor World and Grafikom. Making an acquisition work is difficult; multiple studies have shown that more than half of acquisitions fail. In the case of many of the industry’s consolidators who were active in the 1990s, most of the acquisitions failed, as integrating production processes, supply chains and cultures are far more difficult in reality than on paper. Furthermore, the downturn in the economy has accelerated the plant closings and consolidations of these large printers.

Smaller printers, however, are not immune from the storm buffeting our industry, as the weekly news releases of companies closing their doors remind us.

So what type of firm is best suited to survive in the new environment? Is the emergence of the MegaPrinter only a quantitative change, or does this portend a qualitative change in industry structure? Consolidation does not necessarily mean domination. It is not by any means a foregone conclusion that all of these MegaPrinters will be equally successful powerhouses, only that they will be big. Printers who are not in the MegaPrinter category have been able to compete effectively in many areas, even head-to-head with the giants, often due to their greater flexibility and responsiveness.

The Structure of Canadian Industry

Proportion of small toThe printing industry in Canada is dominated by small firms; 75% have fewer than 20 employees. If one adds those classified by Statistics Canada as “indeterminate,” which tend to be owner-operated with no permanent paid employees, the proportion increases to 90% with fewer than 20 employees. The average plant has only eight employees; yet, plants with 100 employees account for more than 40% of all employees, while only about one-fourth are in facilities with less than 20 employees. (For purposes of this discussion, we are excluding packaging companies.)

That is not to say, however, that Canada does not have large printing companies. The two largest Canadian-based printers, Quebecor World and Transcontinental, qualify as MegaPrinters by any definition, while others in the Canadian context, such as St. Joseph Communications, with about $300 million in sales, approaches. Many of the other very large Canadian printers are specialty companies, such as managed print services provider, The Data Group, envelope converter, Supermex or Canadian Banknote. Other large Canadian printers include Solisco, Friesens, Dollco, PDI, Webcom, Lowe-Martin and The Printing House. One should also note that many U.S.-based MegaPrinters maintain significant operations in Canada, including R.R. Donnelley, Cenveo and Bowne; even Consolidated Graphics recently made its first foray into Canada, and fast-growing Vista Print has a major facility in Windsor.

Nevertheless, one gets to a modest-sized firm fairly quickly. That’s not to say that a printer with $15 million in sales is small, but it surely doesn’t qualify as extraordinarily large.

The Advantages of Size

The very largest printers apparently see value in size, and one objective of continued growth is the ability to take advantage of the benefits of size on their overall businesses and on the market. There are a number of advantages that can accrue to size.

Single Source. Many companies in today’s increasingly cost-sensitive environment, especially the large corporations that tend to be the primary customers of most larger printers, are looking to improve efficiencies. One major area of their focus is the reduction in the overall number of suppliers, both to reduce the costs of managing them and to gain economies of scale by purchasing higher volumes at lower costs from fewer suppliers. For print service providers, being larger helps them remain on the preferred provider list.

Potential for lower costs. Size also offers the ability for these companies to lower their costs. While they may offer a wide range of services, each individual plant can specialize on producing a particular product or servicing certain markets. While large printers can drive overall costs down through their buying power, those cost reductions can quickly be offset by inefficiencies in the sales, marketing and manufacturing process as they enter new, less specialized areas of the business.

Load balancing. Larger printers with multiple plants can also load balance, shifting work to underutilized plants and equipment.

Cost of capital. Perhaps the most important long-term value large companies bring is their ability to obtain lower financing costs. They have better access to more diverse sources of capital and their lower overall cost of capital can drive significant and sustainable cost containment into their sprawling enterprises.

Advantages of larger printers vs. small

Disadvantages of Size

Size can have its disadvantages as well. While companies are moving to reduce the total number of suppliers, they are often loath to be dependent on too few. If a publisher prefers to have three suppliers and one of those suppliers buys another, the publisher will add another supplier, resulting in a reduction of revenues from that publisher for the combined companies.

Acquisitions also lead to disruption. Integration is not easy, even for those who have done it before. Key people leave, customers and projects can fall through the cracks and customer service can deteriorate. Different business and production systems present challenges in terms of creating an integrated workflow across multiple plants. The closure of plants and/or moving of equipment also create production disruptions. With good management, these disruptions are relatively temporary. But, for companies that continue to acquire, these challenges are never-ending. As soon as one is integrated, there is another one that must be addressed. And, despite due diligence, companies may acquire bad businesses, paying too much for poor operations, obsolete equipment and a less-than-loyal customer base.

The anticipated lower cost benefits of acquisitions are not always realized. Specialization can mask inefficient operations and the ability to obtain lower prices through higher discounts generally has a one-time impact. Cost curves shift downward, but do not necessarily represent sustainable improvement.

There is no magic associated with size. While MegaPrinters can certainly benefit from scale in certain areas, including access to capital and the ability to produce high volume, complex applications like magazines, catalogs and large direct mail campaigns, they can have difficulty addressing more specialized needs and keeping customer service levels adequate. From a competitive perspective, then, these large printers are primarily competing against each other in a flat or declining market and do not really compete with the more typical commercial printer.

Acquisition Drivers: Not Just for the Big Boys

Despite these issues, there continue to be acquisitions. Canadian companies tend not to be as acquisitive as found in the U.S. True, Quebecor World grew by acquisition, and Transcontinental’s stated strategy is for growth to be divided between organic growth and acquisition. Their most recent large Canadian acquisition was that of PLM. Most Canadian companies have tended not to make big splashy acquisitions, rather merging or acquiring assets as the opportunities present themselves. PDI’s recent acquisition of a Grafikom facility is a good example.

Nevertheless, mergers and acquisitions are common. They are part of our industry’s fabric and will be for the foreseeable future.

They are not just a mechanism for the largest printers. They are an increasingly important tool for use by companies of all sizes. Mergers and consolidation are a fundamental mechanism to re-align the industry with the market forces of shrinking demand and competition from other ways of communication.

Bob Rosen, of R.H. Rosen Associates in New York, has identified what he calls the “Seven Glacial Forces Driving Change.”

1. Overcapacity. The entire industry is suffering from overcapacity, a result of existing overcapacity and a change in product mix, with shrinking demand for many products. The situation is compounded by improvements in productivity and technology. Regardless of the sources, companies of all sizes are finding the competitive environment more difficult because of the extra capacity.

2. Price Competition. Burdened with extra capacity and high fixed costs, companies engage in an endless bout of price competition, with many companies selling jobs just to bring in cash.

3 & 4. Technological Change and Increasing Capital Requirements. As technology continues to advance, the cost of new equipment increases. Even new “disruptive” printing technology, such as digital, entails significant investment. Although the new equipment offers productivity and quality gains, it’s often at a cost that can only be justified by high levels of utilization. Unfortunately, the higher productivity of the new equipment has the unintended side effect of increasing capacity.

5. Customer Demands for Service. Customers continue to demand a broader range of services and higher levels of service. Costs continue to rise as companies respond to these increasing customer demands.

6. Increasingly Unpredictable and Variable Sales. Even well-managed companies have difficulty predicting monthly sales volumes. Even publication printers are increasingly faced with variable production volumes as ad pages shrink. While the MegaPrinters tend to have somewhat more visibility and predictability of sales because of the markets they serve, many smaller firms can spend most of the year catching up from a few bad months.

7. Management Succession. In addition to fundamental operating forces, management succession issues are becoming more urgent within privately-owned companies as the current generation of company owners advances in age. Looking towards retirement, those aging owners are less willing to be exposed to the risks of continued investment, even when their companies are profitable. This has made many relatively successful companies available for purchase by increasingly large acquirers.

As a result of these factors, mergers and acquisitions will continue. Facing sales shortfalls, growing costs and price competition, the concept of a merger or acquisition becomes even more compelling. The seller gains liquidity and freedom, while the buyer gains higher utilization of resources, the promise of new markets or customers, a broadening sales base and the opportunity to acquire new plant and equipment or production capabilities.

The Advantages of Being Small: The Role of the Mid-sized and Small Printer

With clear evidence that industry consolidation will continue into the foreseeable future, it is helpful to examine the role of the smaller and mid-sized printer in this changing landscape. As the accompanying chart shows, the proportion of Canadian printers with more than 100 employees hasn’t grown over the last five years. While the number of smallest plants with less than five employees has shrunk, those between 5 and 19 employees have become increasingly important. Likely, consolidation has kept the proportion of larger plants steady, some mid-sized printers have gotten smaller; but, perhaps most important, smaller ones have grown in order to survive or gone out of business, thus increasing the proportion of the small and mid-sized printer category.

So, how have the small to mid-sized printers managed? First, the geography of Canada provides some degree of protection. One of the reasons there are so many very small printers is they serve very local markets and are somewhat insulated from broader trends and competition.

Secondly, smaller firms compete with their larger counterparts primarily on service. They can excel in this area. Moreover, while the web interfaces and distributed footprint of today’s MegaPrinters do offer them a competitive advantage especially for large, distributed accounts, an increasing number of smaller printers are implementing web-to-print and automated production processes, positioning themselves to sell to larger accounts and removing some of the traditional geographic barriers their businesses faced. In addition to e-enabling their businesses, a growing number of small to mid-sized printers are identifying niche markets where they can meet customer needs in a way that will be difficult for the MegaPrinters to address.

Small commercial and quick printers also tend to have multiple revenue sources; they do not rely on any particular type of work. They are truly “general commercial” printers. They serve a variety of customers from individuals and small businesses to the largest print buyers. They provide a necessary and valuable function, including quick turnaround and convenience. Moreover, they specialize in, and are particularly efficient for, certain types of work, particularly small format and short run – two areas that have held their own. Their print-based revenue includes traditional offset, but also toner-based digital and inkjet-based wide-format. They also are able to provide value in front-end services, finishing and mailing and distribution, as their customers are less likely either to want or to be able to coordinate the full production process.

Smaller printers, therefore, are not forced into acquisition to grow. They have a variety of opportunities to achieve revenue and profit growth. They can expand their offerings: new larger press formats, add more colours to their offset presses, add new print products, such as wide format inkjet or variable image printing, or offer ancillary services, such as fulfillment or database management. A second way to grow is to acquire new customers. Alternatively, they can increase sales from existing customers. Other opportunities are more production focused, calling for investing in equipment, or lowering costs of production, labour and materials. Still, merging with or acquiring another firm is yet another path to growth.

The future success of small commercial and quick printers lies in their ability to differentiate themselves, to articulate that differentiation and to do a better job of marketing themselves to existing and potential customers. As new services are added to the mix, educating customers about those services – and how they can help customers achieve their business objectives – is critical.

Another opportunity is for a smaller printer to align or sell to someone affiliated with one of the major franchise networks, such as PrintThree, Kwik Kopy or Minuteman, all of which are looking to expand in Canada. Franchises benefit from the name recognition of the national brand. They also benefit from the significant infrastructure investments the franchisors make on their behalf in terms of shared services, technology, training, negotiated purchase prices for equipment, consumables and more, and the ease with which they can interact with their peers in the network to share best practices, support customers with shared capabilities and distributed printing, etc.

For those who survive, however, the good news is that sales per shop will continue to grow. While overall print volumes will continue to contract, the number of establishments will decline faster, leaving more work for fewer printers to do. At the same time, surviving printers will augment revenues with a growing share of value-added, non-print services and higher value digital print applications that will allow them to not only grow revenues, but increase profits as well. It is likely that segment revenue will be up as well, with successful shops continuing to outpace average growth numbers by a significant factor.

As small commercial and quick printers think about their future, there are a few key components they should be considering.
Succession planning: Will a family member or key employee be ready, willing and able to take over the business as the current owner approaches retirement? If not, will they continue to invest in the business?

Investments: If the current owner is not investing in the business, what will be the value of the business at time of retirement? Depending on how distant that time is, will it be able to survive that long? If an owner is merely taking money out of the business as he or she nears retirement, will there be a book of business to sell once the time arrives?

Sales channels: The winners in the segment realize they must invest heavily in sales channels as well, whether it is Internet-driven, outside sales resources or a combination of both. For those who choose to continue to rely on walk-in/retail and long-standing relationships, the future will look bleaker.

Diversification: What ancillary services can easily be added to boost revenues, profits and market differentiation? Does it make sense to build, buy or partner to deliver these services? Smaller printers should consider all three options as they strive to grow their businesses. Franchisees should leverage the capabilities that their larger sister franchises or the franchisor can offer to expand the range of services they can offer their customers.

Business support systems: Especially for the independent printer, it is growing more difficult to do everything it takes to manage a hectic business on a day-to-day basis, while at the same time keeping up with industry best practices in people, process and technology. Additionally, these smaller independent players are often at a cost disadvantage as compared to larger firms, and those that are affiliated with some type of network that offers them preferential pricing from vendors of equipment, service, supplies and consumables.

Small commercial and quick printers are small business people and, generally, entrepreneurs. Those who are successful would likely be successful in any business; those who are struggling cannot totally blame their lack of success on industry woes. Despite the surface view reflecting declining print shipments and a declining number of establishments, under the surface there are still vibrant, dynamic and growing prospects for those who wish to invest the time, effort and dollars to take advantage of new opportunities.