**Taken From ImageReports Magazine Article**
How an affinity with technology and eye on the main chance has taken this family-run company from its home-based curtain-making heritage into wide-format print and promises to push it into other new arenas.
Registered under the original name Vicki Interiors but trading as Colour Graphics, this is a company that started in soft furnishings and expects to do a lot more in that ilk in the foreseeable future. But somewhere in between opening in 1980 as a home-based curtain making operation to becoming the £1.5m turnover digital print operation it is today, there’s been an enormous transformation. And it’s an active strategy of constant reinvention that continues to drive this still family owned business forward. Indeed, as you read this, it will be launching rapidposters.com, using ecommerce and workflow software developed in-house – a solution is also plans to offer to the market on a commercial basis by this summer.
“We’ve been into gadgets and computers for years and always looked at what we can do with technology to make money,” says Colour Graphics founder Steve Birch. “At first we saw the potential to offer copying services and heat transfer printed T-shirts, then we saw what we could do with large-format print and now we’re hoping that we can sell the workflow solution we’ve developed – and there’s always plenty of other avenues we’re looking into.”
The ‘we’ he refers to includes his son, James Birch, who has been with the company since he left school – and he’s 34 now! “I’ve just always been involved in the business and seen it change quite dramatically over the years. It’s a dangerous position to just keep looking at the same customer-base so we’re always looking for ideas on how we can expand into new areas.”
It is James who has developed the neat workflow system the company has been using since it moved into its current 510m2 ft industrial unit near Walsall in 2012 – a far cry from its home-based furnishings heritage.
“The change really started to happen when in 1993 Vicki Interiors opened a number of shops local to Walsall,” says Steve. “I happened to be at a furnishings show at the NEC looking for ideas with my wife [the Vicki of Vicki Interiors and now Colour Graphics secretary] and being into technology and gadgets I popped into the print show in the next hall. On one stand a guy had a Canon CLC200 and a heat transfer press and was producing full-colour transfers for T-Shirts. That was that; I bought a Canon CLC350 and a heat press too and set up a new design graduate with the kit in the front of one of the Vicki Interiors shops doing T-shirts and colour copies for 10p each – nobody else in the area was doing that then. When he left six months later I had to get hands on. At that time we had about 12 staff across the business, mostly making soft furnishings which was still the mainstay of the business, but I found myself spending my time on the digital print front and got really interested in it.
“In 1996 we bought a high-volume, black and white A3 Oce copier too and sectioned off part of the shop to make a copy design centre. Word spread and print became a bigger part of the business quite quickly but we could only do work up to SRA3 and we wanted to do posters so in 1998 we bought our first wide-format digital printer, a 60in Encad Novajet 850.”
But the company recognised that there was much greater scope for wide-format than posters, and having identified photographers as a possible new client base if it could produce high-quality photo work, bought a 44in Epson 9600 just six months after the Encad. “Again, no-one else around could do that kind of work, so people found us by word of mouth and Yellow Pages,” says Steve.
A large-format vinyl plotter followed very swiftly after that, enabling the company to diversify yet again, this time into non-printed vehicle graphics and signage, a move that prompted the purchase in 2001 of a 54in solvent print-and-cut machine – a Uniform Grenadier. “We saw that the banner market was a great opportunity and wanted to bring such print in-house so invested yet again, explains Steve, who’s personal guarantee enabled the company to invest in so much kit.
“The problem was, this was all crammed into the one shop and we were struggling for space as the digital print business had grown to about 93m2 and now accounted for about a third (£500,000) of turnover,” adds Steve. The major decision was taken in 2003 to close all the shops (the leases having run out anyway) and move the print operation to its first factory location, not far from where it is today.
“The digital print side of the business was growing much quicker than the interiors side so it made sense to concentrate on that,” says Steve, “plus, we wanted to move it off the High Street to concentrate on B2B work. People wandering in and chatting to us for 15 minutes when they only wanted a 10p photocopy was not the best way to make money!”
The industrial unit provided about 279m2 of space, meaning the company could expand its kit line-up once again, this time with a 2.6m roll-to-roll Grenadier GFX solvent printer and a Uniform Guardsman 2m wide laminator. A couple of HP 5500 machines came fast on their heels and in 2004 an Agfa Anapurna XL hybrid was added to the mix.
“We saw that flat sheet work would bring us some profitable business and also allowed us to handle more trade work,” says Steve, pointing out that the Anapurna allowed Colour Graphics to become much more involved in the outdoor signage and exhibitions markets.
“As we had planned, when we moved into that first factory there was an almost overnight shift in our business from a consumer focus to B2B. But that meant we had to be able to deal with faster turnaround etc. Because of the speed of the Anapurna, finishing was becoming a bottleneck so we bought a Kongsberg XL cutter in 2008 (the year the company also bought the factory next door and knocked the two together). That meant we could do profile cutting and prototyping, which again brought in new business,” says Steve, pointing out that the system is also used to produce the company’s own post/delivery cartons for the print it produces.
“By 2009 we found the volume of flat-sheet work we were handling required an even faster solution, so we got rid of the Anapurna and bought a Vutek QS3200,” enthuses Steve.
Subsequent investment has included an Oce Colorwave, a 2.6m HP DesignJet L28500 latex machine and various pieces of finishing hardware. It has also included another factory move; in 2012 the company moved to its present 510m2 factory. And guess what? Negotiations are underway for next door too.
“We’re negotiating with the landlords for the other unit because we are growing all the time and have that many ideas about how we want to diversify,” says Steve. At the time of going to press the paperwork was just about to be signed with CMYUK for a 3.2m Vutek QS3 Pro.
“We want to increase the speed and quality of the print we can produce on a flatbed to enable us to go into more niche markets where we can make more profit margin. This hybrid machine means we can do that,” adds James. “I think we’ll do more fine art type work onto rigid materials and that kind of thing. But I also see us doing more on the textiles front from now on in too. We’ve done a bit but we think there’s lots of opportunity there.”
So in one respect, Colour Graphics has come full circle – back to producing soft furnishings. But that’s just a fraction of what it does, and only part of the vision.
“We have ideas for services where we see strong potential,” says Steve. “Some are print related, like the ecommerce software that we’ve developed. But there’s a lot of scope elsewhere too.”
“It’s about noticing where you can make a difference,” adds James. “The software development came about because for SMEs like us there are so workflow solutions that really work for us. We have built a fully automated system that covers everything from quotes, order taking and payment through to pre-press, print, finishing and delivery. It eliminates people having to talk to us because it tracks the job all the way though and sends email alerts out at each stage. It even prints off the address label for the job delivery bag. It has an iPhone app we can use so even when we’re out and about we can see what’s been shipped, how much money we’ve made today, measure visitor loyalty etc. We can get data analysis not just live job status and that’s really useful.