Not only is he the driving force behind Precision Printing the circa 120-staff, £20m-turnover group that is one of the UK’s leading exponents of mass customisation, he’s also a BPIF board member and global chair of Dscoop, a co-operative of HP graphic solutions users that operates across the US, Asia and the EMEA region.
And it’s in that latter role that Gary Peeling, along with many of his cohorts, is trying to make ‘print’ a super brand capable of turning generation Z into an army of advocates. And if as part of that process he happens to create a business that continues to grow at the same rate it has been for the past decade, then you won’t hear him complain.
I know Precision is a family business, but how did your involvement begin?
I used to work in the business during my school holidays from around the age of 12 or 13. I would get the sandwiches, sweep the floors and put the bets on at the bookmakers for the minders.
And at that time I guess it was small litho operation?
Well, we were offset, probably around 60 people and had a turnover of around £2.5m.
So not that small then?
No. I started working full-time in 1986, when I was 16 – I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do at school, but I knew that I wanted to be in business and print was very glamorous in those days, so I got straight into work. I spent the first five years in a darkroom shooting artwork on a camera.
When you say ‘glamorous’ do you mean well paid for a first job?
Yes, it was well paid; we were paid cash at that time so you had minders with pockets full of £50 notes.
Hence you going to the bookies for them in the early days?
Exactly. And lots of long lunches, it was just a different time.
Did you work though different parts of the business then?
Yes. Planning, platemaking and camera operator and then moved into estimating, and then through general management, commercial director and eventually managing director [and most recently chief executive].
Was that always part of the plan, that you would move through parts of the business to learn it?
It’s always a challenge working in your family business as you have to avoid the boss’s son mentality. In order to achieve you have to work harder and longer than anyone else. But yes, it was all about getting the proper grounding. Because in those circumstances it’s always better to be presented with the opportunity based on your performance.
When did you become managing director then?
That was a pretty sizeable responsibility for a 28-year-old?
Sure, and by that time we probably would have been around 80 people.
What were the challenges of running a business so young?
There were no particular challenges. I got the position on merit and had earned the respect of the people in the business. But we did go through a challenging period from 2000 through to 2005. We had got to that tricky stage of around £5m-£6m turnover and we were in the mid-sized malaise basically and the business was flat-lining [in terms of growth].
Were you purely litho at that stage?
We were and no matter what we tried we had difficulty taking the next step, we would win one contract and then lose one, secure another and then lose another. The big step for us was relocating from our central London site, which was spread across a number of floors and not really fit for purpose. So we moved to a new facility that was much leaner in terms of its layout and it was more presentable for clients, which helped close a few deals. It was in 2005 that we also moved into digital, and it was a combination of those three things that really kickstarted growth. From that point onwards we were growing at around £1.5m to £2m per annum.
A lot of people talk about the £5m-£6m ceiling being a challenge.
It’s a tricky stage. It’s about making the transition from a small business to a large one with an appropriate structure to make it work – it also requires a different [management] style. All successful print businesses now have to be good at everything, you have to be good at sales and marketing, finance and also strong on your commercials. Strong business skills are absolutely essential, especially when you’re growing and things become more complex.
Taking that step also always seems to involve some sort of brave decision too.
That’s probably right, but core to that is that the level of business acumen needed to run a successful print business today is way beyond where it was when I started 25 years ago. It’s the same for all of us. You have to concentrate on the details and make sure you have good people around you.
Clearly the growth has been largely organic, but last year you made your first acquisition when you took a controlling stake in First2Print [now Precision North] in Sunderland. How did that come about?
Martyn Young [First2Print managing director] saw me speaking at Fespa two years ago and made an approach.
Are you looking at others?
It was a strategic one for us. We had been looking at wide-format for some time, but we realised it’s a mature market and we understood that if we were going to enter it we would need to have a certain level of expertise if we wanted to be successful. As a result we now also have two online brands Wherethetradebuys.co.uk, which was already established, and the recently launched Yourwalls.co.uk, our wall-covering brand.
And presumably the geographic angle appealed too?
Absolutely. Apparently there’s quite a lot of business in the North, it’s not just about London [laughs].
Who knew. On the subject of partnerships, a few years ago you had a partnership with Pixartprinting to help it break into the UK – what happened?
It was going well, but there was a change of ownership when a private equity house took control prior to its sale to Vistaprint and it wanted to take back control of all customer relationships and production.
What did you learn from the experience?
We learned a great deal from it. And that was of the reasons behind the deal for Wherethetradebuys.co.uk, because we know there is a still a potential for those services in the UK and we believe we have a formula that is going to be successful. Precision also has very seasonal peaks, so it’s a good fit.
You’re global chair of Dscoop as well as being a board member of the BPIF, so how do you find time to run your £20m business?
It’s not easy and you need a good team around you in the business. Also it’s fantastic to work towards the greater good, but I can assure you that there are commercial projects that we develop as a direct result of getting involved. Around 30% of Precision’s business stems from abroad…
…as direct result of being involved in Dscoop?
Exactly. It is difficult, and perhaps I haven’t been able to give the business the attention I would have liked to at times, but I’m not sure Precision would be where it is now if I hadn’t got involved.
Who has had a big impact on your career?
Too many to mention, but certainly Clive Cooper [Precision chairman and Peeling’s stepfather and business partner], who initially gave me my love for business and taught me the importance of client relationships. The other would be Alon Bar-Shany [HP Indigo general manager] I’ve worked with him very closely over the past 10 years and I suppose he taught me to think big, think globally, innovate, put the customer at the centre of your plans and be prepared to be agile and move quickly.
Which all sounds great if you’re HP and have the resources to make things happen, but how does that translate to your business?
That’s when you come back to collaboration. So, for example, we develop new photo products, but we offer those to our partners that have consumer photo sites. You have to understand your limitations. It was a similar story with Oneflow [Precision’s home-grown workflow for web-to-print and micro orders], which is one of our biggest achievements because it enabled us to release ourselves from the shackles of run lengths. We had developed a system that was very successful for Precision, but when we were looking to take it to the next level we partnered with Chris Knighton and Nigel Watson who had backgrounds in cloud-based applications, which meant we could make it available commercially. That’s what I mean by thinking big. Yes, Alon heads a large organisation now, but it wasn’t always that way and he taught me that if you have a good idea then go for it and look for the people that will help you deliver it. Many people have great ideas and then convince themselves not to do it, but people like Alon find a way and a lot of the time that’s through collaboration.
But as you say, often the biggest obstacle is the person who had the idea in the first place.
It’s about having a start-up mentality. Israel is known as the start-up nation, but you can also see it in the UK. I read somewhere that more businesses were set up in the recession than at any time previously. We need to develop more of that spirit in the sector – when you believe anything is possible. The key thing is to understand you don’t need to do it on your own, and that it’s okay to work with others as it can be extremely liberating – especially if it’s the difference between doing something and not.
On the subject of collaboration, you’re heavily involved with Dscoop and the BPIF, have you always been an active learner?
No, is the answer, I wasn’t. My introduction to networking and developing a collaborative approach was through HP Indigo. They have a system of customer panels where they bring individuals in to work with people from other countries to talk about future product development and it really started from there. Very quickly you realise the advantages of taking yourself out of your own environment and talking to people who are doing other things.
Aside from digital though, how’s the legacy commercial offset marcomms business doing?
Good – it’s growing.
That’s interesting because I’ve spoken to various people over the years who have entered the digital market and have seen growth in their traditional litho markets as a result.
Yes, we noticed last year that the volumes had started to increase, whereas before it had only been digital work that had been growing the business. Both sides of the business definitely support each other. I also think that the litho side may be growing because marketers are increasingly drawn back to the cut-through of print in the digital media space and that might mean printing lots of just one thing. As to whether it’s a case of less capacity in the industry or more demand, I like to think it’s a case of more demand.
So marketers are coming back to print after losing faith with email?
I think the results of email marketing generally are declining because the digital landscape has become very congested. Digital marketing used to be cheap and quick to access, it’s still quick, but it’s not cheap any more. What I mean is that I’m told the word ‘insurance’ costs $90 on Google if you want to be top of the ‘click list’ – you can produce a lot of print for $90 to acquire one customer. I think it’s also interesting that we’re seeing a lot of e-commerce firms using print to recapture lapsed customers that have clicked the ‘no email marketing’ box and in some instances we’re seeing ROIs in excess of 300% or 400%.
Isn’t it a struggle to get those kinds of result metrics from clients though, because that would be an incredibly powerful tool for a printer to market the power of print.
Well, you have to ask for them in the first place. It’s important not to leave the process once the job is delivered. I think there may be a culture in the print industry to deliver the job, get satisfaction and then cut and run before anybody wants to question anything. Engaging after the fact is really important, because it shows you’re interested. Of course, sometimes the client won’t tell you [the campaign’s results] for commercial reasons, but when they do you can make adjustments and perhaps suggest ways they can make changes in the future to increase ROI.
But I imagine every printer would want that kind of relationship with their clients?
It’s a big piece of the puzzle, really. We as printers need to understand how and why print works. There’s been a movement for printers to become marketing services providers not just print services providers, but before we try to do that we need to better understand the product we do best – print. We’re not looking to be a marketing services provider, we’re simply looking to be a trusted advisor on the most effective way to use print. There’s a difference.
On that, the whole PSP and MSP thing – what’s the shame in calling yourself a printer?
Well, exactly, that’s why we have the strapline ‘digital loves print’. We chose it for two reasons: firstly to celebrate print and secondly to highlight the direct connection between print and the digital environment.
You’ve spoken before about the changing face of print buyers, and that professional print buyers are almost becoming an endangered species, how are you coping with that?
It’s a big challenge and that’s one of the things that we’re working very hard on with the Dscoop community. In many sectors professional print buyers no longer exist at brands and our future print buyers are likely to be in their mid-20s and part of the smartphone generation. They don’t know about paper weights or technical specifications, and actually neither should they. What they want is a direct mail campaign, or a brochure, or a look book, and what they’re looking for is a print provider who can advise them and tell them what they should have. It’s about curation; it’s a little like choosing your suit from Next because you like the fabrics or designs – somebody has already made those decisions for you. Rather than our parents’ generation who were more used to going to Burtons and having a suit made. The print industry is still making everything to measure and that’s a needless process for most buyers now.
But isn’t the other challenge that a printer’s relationship isn’t necessarily with the person who controls the purse strings?
Yes, that is also the challenge for the printer, but it’s also the challenge for the print manager because they have to go through exactly the same process. It can’t be just about reducing the cost and executing the project, it’s about creating effective results for their customers, and, whether it’s first- or secondhand providing that feedback is critical. It’s not just about doing the jobs that are presented to us, it’s about adding some of that value back and also making the process easier.
And how do you do that?
It’s about a number of things: making customers feel comfortable and not intimidating them with specifications requirements they might not understand. We need to support them properly, that’s number one. Number two is thinking about how we ‘productise’ jobs and projects, what I mean is create a range of products that are easy to deploy.
Not commoditise though?
No, I mean pre-selecting specifications, paper types or particular approaches that can inspire and excite customers – that’s a really interesting step. If you think about a business like Vistaprint, it’s successful because it re-engaged a section of the community that wasn’t able to use print effectively: micro businesses. But they have done the industry a huge favour because those plumbers, window cleaners or florists have now used print for their marketing and now understand the value of it. And, as a result, are likely to become customers of the print industry and won’t necessarily stay a customer of Vistaprint as their requirements grow.
I’m pretty sure Vistaprint realise that too, hence buying companies like Pixartprinting that can offer the kind of service that they might be looking for?
Sure, there’s definitely a strategy there. But it shows the possibility of creating new customers. If you can excite a 24-year-old ‘Jane’ about using print, then she will use print throughout her career and she will talk to colleagues and her boss about why she uses print, and she will know why because one of us will have explained where and how it works best. Then if you think about the power of a young person talking to her boss about why she thinks the business should use print then it’s easy to see how that would generate an aggregate effect.
How do you achieve that on a reasonable scale, though?
I’m not pretending it’s easy. We need training and tools and that’s why organisations like Dscoop are valuable. These things can be difficult to develop or deploy on your own, whether it’s presentation tools or training. By funding those things as a co-operative, we have a much better chance. If you think about print as a brand, then we have to think and say the right thing all the time. This isn’t something that we can do as, say, just Precision no matter how successful it might make us as a company, what we need is the industry as a whole to create hundreds of thousands of new advocates of print.
You could just create your advocates and have a great business, but what your suggesting is much more altruistic.
You could, but then if ProCo, Prime or Pureprint can create an advocate, not only are they creating a customer for themselves they’re also doing a service for the print industry, because that customer will at some point probably have an effect on people that might buy from me, FE Burman or anyone else. Once you start to understand that, that’s when the power starts to work – it’s how super brands are created. It used to be called word-of-mouth, but now its called net promoter score.
And if the industry isn’t prepared to do that?
Well, if a customer has a bad experience – perhaps they were made uncomfortable by their supplier, or felt the process was too arduous or there were problems with the billing, or a different problem wasn’t dealt with properly – then the next time they’re looking to do a campaign, the buyer just might think ‘you know what, let’s just do an email campaign’.
Do you think that changing how the industry interacts with the buying community is one of its biggest challenges?
I think it is. We have to change the way we interact with customers and we all have to put the work into actioning that change. It has an immediate benefit for your business and also the community, and finding these kinds of things we can all collaborate around, which aren’t competitive, that’s the key. For a long time we learned strategies on how to secure a project against a competitor, which means we end up fighting in a smaller and smaller pond. What we should all be doing – the printers, the print managers and the equipment and paper suppliers – is working together to create these new customers and excite them about what print can do.
But then even in the Dscoop community, never mind the industry at large, you’re talking about competitors working together?
Yes, and that’s great, because we’re talking about new pages from ‘Jane’, who either won’t use print ever, which is a real risk, or we work together to create an advocate who might buy a million pounds’ worth of print in her working life. She then encourages another four or five people to do that over her career. If this is all new volume then at some point we will get out of the trap of trying to take orders from each other and we’ll be in a place where the industry’s order volumes start to increase.
But then, playing devil’s advocate, that means working and sharing with people that you have and might again lose work to?
That’s true, but competition is nothing new. Competition is not the fear. If you cut right through to what any print business owner really worries about then it’s not the competition, it’s the future market. We all know how to deal with competition and actually it’s healthy, the worry is how we ensure that we have enough customers in the future as an industry – and that’s where projects like those that GF Smith runs with schools and universities and you guys with your cover programme too. If you take a young person when they’re still in education and provide them with a positive perception of print then they are more likely to use it.
I totally agree, but then I also know there are probably people reading this, rolling their eyes and thinking they’re just interested in the well-being of their own business not the industry in general.
Sure. There are some people who won’t understand it.
And perhaps they won’t be here in 10 years’ time?
Or maybe they will and they will benefit from what others have done without having to put anything in. But if you get involved there’s an immediate benefit because you create a relationship with young people who, one day, might be your customers. It’s binary – we either have these customers in the future or we don’t, so we either do the work now and create them or we don’t.
And the same goes for the employees of tomorrow?
Young people are graduating college or university and they don’t have jobs to go to, and there are jobs that they want to do, and have the skills for, such as social media, marketing, computer coding and software development and these are all the positions that printers desperately need to fill. We’ve got a great story to tell; it isn’t about just recruiting young people to be minders or Mac operators, it’s about the new skills that we need. There are things like PrintIT! or we can all invite the business or design class from our local school to have a tour – some of those young people will either come and work with us in the future or be our customers. You can sit on the sidelines and ruminate about the state of the industry, or you can step up and do something. It’s about finding the areas we can collaborate on not compete, which is probably the secret to it all.
In your roles at Dscoop and the BPIF you’ve come into contact with a lot of different businesses, have you noticed anything that separates good companies from bad?
A realisation that the world doesn’t owe you a living. There’s no point bemoaning what’s happened in the past. I think it’s about being realistic too, that things we sell today and the way we sell them are not likely to be the same tomorrow – so you have to keep moving forward. The best businesses know this.
Final question, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
There are two things: firstly, and I know it sounds glib and it’s more of a mantra, but it’s ‘what goes around, comes around’ so do and say the right thing and you won’t go too far wrong. The second is that what you lack in ability, make up for with tenacity and things will turn out all right.
Interview by Darryl Danielli for PrintWeek, Monday 15 June 2015.