Ramu Ramanathan (RR): To begin at the beginning, how did you choose to enter the printing industry?
Nilesh Dhankani (ND): Professionally I had begun my career as a designer. I used to design and develop advertisements for the websites. This had happened right after my graduation in 2000. Explaining and convincing concepts of different level of creativity to various clients as designer turned my interest into marketing as I was getting more exposure to some of the big corporates during those days. Printing was still more dominant than digital in those days and I eventually got an opportunity to represent marketing for one of the top printing companies in India.
RR: How did you begin Quarterfold Printabilites?
ND: I had gone back to designing. I got a book designed by my friend at his home which I sold and held the copyrights for it in the African market. This number increased to 30 titles within a span of no time. Today, we have around 120 titles in the African market. The first order was for 5,000 copies for a publisher and that would not fill a container. So I inquired if he had any other books to be printed and then these 5,000 copies could be included within the same freight charges. The publisher liked the work and that’s how I moved forward and formed Quarterfold Printabilities in 2014. I do not charge the publishers for the content but the printing is done by me for security reasons since I hold the copyright.
RR: Was there any strategy from your end in terms of approaching the Africa market?
ND: While approaching the publishers it enabled me to talk about books from a designing point of view and the ways in which the aesthetics of the book could be improved with ideas like anti-piracy metallic foiling on the book cover or more colours and four colour illustrations inside the text pages of the books. We started redesigning the books for our African publishers from India and it turned out to be a huge success for us.
RR: Where would the printing happen?
ND: Most of these books were textbooks which were getting printed in black and white. This was because of the local unavailability of four-colour machines. For four-colour printing jobs, the publishers had to print the same job for four times on a single-colour machine. Plus the paper that they would import was at a heavy price of around 30% import duty at that time. Whereas worldwide there is no import duty on textbooks.
RR: Today at Quarterfold Printabilities, do you follow the same strategy?
ND: Yes. Designing and redesigning are powerful marketing tools to help publishers and build a relationship with them. We stringently adhere to it and to an extent where we offer it free of cost, at times. It is a part of our complete package of print offerings. It’s simple mathematics. Designing of a single book can translate into printing an average 10,000 copies of the same book.
RR: Do you have peak seasons for printing in Africa similar to what we have in India?
ND: Absolutely. If you go to East Africa and Southern Africa the peak season for the publishers begins in January and the printing for which happens from September to December. If you go to West Africa the season begins in September and the printing for this takes place from June to August. We have customers from all over Africa so technically we are printing throughout the year.
RR: Typically what is a job cycle time?
ND: Matching the delivery time that the customers expect is a difficult task for a single company to handle. We get a lot of information in advance from our customers due to the mutual trust. This enables me to know the cutoff size of paper and the inventory starts getting ready for the job that is yet to arrive. Then we have eight machines at various print shopfloors that are always dedicated to us for our work. Once we delivered six million (60 lakh) books in a month for one of the ministries of education in Africa. This we achieved by printing in the cities all across India that were closer to the port. We had our team members at these shopfloors for the whole month till the job got delivered. There wasn’t even a single copy that got rejected from the 65 to 70 containers that we delivered. In fact in the past two months we delivered 120 containers. That’s two containers per day.
RR: That is a humungous number…
ND: We have been able to achieve this through our smart business module. All we have is a strong quality control team. Other than that we utilise the printer’s space for printing and get the excise clearance done at the printer’s place so that the containers are immediately ready for dispatch.
RR: Africa is a very tough market. True?
ND: Personally I think it’s a myth that Africa is a hostile market. The cities there are exactly like any of its international counterparts with all its developed parameters.
RR: Were there any barriers in terms of the cultural differences that you encountered?
ND: I am a bit of an adventurous person. I am a foodie and would eat at the local African joints. We used to share and enjoy the local food and discuss recipes and cuisines while enjoying watching the game of soccer, tennis, Formula One racing etc. This may have helped me break down the barriers and led me to be invited to their homes for dinners and family functions. I got to know from them that Indians are usually sceptical when it comes to accepting such an invitation. In fact, they would seek out an Indian restaurant. For me, it was the other way round. I had wholeheartedly accepted it. Even when they would visit us in India I would learn a few of the African recipes and cook food for them at my home. This may have helped me form a bond with them at a deeper level.
RR: You are quite an African expert now…
ND: We had travelled extensively across the whole of Africa and found that it is extremely diverse. In the East Africa region you have Kenya and Nairobi where you will find that the printing is controlled by the majority of Indian origins and the biggest printers in those parts are from India. This is not the case in West Africa where the number of Indians is minuscule. The added advantage for me on these visits was that I was always close to an African rather than to an Indian.
RR: Quarterfold Printabilities has been printing educational books and textbooks for the African market. What are the things that you do not compromise in printing?
ND: I have always been known for my integrity in the African market. There are many unorganised Indian printers who over-promise and under-deliver. Some of them resort to shortcuts to get the work done. I make it clear right from the beginning that no work will match their expectations at 100% and that there is not a single printer who will be able to do it. This transparency helps them to trust me at a personal level and which later gets extended to our business prospects.
RR: How do you maintain this transparency?
ND: Ok. Let’s say that the deal is about using 70gsm paper. Then I will ensure that my printer is going to use 70gsm paper and not even 68gsm. Printers tend to compromise on these aspects.
RR: I see...
ND: Once we had to reject the complete consignment which led to big losses for both us and the printer. After which we recruited more staff for quality control and currently we have an excellent quality control team in place in the industry. We have devised a formula wherein every 54th or the 56th copy, depending upon the quantity of print job, gets examined by us.
RR: The other problem is the fudging the number of books in a carton box …
ND: Yes. The printer tends to pack 45 books instead of the required 50 that it is supposed to have. So we conduct a random check. Then there is the binding of the books. It is our specialty and we are known for it. We have lost a lot of money rejecting our own books. It has been four years for us and we haven’t defaulted from the client’s side on our work. Because of which even the publishers have never defaulted on our payments.
RR: What happens when in spite of this process the publisher receives jobs that are not executed to perfection?
ND: There have even been instances where we have not charged for the containers which have carried even minuscule defective work. We have also advised some of our customers to keep that consignment “free of cost”. Plus we reprint the quantity and send it again.
RR: This is because of the pressure from the international agencies who are doing a lot of work in Africa. Right?
ND: In Africa, the educational publishing largely gets categorised at two levels. The first, where the publishers get the work printed for themselves. The Indian printers tend to cheat a lot when it comes to this work and probably get away with it. Whereas this cannot be the case for the other category where the printing work gets commissioned through World Bank tenders and where there are specifications mentioned and documented. The printer cannot mess up with this.
RR: What are the repercussions when there is a breach in World Bank tenders?
ND: The whole consignments get rejected when such a thing happens and the printer gets blacklisted. This doesn’t bode well for the reputation of the whole country. I remember 12 years ago a few Indian companies had got blacklisted because the books that they had delivered had perfect binding instead of section sewing that was mentioned in the tender. It led to them getting blacklisted and caused a huge dent in India’s reputation.
RR: Can you tell us about the business ops for these jobs …
ND: To give you an example, I had bought the rights of a storybook from one of the publishers in New Delhi for the African market. Now, it was all about cross-selling from hereon. It was a win-win situation for all of us. The publisher in New Delhi is getting paid by me since I bought the rights. The publisher in Africa is happy since the content that he is getting from me is free of cost and I do not charge for it. And I get to do the printing of this book for a lifetime since I hold the copyrights in the African market.
RR: Were you solo when you started?
ND: I was alone when the company was formed as the designing was by consultants and was not outsourced. Today we have a team of 20 people.
RR: Was it difficult to find the capital as well as finding the right printing partners?
ND: When we were looking for printers we weren’t taken seriously because of our numbers. It was because of my goodwill that a few printers trusted me and took the work on credit basis. Even customers in Africa who are known for not handing out any advance payment gave us advance payments.
RR: Situation is much better now?
ND: Oh yes. Today that is not the case. We have people from various cities like Chennai and Ahmedabad who want to work with us.
RR: Quarterfold Printabilities has many printing partners. How does the model work and how does the maintaining of audits and production schedules happen?
ND: We have a production head and he provides a weekly review of our printing partners every Monday for all of us. The moment there is an inquiry we know which printer to send it to as per the requirement. Nowadays, the buying of paper happens at our end and we are strong in this aspect. We have a good relationship with the paper mills as well. Currently, we have a pool of 32 printing presses across our partners. Four of these machines are partially funded by us whereas two of the machines are completely owned by us. One of which is a heatset web offset press. In terms of the printing companies, Imprint is a company that is partially funded and managed by us with our partners from Ahmedabad. Then there is Arnos and a few others in Vapi, Gujarat and Bhiwandi near Mumbai. Overall we have more than nine print partners all across India.
RR: What is the preference for Africa when it comes to paper? Is it maplitho like India?
ND: Yes. These are school textbooks. If you compare the quality of what we print for them and what gets printed here you will realise that our quality is much superior. In Africa, they like brightness and whiteness of the paper and we provide it.
RR: How do you source paper?
ND: Sometimes we procure the paper locally and the other times we import the paper. It is a mix of both. We have also factored in the urgent jobs. We get printing jobs which are to be delivered in two weeks and for such jobs, we always have a stock of 300 tonnes of paper at any given point of time.
RR: What about the publishing division …
ND: It isn’t a part of Quarterfold. It is being run by a friend. I am investing in it with my ideas. It’s called Woodsnipe and is meant for kindergarten books. They have 58 titles in India currently. This is apart from the 120 titles that belong to Quarterfold Printabilities in the African market. Probably five years down the line we will highly invest in it and it will be a part of Quarterfold Printabilities.
RR: Going forward what is the focus for Quarterfold Printabilities? The printing and its logistics or purely content?
ND: Our sole focus is the content. This is for long-term sustainability. Concentrating purely on printing may not be advisable as we don’t know how long will printing be able to sustain! In Africa, new policies have come up and will keep coming in the future. These policies may create a dent in our printing capacities.
ND: For example, in one of the African countries we almost got the contract from publishers in partnership for supplying books through a government project for eight subjects along with pre-press and designing. While giving us the order the contract mentioned that all the books must be printed locally. We lost around 80,000 dollars (approximately Rs 51 lakhs) just creating those books. The idea was that we create it for free and then the printing should come to us. But the clause mentioned it should be printed locally and that was a setback for us. The overall printing was worth more than three million dollars (approximately Rs 19 crores). I am sure this is bound to happen, if not now then probably five years down the line.
RR: Content is going to be an advantage?
ND: If you consider the above mentioned trajectory of printing in Africa then the only real advantage that we might have is the royalty on the content that we create. Content will always have a value. Printing is something that can be done by many whereas content is expertise.
RR: Can you leverage content?
ND: We believe we are strong in that aspect. We have a lot of teachers working for us to generate the content in India. Similarly, we have the syllabus of Ghana and Nigeria and we are working with the publishers there. There are a lot of publishers there who are big brand names but do not have all set of books for higher studies like engineering.
RR: Are publishers convinced by you?
ND: We approach the publishers and give them ideas to expand their portfolio with different sets of books across various fields of education. We pump in a lot of money and make twenty digital printed copies of the books where the content is generated by us and ask these publishers to see what response they would get out of it in the African market. If the response is good, the printing comes to us on top of the royalty that we get for content.
RR: Book fairs at London and Frankfurt are not frequented by African publishers. Where do you go in search for your fresh set of customers?
ND: It completely depends on the territory that we are focusing on. We have penetrated the African markets by going to two-tier cities and villages to meet the publishers there. We also get a lot of work through references on the basis of the goodwill that we have built. Finding new customers is probably not that difficult. It’s finding the right funding and backing that is more challenging. Printing is about how much money you can pump in. We are saturated with our worth of Rs 60- to 70-crore. Realistically speaking I cannot be thinking of Rs 300-crore. For example, there are many tenders floating in Africa one of which was from Ethiopia and worth Rs 200-crore. We are eligible to bid for it but even after winning it I do not have the financial backing and support to deliver this kind of job.
RR: What can the government do to make it easier for India to take on more book exports work in Africa?
ND: Government can play a role in this by considering printing industries as similar to IT industry. It can set up a dedicated SEZ for printing presses and offer subsidies in local taxes and import duties; especially on paper as it contributes to 70% of the cost. A dedicated Printing Industrial Zone or Special Printing Zone for exports will also help boost revenues from printing for export markets.
RR: How do you intend to tackle the competition from the companies who are replicating your model?
ND: The unwavering commitment to our clients in delivering world-class customer service has played a significant role in our success. Our strategy remains on the 80:20 principle, wherein our effort levels (80%) are more in retaining the existing clients and (20%) on getting new clients. We look forward to a healthy competition that helps us improvising and re-innovating ourselves.
RR: Where do you see Quarterfold Printabilities three years from now?
ND: We would like to be known as the content provider. The printing aspect will always remain but we don’t intend to put up a factory for ourselves. It will be similar to the module that we currently have but on a larger scale. Quarterfold now has 30% shares in three big on-the-rise printing presses in India. We intend to have at least 15 such partners where we are the shareholders so that we are able to control the printing. I believe that if you keep it simple enough then good business will come searching for you.
RR: A lot of people will think that what you do is easy. What are your message for them and the Indian print fraternity?
ND: Actually speaking it is in fact easy. My backend is in place and I simply take care of the finances and marketing verticals. In India, culturally we make it too difficult by being too ambitious because that is what we have been taught right from our childhood. Or you will see some printers always try to cut corners. There is a reason why we lag behind our US, European or even Chinese counterparts. I say this with a heavy heart that there are actually very few clean and organised printers in India. At the same time I also see the potential as there is a change in current scenario and with a new generation coming up and joining the business with more transparencies, ethical values and systems in place, it should leapfrog the Indian printing industry forward.
Nilesh Dhankani Unplugged
Favourite city of Africa?
Cape Town is scenic and the climate is pretty good. For business purpose I like Accra, Ghana and Nigeria where there are publishers who have become good friends.
Favourite cuisine in Africa?
Okra (ladies’ fingers vegetable) with goat meat soup and fufu (staple food in Ghana and Nigeria); Injera and dora wots (chicken) with variety of vegetables (staple food in Ethiopia)
Favourite drink in Africa?
Red wine and German Reisling (wine)
All kinds of biographies. The last book that I read was At Close of Play by Ricky Ponting
Life is easy. Keep it simple.
Describe Quarterfold Printabilities in a sentence?
Imprinting impressions with content and technology.