Face to face with Biju Jose
Biju Jose was born in October 1970, three years before the birth of Printers Castle. He talks about the history of the press plus the legacy of Jose Joseph
09 Jun 2023 | By Ramu Ramanathan
Ramu Ramanathan (RR): You were 21 when you decided to venture into print. Why print?
Biju Jose (BJ): The press is the place I grew up, and I loved what I saw. So never in my mind did I think of anything other than entering straight into the print business after formal education. Even in college, while most of my mates talked about applying for jobs or talked about higher education, I felt after graduation, I would get straight into the press. Somewhere I had taken things for granted.
RR: You say, “Since I was a very average student, I was asked to join Jose Joseph in his printing business.” Which year was this? And what transpired on day one of the ops?
BJ: During the years of my graduation, my parents showed some interest in sending me to Milwaukee, USA, for higher education. But as it turned out, my marks were average, and my father asked if I wanted to join him in the printing business. I gladly accepted the offer. Soon after my graduation in 1992, he gave me one of his godowns at Tripunithura for rent, where I started Castle Print Packs. The plan to start a business was easy, but getting the necessary government permissions and licenses was an onerous task. The government had announced a single window policy for obtaining necessary permissions, but that window only led to many closed doors. After running helter-skelter for around six months, I obtained all the licenses. On day one, after the informal inauguration, one of the senior printers from Printers Castle, Balan Ashaan, operated the treadle machine.
RR: You worked in a rental godown in Tripunithura (near Kochi). You worked with three letterpress machines, a treadle, a Grafo, and an APM24. What type of jobs and who were your customers?
BJ: Initially, most of the work was the outsourced work of Printers Castle. Later, I added customers from the newly formed industrial areas in and around Kochi. Monthly journals of government institutions, printed office stationery, leaflets, posters, labels, greeting and invitation cards, from private establishments. These were the other jobs produced by the press.
Biju Jose and his mother Daisy Jose at the reading room
RR: How many employees? How many shifts? How many days in a week?
BJ: Nine employees worked a single shift for six days. Two printers worked for a second shift on an overtime basis when customers demanded urgent delivery. At least one Sunday of a month saw all the employees reporting for work to speed up the binding jobs of journals.
RR: Any history of the first job?
BJ: It was an outsourced job from Printers Castle, two colour labels of GTN Textiles, printed on the APM24 machine. Every label had to be numbered serially. Twenty four special numbering machines would be fixed inside the wooden block and placed on the machine bed. The serial numbers would be printed along with the black text in one go.
RR: Quite impressive. What was the price of jobs?
BJ: If memory serves me correctly, Demy one-fourth size or below, was charged a minimum of Rs 60 per colour for a thousand impressions. The rates were increased up to Rs 75, if the work required more skill and time than usual. For work above the minimum size, the rates changed accordingly. Charges for composing, proof-making, block making, and finishing were extra.
RR: After seven years you shutdown Castle Print Pack and joined Jose Joseph at Printers Castle as a marketing executive. Was this a tough decision?
BJ: By 1999, almost all the customers demanded products printed on offset printing machines rather than letterpress. I found it strenuous to maintain the business with the dwindling customer base. It was a hard decision to close down Castle Print Packs, but since I got an opportunity as a marketing executive at Printers Castle, I decided to do so.
RR: What type of contracts were these? What kind of SOPs did you follow at Printers Castle ...
BJ: The majority of our work was short-run commercial print jobs. And repeat orders were done on the terms and conditions agreed upon. The majority of annual contracts were undertaken only on work related to government and quasi-government establishments. Once I met with the customers at their business place and understood their requirements, I informed them about the rates and other terms and conditions after discussing it with our team. During my initial days as a marketing executive, I found it tough to answer customers about the finer tech-specs of offset printed products.
RR: What did you do?
BJ: So I visited the market during day time and stayed on the press floor during the night shift to learn about the printing process in detail. The procedure of making a product from the DTP room to plate-making, printing to finishing, was time-consuming but engrossing. We have single-colour machines, and it was fascinating to see different colours come out after each run. Colour proofing for process houses was one of the primary jobs undertaken on the night shift. I found it interesting to observe combinations of various colours made during this proof-making process.
Cardamom plantations at the hilly slopes of Wayanad
RR: Who were your competitors in those days?
BJ: Almost all the printing presses in and around Kochi were my competitors. The early 2000-era saw an influx of printers into the commercial market. Even though the government jobs were awarded only to a few empanelled printers, for all other jobs, we saw heavy competition.
RR: What type of daily work ritual do you follow?
BJ: The office and work hours start at 9.00 am and ends at 5.30 pm. The second shift starts at 6.00 pm and ends at 2.00 am. At present, the press is located at Ravipuram in Ernakulam South. This building was constructed in 1982 on the land adjacent to my house. So I have to walk a few steps to reach the office. I usually spend most of the time at the office and press-floor till 7.30 pm. Meeting clients at their business and interacting with suppliers happens during office hours. After 2016, I started participating in the activities of Kerala Master Printers Association (KMPA), and my routine has since changed. In 2018-20 I served the association as general secretary and had to dedicate more time to KMPA activities.
RR: Has your daily ritual changed now?
BJ: The commercial market has seen a slow decline over the last few years. It may be due to the limited jobs available and the steady increase of presses to cater to that. Currently, we have had only a single shift working. And as I mentioned, my daily rituals have changed as I have to spend more time on KMPA activities.
RR: In all this, who has been one of your longest serving customers?
BJ: The Indian Navy.
RR: When did you switch to offset? And why?
BJ: In the 1980s, the demand for offset printed products was increasing, and that steered us to purchase the first of the three mini-offsets in 1986. Later, demy-sized single colour offset machines were added to meet customer requirements.
RR: How did you prepare yourself for the switch? For example, PS plate trials?
BJ: It was my father who did the switch. He visited presses in Sivakasi and Chennai before purchasing the machine. In the 1980s, in Kerala, one got very few opportunities to witness live to see how machines worked. He visited Drupa in 1995. The delegates from India looked for used machines those days, as the new ones were priced exorbitantly. Many printers in Kochi (then Cochin) switched to offset during that period. They shared their knowledge about technology development. Plate-making and printing was a trial-and-error process. Knowledge-sharing seminars and exhibitions played a big part in updating and upgrading. That is where print associations like KMPA played an important role.
Jose Joseph lighting the inaugural lamp of Print Miracle Expo 2014
RR: One shift you have seen in the customers in Kerala?
BJ: Customers have always been quality conscious. But now they demand the very best at the cheapest rates. Barring a few, most of them are ready to take their work to any press which gives a better bargain on price, be it within or outside Kerala. In order to retain customers, the printer has to find ways to provide excellent quality at a reasonable rate without eating into his profit.
RR: How do you plan an investment? Your appetite or customer feedback?
BJ: Most of the investments are based on customer requirements. When new investments were made we depended very little on the bank or financial organisation for credit.
RR: How has Covid impacted your print business?
BJ: Since the lockdowns, many of our customers have shifted to digital/social media for communicating with their customers. That has impacted us. We have lost some portion of our customers. Bringing them back to print is not easy.
RR: Any support from KMPA to counter the social media noise?
BJ: KMPA has always been of help to its members. During the pandemic, the KMPA informed its members of the protocol updates. Only those presses which produced essential commodity products were allowed to function during the lockdown. This put a lot of stress on the majority of printers in Kerala. KMPA interacted with the state government officials.
Gopakumar KK, Elsy Francis and Hanson K George
RR: What did they convey?
BJ: KMPA said idle machines would spell doom for the industry. Heeding the repeated requests, initially, the government allowed all presses to open two weeks a day with limited employees. Later, with KMPA’s persistence, the government allowed presses to open for four days a week, which was a relief to many. To overcome the crisis, the KMPA conducted online seminars and meetings whenever possible to help members gain knowledge on sustaining and improving their businesses. Such meetings and seminars also helped to build camaraderie and to keep our morale high.
RR: So how have you sustained ops in the past three years?
BJ: Frankly, it has been demanding. With the continued support of long-standing customers and the unstinting support of my employees, we have been sustaining.
RR: What have you been telling your team in the press?
BJ: Most of my employees are experienced enough to understand the situation. I have informed them of the present scenario, and they have supported any decisions I took in this regard.
RR: Challenges and opportunities for commercial printers in Kerala in the post-Covid world?
BJ: As I mentioned earlier, there are challenges in the commercial print market. But, the packaging industry is promising good growth. Kerala has been a consumer market for ages, and the packaging industry has been untapped. Now few commercial printers have taken baby steps into packaging. I know it is a long way to go, and it involves huge investments, but I am sure commercial printers will soon find that there are significantly more opportunities in packaging than in commercial printing. The digital print market in Kerala is showing excellent growth. With creative ideas and innovations, we are expecting good growth in the coming years, especially in digital and packaging.
RR: What kind of change would you like to see in the world of print in Kerala?
BJ: We have a very keen eye for quality and innovative design. The digital print products from Kerala are of a very high quality. I hope we can start producing international quality innovative packaging products and compete in the world market. The continued demand for printed books is keeping the morale of commercial printers high. We require new ideas to attract the young generation towards printed books.
RR: How did you cope with the increase in cost of paper and other raw material and inputs?
BJ: Apart from the hard impact due to the pandemic, the uncontrolled increase in raw material costs has hit the print industry even harder. We found it difficult to quote for a job due to this escalation.
RR: Could you communicate this to the print buyers?
BJ: Luckily most of our print buyers are aware of the price increase. We made sure that they understood the reason behind the price hike and convinced them that we were not taking any undue advantage. Having said that, some customers would not negotiate on the price we set. In those instances, we had to settle for depleted margins just to hold on to them.
RR: Biju, a blunt question. Kerala is one of the most enlightened states in the country. And yet print lags, why so?
BJ: Not many industries have flourished in Kerala. I feel that the print industry here has always taken a guarded position. Only a few firms have been adventurous enough. Is it because of the nature of the people running the industry, or is it the general pessimism of society at large, I don’t know. Of late, we see presses from Kerala recognised nationally for quality. If these recognitions can act as a boost and bring investment confidence, we will catch up with the best of the world.
Jose Joseph (l) with KMPA office bearers G Rajesh and O Venugopal
RR: Curiously enough, the digital print index is much superior to the rest of the country. How do you explain this?
BJ: Exactly. The digital players in Kerala are the ones who dared to take a different path. They are bold, and almost everybody in it is successful. The digital print industry of Kerala boasts of producing some of the best quality products in the country. That doesn’t mean we lack international quality products in conventional printing. We have superb products, but we lag in numbers as compared to the rest of India.
RR: Back to Printers Castle, three things you do to maintain your press and keep the shop floor clean?
BJ: I don’t have to say anything particular in this regard. My father has instilled a culture for this. The senior employees make sure that all employees follow those norms.
RR: How many next generation members are at Printers Castle now?
BJ: I am the only one who joined the press. Both my sisters are married and settled with their families. My younger sister Bindu is a homemaker and lives in Tripunithura. My youngest sister Binu is employed with 3M as a clinical specialist and settled in Dubai.
RR: Where do you see Printers Castle in the next 80 years?
BJ: It has been 50 years since we started. As the second generation printer, I have tried my best to keep the flag flying. For it to happen for another 80 years, the next generations must pitch in.
RR: Your children are keen?
BJ: My daughter Shilpa, and my son Jeeth, are both students, and I don’t know if they will join the industry. The choice is theirs. One thing is for sure, for it to carry on for another 80 years... “out of the box” thinking is required.
RR: You have handled so many types of adversities in your print career.
BJ: All of us inhabit tough times, no doubt, but that’s something we have been constantly in.
RR: One piece of advice?
BJ: On retaining a customer, identify your USP and enhance that. That is the one area where you have that distinctive advantage over your competitor. That is what is going to bring back the customer. It may be as simple as your polite behaviour towards him. Not all customers are obsessed with monetary benefits.