How Bengaluru has bounced back in the post-Covid era - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

A closed-door roundtable forum was organised in March, as part of the silver jubilee celebrations of the Karnataka Offset Printers Association (KOPA). The following are the edited excerpts from the confabulations which saw six stalwarts share their factory updates, plus how they coped with the pandemic. Read more

28 May 2023 | By Noel D'Cunha

KOPA president V Krishnamoorthy: We survived the pandemic because we did not have liabilities 

My name is V Krishnamoorthy and I represent Repromen Offset printers. We started in 1979 with a letterpress unit. In 1984, we became a private limited company. We were the first company in Bengaluru to get an Apple Macintosh for DTP. Then we shifted to offset printing and we got to a stage where we had a 35,000-sqft shopfloor and 455 employees working for us. Today, the next generation is not interested in the printing business. Therefore, we are downsizing. 

After Covid, we moved to a smaller place with just 50 employees and are now focusing on commercial printing, with special focus on publishing. From 90 machines, today we own 15-20 machines. 

Before Covid, there was a downward trend for commercial printing. It was an indication to decide what we needed to do. Luckily, we were able to clear all our liabilities. So, we don’t have any financial pressure on the business. In the Covid years, of course, commercial jobs were down by 60%. And when the market opened up, raw materials prices shot up, and the margins plummeted. Luckily, we could sustain our business ops because we did not have any liabilities. Slowly, the situation is improving, and we have recovered around 70%.

Repromen has another unit in Chennai where we operate at full capacity. We have a team of 475 in a 40,000-sq ft space, exclusively dedicated for publishing. In terms of exports, Chennai is a better location than Bengaluru because of the port. Plus, raw material cost and transport costs are cheaper in Chennai. Also, book publishers have their warehouses in Chennai. 

Gopi Ballarwad: We are using recycled boards on flexo
I am Gopi Ballarwad from iTek Packz. We completed a decade in March 2023. At present, we own one six-colour conventional press, one 10-colour flexo press for folding cartons and labels, and one nine-colour press for labels with inline cold foil and screen printing. We cater to customers in segments like pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, automobiles, garments — almost everybody. We manufacture cartons on offset as well as on flexo. 

During the pandemic, we manufactured labels and cartons with a minimum workforce thanks to our flexo press, and delivered hand sanitiser labels and cough syrup cartons to customers pan-India.

We started working on cartons in 2013 in a rented place with the machines we had. In 2017, we installed our first flexo press, an Edale, which can print from 25 to 700 microns. In 2019, the non-competitive agreement concluded, and my partners joined the company. Now, we are a competitor to the previous company. And we are servicing all the customers we worked with before the acquisition.  

Chandrashekar KR: If you offer quality services, you will get orders
I am Chandrashekar from Esscee Enterprises. 80% of our business is packaging, and the rest 20% is commercial. We have an employee strength of 250 people. And we have machines from all major manufacturers, such as Heidelberg, Komori and Bobst, plus rigid box-making machines. All these investments were made in the last couple of years. 

We did not face many problems during the pandemic since our major customers are in the pharma business. We were closed for just one day. However, the capacity utilisation was low, and our overall turnover was 30% less. Now, we have come back on track. We have one unit and we convert 250-mt paper and board. 

BK Bhaskar: After Covid, commercial printing has picked up a bit
I am BK Bhaskar from Paramount Color Graphics. We have multiple verticals. The major among them is variable data printing. We have the capacity to print 18-20 lakh copies per day on Canon machines. One of our major customers is the Election Commission. At one point, we ruled the market for variable data printing, because we were the early adopters of the technology. 

Also, we are into commercial printing. We have noticed that after Covid, commercial printing has picked up quite a bit. People are seeking printing assets. Volumes are not big, but it’s happening. 

Peter Anil Rego: Bengaluru can become the printing hub of the world 
I am Peter Anil Rego from Brilliant Printers, a 53-year-old company. Having started in the year 1970 with a letterpress from a hundred sq/ft space, it has grown with 500 staff in a 153,000-sq ft space. We are into printing of books, and everything related to books, from Bible to diaries, notebooks, trade books to board textbooks to textbooks. 

The business came down by 25% during Covid. We had the paper but we could not run the machines due to the shortage in manpower. We faced the impact for two years. We bounced back last year and grew reasonably well. 

P Pradeep: There's space for commercial printing if you add value to the product
I am Pradeep from Mayur Graphics. We are a 75-year-old company, and we are third-generation entrepreneurs. My grandfather started with letterpress, and from there, we grew into offset. We cater to commercial and packaging. Commercial printing came down because of Covid, and there was an upward shift towards packaging. But I think, there is still space for commercial printing if you add value to the product; if you don’t just print but also finish, foil, window-patch, add pop-up. 

We cater to pharma commercials. These are short-run jobs with a lot of value addition, and with good margins. If you look at the packaging sector, there is a struggle to maintain the margin, plus there is competition, with top packaging companies taking away most of the work. So, we feel, by catering to small and medium-run jobs, we can achieve our level of margins. Going big doesn’t make sense unless you have hard cash and volume. In my case, if I am not getting a good margin from a job, I will not do it.  

Round Two: The future: What next?

Gopi Ballarwad: Customers are seeking sustainability
Post-pandemic, customers are seeking sustainable products at a lower cost, thanks to the supply chain disruptions, the war, and the rising raw material prices. Today, customers want to retain the embellishments but want low-grade cardboard. They don’t want virgin boards, and at the same time, they don’t want to compromise on the effect. They also want to promote recycled boards, as they are sustainable and locally made. So, we are working towards giving our customers the same effects and embellishments on recycled boards. We are talking to paper mills regarding this. We are trying to deploy recycled boards on flexo, which our customers have found quite impressive. Today we produce six-seven colours, textures, foil, and all the bells-and-whistles in one go. 

Regarding the challenges of using recycled boards on flexo, we worked with a couple of mills on manufacturing boards that we can use, and we have had success with a few of them. We cannot claim 100% success yet, but we can confirm that boards from local mills can achieve the same results that we are getting in virgin boards. The only issue is the stiffness. More stiffness is required for Indian logistics compared to European countries. In abroad, the stiffness is low compared to our virgin boards. If we are using 320-gsm, abroad, they would be using 280-gsm. This is because we need to factor in the handling of the products and the quality of the roads. 

I believe that it is important for a company to have a system and this system should be transparent. Let me give you an example. Before 2012, we were a partnership firm, between my father and his partner. In 2011, my father got an opportunity to get acquired. It was the first instance of acquisition that took place in the printing industry in India. I was involved in the due diligence process that went on for 11 months. There were too many questions; there were too many issues. The experience made me believe that if you want to grow, you should have a system, and the system should be transparent. I was just 19 years old and it was a learning experience for me, which I couldn’t have gotten in an education institute. 

Chandrashekar KR: We are in expansion mode
We faced problems post-pandemic, especially with the fluctuating price rises. The prices were revised every week. To do the same on our end, we needed to have meetings with our customers and it took time. By the time we did that, the prices had changed again. As a result, our profits came down. If you offer quality and services, you will get jobs from the market, but factors like these affect your balance sheet. One year after Covid, we have been running at full capacity and right now, we are in expansion mode. 

Our first criterion in maintaining the profit margin is if the pay is good, we are doing the job. Our credit limit is 30 to 45 days. This is a rule that we have been following from the beginning. So, we are happy with the payment issues. Next, we have identified specialty segments. For example, new startups need quality rigid boxes, where there are more margins, and there is less competition. The run length of these rigid boxes is between 3,000 and 3,500. Some are even as low as 1,000. But these are specialty boxes, and we charge a premium. Plus, we are using our machinery to 100% capacity in a 24-hour shift. 

Peter Anil Rego: In order to export, invest in certifications
Post-pandemic, there is scope for growth. Customers want to move out of China. Where would they go? Some of them are going to Vietnam, Brazil, etc. A few more want to come to India. If we put our act together, India can become the printing hub of the world. We have the capacity, infrastructure and space. Also availability of paper is not an issue. So, there is a big opportunity for India.

What does it take to be a printer exporter? My suggestion is to get the facility certified with various certifications available, such as ISO, Sedex, FSC, and others. They cost and it’s a tedious process to put everything together. But it’s worth the effort. At the end of the day, when customers look for book printers in India, they look for such certifications, and if we have them, then we get noticed. 

One of our recent investments is in solar power. Our facility is fully solar-powered. In terms of ROI, it will take around seven years and the life of the solar panels is 25 years. We are saving a reasonable amount in our monthly bill. Also, having solar power adds to your sustainability quotient and foreign customers will take this into consideration. 

Round three: The cost conundrum

V Krishnamoorthy: Going forward, the cost factor is going to be critical. As part of KOPA, we would like to support each other and grow together. We were discussing a plan that members should visit each other’s facilities to understand the best practices one can utilise and offer feedback to each other. We need to raise our capability and standard of facilities.

Just as there is a market for everything, there is a price for everything. Ultimately, it depends on your focus. You cannot club your prices, even if you are running both commercial and packaging. You will have to focus on one thing at one time.

Gopi Ballarwad: Cost-saving is the main agenda for our customers, and therefore, we are experimenting with recycled broads. So, on flexo, we do a white coating so that we can retain the whiteness. On top of it, we can print six colours and do foil stamping and multiple varnish effects. If this experiment becomes successful, recycled boards will become a trend. 

One of the reasons for this is the fluctuating prices of paperboard, plus the skewed supply-demand ratio. On the other hand, there are many local mills that manufacture recycled paper. So, there is more competition and fewer chances of a price rise. Plus, customers want 100% FSC substrate, which is not easily available in India. Therefore recycled boards are a sustainable alternative.  

The printing industry is not going to die. Every month you see new machines being installed. So, there is growth. We have to take a call on technology adoption, and how you want to invest. All of us have started from scratch. A printer knows what to do even if the road looks tough …”

V Krishnamoorthy, KOPA president 

(PrintWeek and WhatPackaging? magazines were the knowledge-partner for the roundtable forum which was hosted at St Marks Hotel in Bengaluru. The discussion was conducted by Ramu Ramanathan)