Kerala print CEOs focus on growth

Kerala Master Printers Association (KMPA) hosted a knowledge sharing roundtable on 19 May 2014 at KMPA’s Conference Hall, near Deshabhimani Junction, Kaloor, Kochi. The roundtable, which was attended by all major players in the Kerala print industry, discussed ways to redefine print business and shared growth stories. A PrintWeek India report.

03 Dec 2014 | By PrintWeek India

2013 the year gone- The good, the bad and the ugly for Kerala printers
O Venugopal of Anaswara Offset: 
Kerala is a small state, so we have a huge constraint regarding raw materials availability and prices. The consistency and the price are two different factors which we are facing. We don’t have direct involvement in paper purchase and market is an oligopoly of three or four dealers. If we go directly, then we have to involve few agencies.

For example, during China Print, we showed our interest to buy paper directly but they denied and informed that we have a representative in Haryana and you can contact them. Ironically, the Haryana-based agency connected us to an agency in Kochi. So the problem of non availability remains the same and added to that the fluctuation in paper prices without any intimation is bad. The usual excuse is the exchange difference in USD or Euro, most of the time.

The availability of skilled manpower and their consistency is the second issue. Our government must take care of training for skilled manpower.

G Venugopal of Sterling Printhouse: According to me, stiff competition among printers is a critical problem. We are associated with gold loan companies and financial institutions, they shared the prices which were quoted by other printers. I was shocked because with the quoted price, we will not be able to recover paper prices.

These are mainly people who have added new machines. Suddenly their capacity has increased. In addition, print buyers are also reducing the budget for printing. Earlier they used to print in A4 size and now they came with A5 size and reduced the volume of printing also.

Benito Jos of Jaan Offset Printing: We were doing a label job in small quantity and different variant. When the volume became higher, people from all over India were quoting a price. We have done it for the last five years and one fine morning we heard that your rate is on the higher side. Now the client is comparing the cost for 10,000 labels which he has not taken from me but from some a label unit outside Kerala.

Naturally I lost the order. So the time I invested in a particular client is lost. Similarly it’s happening elsewhere also. Cost cutting is happening. I don’t know how our industry is going to run like this? Printing prices are same from last 16 years. We have discussed the same issues several times and every time the yield of the discussion is standard; since we added our own machinery, the production capacity has increased. Multicolour high speed machines directly increase the production capacity.

S Saji of Sujilee: Availability of labour is the main problem according to me. Manpower does not stay at a place for a long time. We spend a lot to train them in our in-house facility. And again paper prices and transportation cost, both are higher in Kerala than our competition from Coimbatore and Sivakasi.

Kerala as a print export haven?
O Venugopal: 
I am sure you’d find the situation paradoxical, considering we mention a lot about downturn in the state and the influx of machinery and several new investments in the market. The answer for that scenario is exports. Print firms in Kerala thrive on them and that propels the growth story that you have been hearing.

G Venugopal: Malaysia, South East Asia and Middle East were our market for export but these markets have became very price competitive. So right now when we took a machine under the EPCG scheme, I had to turn it around because I didn’t find any possibility sourcing exports from the traditional territories; and so, I had to procure this money from our bank. My advise is: do export unless you are big - scale wise and contact wise.

Saji: You have to be on your toes. In the last two years, the bulk of our time was spent in addressing these issues. Since 60% of income comes from exports. In the last six months we have seen some growth. So to achieve that, we were addressing those issues vigorously. In fact we didn’t even go for any expansion.

Shijohn Joy of Ebnezer: Our export orders depend on goodwill. There are a lot of churches, religious institutions and souvenirs, all that is negligible, apprximately 10%. Even in Dubai and Middle East, now they have reduced the price.

S Mahesh of ST Reddiar: Nowadays I feel that Dubai or even Gulf countries are cheaper because their pricing or conversion ratio is constant with the the American dollar. So they can get paper from Indonesia or Malaysia for a year or so steadily. We cannot give a long term quotation to our customers because of fluctuation of paper prices.

We have to procure the material from Chennai or Coimbatore or Sivakasi. Again there is problem that we are paying some advance and the transporter is not ready to lift the material today. He will bring it tomorrow. We have to trust him and have to convey the same to our customers.

Then there is the concern about converting unskilled labour to skilled one but their stability is a question?

Jos: Stability of workers is a critical issue. You never know when they will leave even after you have trained them. Then the only solution is "a contract" for three to four years. We will train the staff and they have to be with us for three to four years minimum. In Kerala, transportation of print materials is also a pain as compared to neighbouring states.

The Kerala growth story
Despite all the issues that have been discussed  the good news is as a market most of the print jobs generated by the state of Kerala which were going outside are being printed here. People are getting aware about quality printing being produced in Kerala.

Venugopal: Just to add on to Manmohan, we are planning to have an exhibition (the Print Miracle show). The whole idea is to pitch and create several B2B contacts.  Many of the tourism based magazines are still printed in Malaysia. So we would like those buyers who are consumers in this market to know what we are capable of the quality. In fact there are many of us more than capable to handle them. We have a printer in Kerala who bags a lot of national awards. So we might use that as a platform  to  inform people that you don’t have to go out of the state.  We will not be able to match what Pragati is giving but we will strive to match the quality.

Jos: To aim for consistent quality its important to follow certain processes, like procuring the material early. Nowadays even we can try to export also, comfortably. Only thing is identifying the work, from where to capture the work is critical now. So consortium can help in taking that forward, in finding the work

The emergence of new towns
There are people, especially from Anachal, Madhai. they are doing small jobs and are happy. Again I am coming to the point that the social status of a print CEO must improve. Printing professionals like Anoop (Anaswara), Mahesh (ST Reddiar) are the need of the hour. Lack of professionals is hurting us. But the industry must change.

The main problem is, the investment in this industry is massive but nobody knows the value of that. We are trying to change that and it surely needs to be a priority.

Jos: Let’s put it this way, if you have an eligible educated bachelor working in the printing industry then to get a good marriage alliance is extremely difficult.

Venugopal: I am a mechanical engineer, I had my own small printing press. My mother and father had a very difficult time finding a bride for me. A suitable alliance was available even for someone in the position of a clerk and we were told this to our faces. Now after crossing all those hurdles my only daughter who is doing her plus two, told me that she does not want to join the industry. This is the state of this industry.

Joy: I don’t have a difference of opinion but I have a slightly different take on all this. In Kerala, the concept of business itself is not as valued in comparison to a Government job and everyone aspires for that.

Venugopal: Entrepreneurial venture is for people who cannot get a Government job. This is the common perception. It’s never considered a choice you have taken because you love risk. So that being the perspective of people, the respect for entrepreneurs is poor. Second part is that as the need for people recognising you and your success is much more for people here than in other states. So if you don’t get that recognition you have a feeling that you aren't respected. In Kerala, multiple factors play a part. I don’t know whether a Gujarati will aspire to have a BMW if he has that kind of money. A Gujarati will simply invest and double his money.

Mahesh: In my case I think respect originates from the legacy. My grandfather made it big. Everybody thinks that they are traditional people. Hence the money doesn’t correspond to respect. I think if a guy spends Rs 10 cr in a chemical plant; the respect that he gets is not what I get.

The brand makeover
For starters, we should have a very good webpage. Whenever you get an award you can talk about it etc.

So that could be it and on a very personal scale, I normally have student and buyer groups visit our plants.

As was mentioned before that an image is provided by people whom you meet from the community. If you can get a key person of the society to visit your unit, they will give you the image that is required. I have done that. People not related to the printing industry per se but important memeber of the civil society. Two of them were a district judge, one of them were ex director of a government organisation etc. I do this twice a year.

Manmohan: Recently we started a training course in Kerala. We KMPA (the Kerala Master Printers Association) work with the Government of Kerala. The course is for plus two and degree students and was started at Trivandrum and Cochin and now two more cities are added. Every batch has 60 students so there is a total of 250. So by this year or next these students will pass.

The certification is given by Government of Kerala so we can be assured that every year at least 250 students who are trained and know this trade will be available in the market. Please nb: this curriculum is designed by KMPA. And along with theory, practical training is given and that too at big presses. So these students when they complete the course they are not mere graduates but skilled ones. They know for certain to handle different machines and know their operations.

Venugopal: To add to Manmohan, even to get to this fraternity, or to gain some respect, we made a presentation and that's the image building logic. Along with the printing course there are 15 or 20 other courses at offer like computers, dental but 90 % students preferred printing only after seeing our presentation. The remarkable thing is that because of these students I was forced to bring the wife to unit to manage the training; and now she is controlling the entire production.

Work extraordinaire
Anoop of Anaswara Offset:
We are currently doing a specific book job where the output would resemble a parchment from the olden days. We are doing it with textured papers. I found it very innovative and exciting.

Venugopal: We have received only one award that was for black and white with gold foil.  We have give a lot of colour job but this black and white was so rich and a remarkable job for offset printer.

Jos: The job I can remember is for a particular builder from Kottayam. We executed it in three to four days, 28 pages job all done on a fabric coated paper special coating, case binding and die cut. It’s a very unique job and required a special type of cutter. It was even more special because a big agency was involved and they were thrilled with the output.

Mahesh: It happened at a time when I was starting my career. I was jobless in a very big company and I was sitting behind a guy who was taking job orders. He asked him if we can you print on foam. I intervened and asked him to show us a sample. He showed me this carry bag and gave me the sample.

I have very close friends in Komori Malaysia so I called them and they said confirmed that any machine can do it but quality will depend on configuration of the machine adding that UV might help. Since we did not have UV there were several configuration changes that was recommended. Soon we were printing the job on the desired material. At the end of it I called that guy and said we have managed to print your stuff. He was shocked and thrilled that we achieved the results in such a short duration.

For the last seven years, he has been one of our best clients. It was starting point for our machine. Till then it was not doing a great job. We got many customers like that beacuse of many features that we explored in our machines. I felt very happy because it was completely my initiative.

Joy: The job that I can recall is a ‘3D job’. The highlight was in this particular. You have to wear the 3D glasses to see it. We found it extremely fascinating and the end result was fabulous.