Print jottings from 14 Bentinck Street, Kolkata - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

When Speed Print began its print journey in Kolkata, it was a challenge, and an opportunity. Speed Print overcame the challenges and grabbed the opportunities to carve a successful business for itself. Vinod Dutia, the managing director of Speed Print shares his company’s fortunes with Noel D’Cunha

12 Jun 2022 | By Noel D'Cunha

On Bentinck Street in Kolkata is the famous Bow Barracks, a lugubrious lane, which lights up during Christmas. It’s a place where Anglo-Indians reside.

As the myth goes, Bow Barracks were originally built as a set of barracks or quarters for the British troops during the First World War. The flats were to be allotted to the troops according to their ranks. The troops refused to stay back, instead preferring Fort William. By then the Anglo-Indian community had become an important part of the British workforce in India, so the quarters were offered to the community. In 1947, after independence, many Anglo-Indians preferred to migrate overseas, but many stayed back.

In the lane next to the Bow Barracks, on the second floor, 14 Bentinck Street, Kolkata, the founders of Speed Print, a boutique digital print company, started a photocopying business in 1978. It was a makeshift arrangement, all of 200 sqft area. The first digital kit was a Kores’ single-colour digital kit.

“Photocopying was still not popular at that point in time. But the chartered accountants across the road who had offices in Commerce House were some of the first customers and then the office bearers of the area made it more popular as word of mouth spread among them,” says Vinod Dutia, who is the founder-director of Speed Print. “In those days, the price of photocopying was 0.55 paise per copy.”

Speed Print still retains and operates from the same premises it started at, a striking similarity with what many of the Anglo-India now residing in Bow Barracks did. They preferred to stay back and considered India their home.

“The Speed Print founders, Liladhar Tricum Das Dutia,  Dilip Dutia and I were its first employees and they used to work for 8-10 hours a day. The first employee was on-boarded after six months on inception,” informs Dutia. Today that number is 22, and the print infrastructure has grown from the solitary Kores to Canon, Xerox, HP, Epson and other prominent brands.

Short print runs to much more
Xerox offset short-run was an unknown entity till the Dutias discovered it. By 1984, Speed Print had installed eight photocopying machines.

Back in those days, the norm was to print a thousand sheets in offset printing, single-colour. Since Speed Print’s base started with photocopying, it had a lot of customers asking for multiple sets of originals, for example, 32 pages, 100 copies.

Then inspiration struck. “With this growing demand, we thought of a solution for printing 100 copies for a mere Rs 32. That worked, and that’s how we devised the term Xerox Offset.

Soon after, Speed Print shifted gears, and installed a mini offset from Swift. It was an add-on, says Dutia. “The photocopying business was flourishing but as a company, we need to have more avenues to sell more prints to more and more customers.”

The movement from photocopying to offset was smooth, though offset was a business not many were familiar with. “Because we had experienced photocopy technology, it was easy for us to adapt with offset,” asserts Dutia.

It was an add-on to their photocopying business, but for Speed Print and the Dutias it was an investment. So how did they manage financing the investment? “Financing was not easily available in those days as banks did not have the concept of equipment finance, which came later on, but we did not have difficulties as far as financing machinery was concerned,” explains Dutia. “Apart from the initial borrowing of funds from relatives, the founders of the company for many more years to come did not opt for financing. We invested a large portion of our profits into buying technologically advanced machinery.”

No quality compromise
By 1988, Speed Print had a base of 1,200 corporate customers. It invested in serious pre-press kit like the first scanner from Heidelberg Lino Colour in Eastern India and an imagesetter for filmmaking for plates from Agfa – Agfa Accuset. Plus installing 13 Macintosh machines, one by one. The company was always one-up in the marketing department providing complete solutions in pre-press. “The machines that we are talking about were expensive, not everyone could afford to buy them. We got instant work the day these machines were installed. There were a lot of small advertising agencies/print brokers, who used to get all their designs of leaflets, brochures, folders, danglers, tent cards, posters and other marketing collateral,”  Dutia says, “All this also gave us an edge over our competition since we had our own in-house printing set-up, too. Hence, we were a bit more economical than the general market.”

Speed Print’s success stock rose because it provided quality products. “It was our first and only motto,” says Dutia, adding, “People love it when they see that their service provider gives a damn about them. This attitude and work ethic was embedded into our employees. There were 11. We did not compromise on quality – be it paper, inks, or fabrications. All we did was produce a quality product for our clients. We continue to practice the same even today.”

Dutia says that dealing with employees was much easier back in those days than it is now. “The employees were more focused and were always curious to learn something new. They were not very educated, so much so that there were some who came from the family of street barbers. Some of them went on to serve as heads of departments  and stayed with the company for more than 25 years.”

Boost to business
Speed Print produced a lot of work. A lot of it was because of its pricing policy, quality and deliverables. “Word of mouth spread when we implemented the commission system. We used to offer a certain percentage of commission to those who we thought could get us more work. This is how we actually created something called print brokers. That is how it all started.”

It wasn’t easy though, because Speed Print had stiff competition. Caps Micrographics was around, and head-to-head with Speed Print. But, Speed Print had invested in tomorrow’s technology, which gave it the first-mover advantage.

“Any new technology that comes to the commercial market takes time to settle down. The market in the city of Kolkata and neighbouring regions also took the time initially. A large chunk of corporate and advertising agencies used to get the prints from Mumbai, New Delhi and Hyderabad before the digital print market matured here. But as the market grew, so did we,” says Dutia.

Tango with technology
1998 was a turning point for Speed Print. It was the year in which it procured its first colour photocopying and digital print machine.

“We were already customers of Canon, so it was easy for them to convince us about the future,” says Dutia. “We believe that no company or any organisation can grow if it is not willing to take risks and adapt to a new environment. We know something big was coming when colour printing was about to change the way the world used to look at printing capabilities.”

But in that same year, Speed Print added a Heidelberg press. It was an unusual technology move. Most offset print companies were adding a digital kit, Speed Print reversed that trend. “Well, that was the missing piece in the puzzle. We had everything in-house except a four-colour offset printing set-up. We had bagged some orders from corporate majors such as Reliance Telecom and HUL during that time and hence we decided to fill the gap,” explains Dutia.

Was Speed Print ready for a switch to four-colour offset technology? “Again, it was not a switch, but an add-on for us. It was very smooth sailing for us as we already had the experience of mini offset printing for more than 18 years. The mindset was already there that we had the best of both worlds – the short-run and the long-run.

Dutia recalls a hybrid printing job it did for a large corporation wherein 2-lakh sheets in size 12x18-inch were printed using offset and then alpha-numeric codes were printed on each of the sheets. “Almost 50-lakh tags and all of this was rendered in-house.”

The firm also added a wide-format kit to become an all-round print player.

Today, Speed Print has multiple operations in the same building backed by an ERP system. “This system takes care of the inventory, every single print job on each and every machine that we have and finally accounts and commercials. None of the units is separate but acts as a cost centre and has their respective heads who report to the captain of the ship,” says Dutia.  

Speed Print has complete solutions for the post-press. “Lamination, perfect binding, cutting machines, stapling machines are what we have in-house which takes care of most of the post-press jobs. We have a dedicated delivery and logistics team to take care of the same,” informs Dutia.

Print still not dead
What does Dutia tell people who tell him print is no longer at the centre of the universe? “Yes, they are partially right, but there is still a lot of time left for this industry before we add the ingredient of artificial intelligence (AI) into everything. Till that time let print handle your communication.”

And for Speed Print, which supplies to corporate and design agencies, the Covid-years have changed the way it used to do business. “For us, as a company, Covid has made us more focused and we have mastered the art of selling more prints to the same client.”

What’s the target for Speed Print for the next five years? Dutia says, “Increase production capacity to double, making sure that we produce 80% of the production capacity. And we are going online since the future is online.” 

Q&A with Vinod Dutia

Challenges and opportunities for commercial printers in Kolkata/West Bengal in the post-Covid world? How many print firms have shuttered down?
It is sad that some of our fellow printers have closed down operations. We extended our full support and special pricing policy for all the work they wish to get done from us.
Three things the digital print shops need to do to ensure a digital print growth strategy...
Quality prints and supplies, do not sell cheap and always educate your customers.
How did you cope with the increase in the cost of paper and other raw material/inputs?
Most of our clients have been with us for the last decade or so and they understand that if we are asking for a price raise we are genuine. We have a process of educating our clients about our process from time to time, the changes we do in our systems often and keeping utmost transparency in giving estimates to our clients make it easy for us to cope with such issues.
The biggest challenge you (and indeed print) face today?
Skilled manpower for the printing industry is a huge challenge today.
What are the deciding factors for you to choose a digital press? Technology? Service support? ROI?
All of them. The ROI is the most important one and then we generally go ahead with manufacturers that have the capacity of providing excellent after-sales support.
You have invested in multiple digital kits. How do you make an investment decision?
It is purely based on the product’s capacity to deliver quality, the manufacturer’s capacity to provide service, and of course, the ROI.
One print mantra you follow?
Print-on-demand - Print only what you need and when you need it. Do not invest in bulk print unless there is a need for the same.