Every printer’s seven pet peeves - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Most conversations with most Indian printers ends up with a 'Saheb will solve the matter'. But what is Saheb thinking? This is like trying to figure out what Euclid or Einstein or Aryabhatta were thinking? The Sunday Column looks at this laughably impossible task.

18 Mar 2016 | By Noel D'Cunha


What is Saheb thinking?
Most conversations with most Indian printers ends up with a, 'Saheb will solve the matter'.
But what is Saheb thinking?
This is like trying to figure out what Euclid or Einstein or Aryabhatta were thinking? A laughably impossible task. 
So when I am asked this question, “Oh, I can’t tell you that,” I say enigmatically. When what I should be saying is: “I don’t have a clue.” 
But whatever it is, as one wise person who uttered the following during a recent Roundtable mentioned, “Saheb is certainly not thinking about the print industry. And definitely not about a poor print firm in Ludhiana or Latur.”
Later that evening , the one wise man was ignored by everyone else (including me); as all of us feasted on the kebabs, koftas and lassis.

Is the print industry in a tip top shape?
This is a question, every printer is asking. What next?
I realise the happy printers are those who have discovered the secret of success secret: they simply ignore all that is worrisome, bothersome, or depressing in the world around them.
I think having conversations like “Based on the statistical data (Editor's note: isn’t all data statistical?) crunched by an empirical source, the manufacturing index grew at an annual compound average rate of 6.3% during 2013-14, it grew at only 3% on an average for emerging cities.”
When a printer utters something like that, I ask, net or gross? Or perhaps you mean both? After the deduction of current account deficit?
That generally confuses the printer.
If it doesn’t, I ask, were you looking at high frequency EBITDA movements in Q2 or Q3?
That usually does the trick.
If not, I ask, Sir, how is your diabetes? Under control?
The topic is changed.

The Gujarat model
This is a major discussion point.
I hear Gujarat is doing well ...
I say, yes, but so is Maharashtra and Kerala, and Indore and Hyderabad and Delhi and even my neighbourhood printer in Chinchpokli.
So? What is it the printer in Gujarat doing better?
Well, for starts, I think the printer has a happy home life.
Usually, there is a pause in the conversation at this point.
Also, a happy childhood, I add.
One more pause, after which, I am asked, what about good financial temperament? 
Oh, that helps too. But usually it is good upbringing .
Cities like Ahmedabad, Surat, Morbi? They must help too?
Absolutely! I add, cities help. If we grow more cities, print will grow.
The Chinese are collaborating with the Africans to create a hydroplastic chip which is if you insert into a desert gives birth to a ready-made city.
This starts a one hour discussion about the Chinese; where we examine China's manufacturing process that is growing at 30% thanks to its physical infrastructure. Then we compare it to the Gujarat model by looking at how manufacturing activity is concentrated in the Saurashtra districts of Jamnagar and Rajkot, in the newly developed port area of Kutch, and in the traditional high-growth belt stretching from Ahmedabad to Valsad. 
After one hour, we go back to point number one.

The Indian rupee
Every discussion hinges on investment, and every investment is dependent on the exchange rate.
In my case, I fix the rupee value based on the few notes in my wallet. Which is usually pretty meagre. I have a 21-year old son whose preferences are a vacation to Machu Pichu on a Harley Davidson with a Mac on his back.
But vendors or manufacturers like to fix the rupee’s value against the dollar or Euro or Yen. As the statistical data (Editor's note: once again, that term!!!) indicates, the rupee seems to have weakened by about 6% against the Dollar since the beginning of 2015. I am pretty indifferent to this weakening.
But some people blame it on the Vastu of the new Rupee note.
They quote the Washington Post: “Experts on vastu shastra, an ancient Indian design practice similar to feng shui, say that the symbol debuted on a day inauspicious for the stars and that the horizontal line across the symbol appears to “slit the throat” of the currency.”  
But all this begs the question. Should the industry invest in a machine or no? Should printers pay a high interest rates or no? Should printers export – while the Rupee is in the Dollardrum (as the Amul ad said it, so pithily)?
The answer my friends, is blowing in the wind. 

The global economy
These days everybody is an economist. 
And everybody who is an economist wants to know if in the short-term the long-term growth rates will improve? And why government statistics are downgrading previous growth forecasts. But North Block which does not talk to South Block says the Indian economy is booming. Yet, the buoyancy and recovery is slow. 
Prices for paper, plates and piezo heads are being pulped at the altar of our balance sheets.
For some reason, every WhatsApp group that I am part of has chats such as the above. 
The point is, everyone has a theory. And every printer wants the FM to talk to them about the next phase of structural reforms. 

The conversation between two printers is usually about two things.
One is undercutting. 
Two is losing key members of the staff to a competitor.
There are two approaches to losing staff. 
One, feel content. Especially when you want to let go of someone who you want to let go of. 
Two, pick up the phone and call the said company, give a good referral. Also add in PS that so-and-so got a 3X or 5X salary. That way, the said company owner will have to pay extra for the person you have lost.
That way, you don’t have to mourn your loss in the evening.
In fact that evening pull out your special Speyside single malt Scotch whisky owned and produced by William Grant & Sons in Dufftown, Scotland and have it in splendid isolation.

Every printer talks about the quality (or lack of it) of workers.
Everyone who has tracked the Indian growth story is aware that thus far it has been one of jobless growth.
The really intriguing thing is, of the 480 million-odd workforce more than 90% of the workers belong to the category of informal workers. Only 10% formal workers. Of course a formal worker means a trade union. And that is a toxic word in our lexicon.
So we move on.
I made a casual acquaintance on a flight with a person who was associated with the tea industry in Assam.
We exchanged cards.
I had a copy of PrintWeek India. He glanced through it.
His specialisation was workers and their rights.
A taboo subject among most in our industry.
He said, “While production of tea in Assam increased, the condition of labourers kept deteriorating though a causal connection between the two cannot be established. The earnings of the labourers remained stagnant and had no parity with the tea price or increased production in the region.”
It is a similar situation in the Darjeeling and Dooars areas of West Bengal, another region of tea gardens, where workers are demanding better living and working conditions and hike in wages. 
He concluded, “Investing in technology worth crores, and running them with untrained workers who are paid Rs 8,000 or Rs 12,000 per month will prove to be detrimental.” 
The print industry is facing the consequences ...
And to solve this problem, we cannot go to point number one.