PS Rajan: The printer who dreams about meeting William Carey - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

With the commercial and publication business at an all time low, PS Rajan of St Francis Press is making moves that will help him stay relevant in the print business. Words: Noel D’Cunha

02 May 2021 | By Noel D'Cunha

When I met PS Rajan, 63, I had asked him to name one print innovator from history he wanted to meet. He replied, William Carey, the cobbler, who made fonts for more than 20 Indian languages for the first time in Calcutta, and printed the Bible.

Rajan shares with me, "The Baptist missionary William Carey appointed an East India Company employee Charles Wilkins and the ironsmith Panchanan Karmakar as well as his nephew Manohar. All of them were employed by Carey in order to develop a set of Nagari fonts.

The Baptist Mission Press is supposed to be the first Indian foundry for Devnagari, Bengali and other Indian types. Located in Serampore, it's here where technical print innovation and the first large-scale printing of books in Indian characters began (in Hindi and Urdu), before spreading elsewhere.

The four-generations old, St Francis Press, was established by the late Thomas Putherikal in 1926, to print religious books on a simple hand treadle press.

Over the years, the print technology on the shopfloor has evolved. Currently, the press floor is equipped with Heidelberg SM52 and Ryobi (now RMGT) 920 four-colour offset press, Kodak Trendsetter platesetter, a Canon digital printing press, Horizon booklet maker, a perfect binder, folding machine, eyeleting machine, saddle stitcher, book sewing machine, laminating machine, and foiling machine, and caters to the commercial printing segment.

As the Covid-19 pandemic unleashes its wrath on many small and medium businesses, printers in Kochi, Kerala’s print capital, is seeing players make a move that can put them in a position to survive and even prosper.

PS Rajan, managing partner at St Francis Press says, “There is a large-scale transition happening in the commercial and publication sectors. They are moving to packaging and embellishment businesses. Commercial and publication have more than halved due to marketing spend cuts across industries and educational sectors. So it has affected job work presses at large.”

Also, in the past decade, the premium-ness of owning a four-colour press has been lost. “There’s a ready availability of secondhand press and cheap funds in the market,” explains Rajan.

Due to Covid, St Francis’ own revenue has declined. “It’s down 30% year-on-year, compared to steady performances in the preceding years. The workforce has substantially reduced, expenses are under control and other expansion ideas were put on hold,” says Rajan. As a result, he has a plan to focus on packaging.

One of the reasons that the print industry is doddering is, its marketing strategy of undercutting competitors’ prices. This results in squeezed margins.

And it’s happening in Kochi too, says Rajan. He explains, “There was a time when the fixed-cost pricing model worked. With volume expansion, we could make profits.”

But things have changed. “As volumes shrunk,  overheads increased. The cost of manpower and capital equipment has been increasing too, and then there are other unforeseen expenses like a hike in raw material. If we continue at old prices, we will obviously make less money,” says Rajan, adding, “If we further undercut an already low price offered by the competitors, we are probably staring at a loss.”

Hence, no matter how much you print, underpricing your product will put you out of business.

St Francis Press in Kochi

Paper woes
Since November last year, the print industry in Kochi is facing a steep price hike and shortage of paper and other consumables like films and inks. “The price grew 30% to 80%during this period” says Rajan. “Our challenge is to convince the customer about these difficulties.”

In Kochi, because of the seaport, the imported paper was available at competitive rates before the Covid-19 period. The abrupt decline of imported paper due to  Covid lockdowns and container shortages plus huge demand created by consecutive elections (panchayath and state) has led to skyrocketing prices. “The art paper price had gone from Rs. 58 to Rs. 90 per kg. Interestingly, clients opted for maplitho paper, which was available.”

St Francis’ requirement of paper was around 50 tonnes per month. “We had to buy the art paper at exorbitant rates, to manage the business.”

Technology investment? Hmmm...
While Rajan is scouting for finishing equipment for his packaging endeavour, he is not sure if he should be investing in workflow automation software.

He says, “We had invested in an estimation software last year, but it was difficult to train the workforce and implement it. And with business down 30%, that is not a priority right now.”

But he is excited about how digital is turning out to be a model for growing print business.

New generation clients rely mostly on the web to find a good printer and check their rating, before placing the orders. Instagram and Facebook have opened avenues to exhibit and market creativity, ideas, and talents, especially during the lockdown.

Rajan says, “Many housewives turned to baking, and brand consultants have created new unique stationery products, labels and packaging solutions for them.”

The advent of digital solutions has enabled print service providers to keep the customers engaged and reduce the number of errors. Payment gateways, SMS alerts on the job status are some of the things that will soon be the new norms. “And with the new avenues of marketing opening up, it has become easier to market print products as well. An ideal scenario would be to use the best of the two worlds – print and digital. For instance QR codes in tags.”

Normally, a finished print product is seen as the culmination of digital creativity. Rajan adds, “Printed products and digital solutions can co-exist. For example, a beautiful wall calendar can fetch more views than a digital ad campaign. It’s upon us to educate our clients about it. Also, print products are considered more acceptable as it is tangible, unlike digital solutions.”

PS Rajan - At a glance 

  • How did you unwind during the pandemic? I am enjoying a second childhood –playing with grandchildren.
  • One phrase you heard during the pandemic months? Have a positive mindset and watch the Sensex
  • Which film or web series you saw? Sherlock Holmes  and Dhrishiyam 2
  • Once the pandemic is over, where will you vacation to? Coorg in Karnataka
  • Favourite snack? Thairivada (dahivada), Onion oothapam
  • Favourite book? Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  • Your adda in your city? Kerala Master Printers Association’s (KMPA) weekly meetings
  • One historical thing about your city no one knows? Most would know that it was colonised by Dutch, English and Portuguese  . It was also the hub of spice coast trade – Queen of the Arabian Sea
  • The history of my city... Fort Kochi replaced the Muziris town (near Kodungaloor) as a trade hub for spices, after a great deluge in the 13th century
  • One print job you love? Printing KMPA's Print Miracle magazine
  • One phrase, you utter at least once a day? Cross-check the work for any shortcomings to improve next time
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