The people who make paper special - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Sona Papers prefers to call itself the specialists in fine paper. “It’s a selection step that comes after design,” says Raju Suneja, director at Sona while interacting with PrintWeek India on the sidelines of Kyoorius Design Yatra 2018 in Goa.

“As a company we have tried to turn the print marketplace into an artistic medium that has touched excellence in print.”

In this Sunday Column, Raju Suneja and Raghav Suneja of Sona Papers discuss the specialty paper business in India

03 Nov 2018 | By Noel D'Cunha

(l-r) Raghav and Raju Suneja of Sona

Noel D’Cunha (NMD): A lot of Sona Papers activities are built around design and creative activities. What’s the connection?
Raju Suneja (RS):
 Sona’s very existence is based on design and creativity. Most of our papers, manufactured at various mills, are produced on the recommendations of designers, so much so that there are print companies which will not use speciality or fine paper unless it is specified by a designer.

Raghav Suneja: I would say, in the India scenario, Sona is just a medium for the designers. We provide our range of papers to designers, which help them turn their design concepts into reality — right from a small business card to a coffee table book. Design can be multi-dimensional. So I would say whatever a designer may envisage we have the paper for it.

NMD: How do your fine papers deliver that punch required for the applications?
Raghav Suneja:
 Let me explain this with an example of a fine paper called Leatherlike. It replaces the conventional PU leather, which goes on diary covers. Decoration printing on PU leather is a difficult proposition, and to bridge this gap, we introduced this new Leatherlike paper.

Of course, it’s expensive when you compare it with other fine paper range. But it gives a premium look to the diary, eliminates the hassles of using PU leather, and perhaps, it is a way by which a designer translates his idea into a leather-finish look.

So, Sona is a bridge between a designer and a printer, who fulfils the designer’s concept into reality by using our fine papers.

NMD: A bridge has to be strong so that the users can easily cross it, no matter what weight it has to carry. What is Sona’s strength?
 Variety of fine papers and availability across the nation.

If you dive in the basket of our fine paper products, you will certainly find a paper that will meet your requirement. This is not only our business, but a passion.

As for availability, we have 14 centres across the country with dedicated warehouses. Therefore, there will not be an occasion when there’s a need for a paper, and it’s not available.

NMD: India is a vast country, and you have 14 centres with warehouses. How do you ensure speed of delivery?
 It’s like this. We understand that there are seasons in which demand for certain applications will be high. So we undertake a marketing activity targeted at that season, for example, Diwali. We start our direct mailer (DM) activity in July, picking up the most suitable fine paper for print-packaging requirements. Another example would be the annual report season. We start our direct mailer activity in February. So when our direct mailers land at the end-customer, he has a prototype available for reference purposes. This helps us get to book our indent to mills and delivery of fine papers, well in advance. That’s how we narrow down the delivery time.

NMD: It is said the paper is a tricky substrate, particularly in a country like India where whether is never uniform. The printer needs to be sure of the paper he is using because it’s also expensive…
 True, fine papers are expensive and need to be handled with care. We have a very strong monitoring system and surveillance. We review our products across the centres every fortnightly, and if we come across any stock which is not to be sent to the market, we do not send it to the market. Instead, we use it for our internal consumption, as I said, for our direct mailer activities.

This monitoring system and surveillance have enabled us to land only fresh and printable papers to the market. Honestly, we cannot afford to send paper even with finger marks to the market.

NMD: What’s your modus operandi?
 We have our own audit team at each of the centres, which closely monitors the paper stocks, and sends a regular report to the headquarters in New Delhi. For example, if a tonne of paper stock is sent to our Kolkata centre and debris of 10 kg is generated during its transport, we use it for our internal purposes if it is in a good condition. If not, we strip and auction it so that it does not land up in the market.

NMD: The other aspect is consistency in supplies?
RS: Our existence is based on providing consistent quality. We have around 400 different kinds of fine papers. As you mentioned, India is a vast country. We have a marketing tool that gives us an idea of future demand, but at times a printer can demand a certain paper and certain quantity from any part of the country. There are not many times this has happened, maybe two or three times. But even for such customers, we have managed the stock, by having the requirement air-lifted. It did take us a little time to deliver though. Otherwise, we have to be on our toes all the time.

We take all measure to ensure that quality products are supplied to the market.

NMD: One aspect of an application printing is paper selection, and the other is running it on the presses…
 Here, both marketing and sales teams come into play. The marketing team goes and meets the specifiers, graphic designers, art director and brand owners. The marketing team understands the needs of the specifiers, and based on that makes suggestions. Once that is done, the stock is sent to the printer, who is required to produce a dummy of the product to be printed or converted.

Coming to your question of press compatibility of our fine papers, let me tell you that the mills we are associated with, carry out R&D on the new product for at least three years. They first consult international designers on the colour, the texture, the feel of paper for inputs, before it is produced. Thereafter, in the next six-seven months, these new products are sent to different regions, to different printers who run these papers on their presses before it is launched. Launching a new fine paper product into the market is a long-drawn process.

That’s one of the reasons why fine papers are expensive.

When the mills have done such rigorous due diligence, is there a need for further tests? I don’t think so. That’s the reason 80% of our new launches go straight to the market, and we have never had any problems.

NMD: Can you give an example of such products that you launched in the past, and which went on to become popular in India?
 Cordenons Leatherlike is a recent example. Pragati offset has used it to create a coffee-table book celebrating Toyota's 20 years in India. Before this, we launched a special item called WILD with 30% cotton content in it with touch and feel of true fine paper. In 2012, we had launched a paper called Boutique, a range from Gruppo Cordenons. It was addressed to the fashion industry. It had three variant, silk, wool and jeans. So each variant represented a yarn. The Boutique range got an international launch after it was print-tested first at Valdarno Graphics, a premier print company in Italy.

Now, almost all the commercial printers across the country are using these ranges of papers.

NMD: Which are the popular fine papers and the trends in using fine papers?
 We have a wide range of fine papers and most of them are popular. However, most of the designers and print buyers desire to pick those papers which give you a particular feel when you touch it.

So, along with papers with touch and feel the effect, we are seeing the trend also moving towards uncoated and metallic, the Munken Design range or Insper’s smooth and rough range. I think going ahead, coated papers will be used, but uncoated will see a rise in usage, particularly where premium print is concerned. We are going to see more and more bespoke collaterals go the uncoated way.

NMD: How does it fare in terms of printability?
 Not an issue. We have been supplying these papers to most of the top printers in India like Pragati, Silverpoint, Lustra, and Jak, just to name a few.

NMD: How well does fine paper perform on digital printing presses?
 The digital print process has given both the width and depth to the print and publishing industry. This outcome has helped us grow the fine paper business in terms of penetration levels. The sheer nature of the digital print process being short-run and immediate deliverable, very few substrates are preferred. The ease of operation is facilitated by standard substrates. Exclusive substrates are finding their ground too. In terms of technical compatibility; substances beyond certain levels are not accepted and high fibrous substrates do have an issue. Else all substrates do well.

NMD: Sona at Kyoorius Design Yatra 2018 in Goa. What’s the strategy behind your presence here? What have been the three takeaways from the show?
 This is the second time we are participating in the Kyoorius event. The idea is to create a niche for Sona among the design fraternity, educate the designers, interact with them, and know each other.

Raghav Suneja: There are students of design who are participants here. It’s our job to help them understand the nuances of fine papers and this is the best place where you find them in big numbers. On display at our stand are printed products, and I must tell you that they are amazed at the quality of the products, and are thrilled to see the different applications, possibilities that print can produce with fine papers.

A girl student came up to our stand and was seeking a solution to her problem. She was facing difficulties in producing a packaging design for a wine bottle which is round shaped. She was using a substrate which was of higher grammage. We showed a grade which was lower in grammage, but could easily be used to produce a package designed to fit round shaped products. So, it was not just about selling papers, it was spreading awareness about using fine papers to suit the design requirements, size, shape and feel.

I think as far as design and concept are concerned, the creative professionals know what they want. Sona Papers steps in to take their designs and concepts beyond their imaginations, with our range of papers.

NMD: Since you have interacted with the students here, do you think that the next generation of designers will be more print-friendly then digital?
Raghav Suneja:
 I see a balance. However, the feedback we have received is that the need for print still exists. The commodity sector will see a decline in print, but the demand for fine papers is bound to grow. At present, fine papers share is only 1% of the total paper consumption pie. I don’t think that is going to go down. It can only rise.

There’s some difficulty being faced by the printers procuring 99% of the paper requirement. Will fine papers benefit and fill the supply gap? Not really. We are growing steadily, due to factors like demand for premium products.

NMD: Isn’t 1% a small portion of the paper consumption pie?
 No really, a decade ago, we started from zero, and from there our growth to 1% is multi-fold.

NMD: India is a cost-conscious market. Fine papers are expensive?

RS: I think, it’s a world-wide scenario, not just restricted to India. The issues are similar even in East Asia, Europe or the US. The clients are always cost-conscious but in the case of fine papers, I would call it ‘value for money', not expensive.

NMD: So, how do you grow the usage of such expensive products?

Raghav Suneja: We don’t supply the paper to either the printer or the print buyers before they are convinced what they can produce with it. We show the papers and the desired application that can be produced with it. It’s the paper that surprises them.

We don’t call ourselves paper merchant, because we don’t sell commodity papers, we showcase and supply brands.

NMD: Which is your most popular product so far, and what’s the reason behind its popularity?

RS: Natural Evolution from Gruppo Cordenons has been popular for many years, but the range of Arjowiggins paper, which we re-launched in 2016 after a gape of eight years, has received a good reception too.

The Arjowiggins range of papers has been accepted worldwide by all the big brands for their print communication. The positioning of the brand Arjowiggins, right from the beginning, has been in premium segment. Hence, all the image-conscious brands recommend Arjowiggins range of papers in their print communication.

NMD: Commercial or packaging, which segment is your strength?

RS: It’s commercial right now with 95% of our business, though we are increasing our footprint in the packaging segment. For example, Samsung, which has inaugurated a big plant in Noida, has approved some of our Hansol range for their packaging needs. There’s tremendous potential in packaging, and we have to move with the business trends too. Whenever we launch a new product, we ensure that there’s enough to meet the growing packaging demand.

That said there’s enough space even in the commercial segment.

NMD: Which are the applications that are driving fine papers business for Sona?

RS: When we began supplying fine papers, it was wedding cards, visiting cards but today we supply fine papers for all most all applications — visiting cards to coffee table books.

NMD: How much do environmental restrictions impact Sona?
 As a company, we are multi-site SAP, that’s the first thing. Second, all our principal paper suppliers are environmental friends; almost all are 200 to 300 years old, adhering to environmental norms and regulations.

NMD: How has the financial performance of Sona been in the last ten months?
 If you compare the first ten months of 2017 with 2018, then we are 10% higher than 2017. To be more specific, we have sold 4,800 MT of fine papers between April 2017 and March 2018. In the last six months, we have grown by 10%.

I think today the term fine paper is used to push premium commodity papers, which in real terms is much inferior to fine papers. Today, what is produced by the likes of Cordenons, Fedrigoni, Arjowiggins are being compared by premium commodity papers produced in Korean mills. The whole process of producing fine papers is complex, delicate and cannot be produced in bulk like commodity papers. We also deal in such premium commodity papers, which comprises of about 30% of our total turnover.

But as I said, our primary focus is on supplying fine papers for premium quality print-packaging jobs.

NMD: So what’s the difference between the fine papers produced in Europe and premium commodity produce by mills in the Far East?
 See, other than quality and is touch and feel of the papers that creates a difference between fine papers and commodity papers. Fine papers can be created as per the customised need of the customers.

NMD: There are talks of completely eliminating single-use plastic by 2022. That augurs well for fine papers, doesn’t it? It would seem funny, but that would also mean no more paperless world?
 Paper self-decompose if left alone. Moreover, the papers we sell come from managed source of forest. We neither encourage nor promote papers that are hazard to the environment.

NMD: The Sona team – both at the management levels and operations — is pretty strong. What the style of the management level functioning?
 Adoption of process that can enable smooth functioning of the system, which can enable quality service to our customers and thereafter strict monitoring of the process, has been our style of functioning.

NMD: How have you built the team and maintain the team spirit?
 In our trade, employee retention is the key to success. We have always encouraged both way communications. This enables a free flow of ideas and participation of staff in key decision and the employee also feels a sense of ownership.