Why PS Thomas matters to Kochi - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

The digital print specialist of this port city in Kerala was not just a disruptor who touched many industries. He shaped them. “We may never see one like him in our print industry,” says Raju Kutty of Print Miracle, in a tribute to a man who was “ahead of his time”.

This Sunday Column is PrintWeek India’s tribute to late PS Thomas who created India’s only “Printing Street”.

16 Dec 2016 | By Noel D'Cunha

Raju Kutty’s tribute

During the condolence meeting in remembrance of late PS Thomas, my good friend Venuchettan of Sterling Print House said that people ahead of their times might sometimes not be very popular or respected when they are around. But they will be remembered long after they are no more. I suspect Thomas sir is one such man.

Here was a man who has touched various industries, and succeeded in most of them. A master disruptor who always had an instinct for what is the next-best thing. He also had an uncanny instinct for what is no more going to be there; and what is going to take its place. A man whose career kicked off selling calculators and office stationary, went on to start a pre-press and CTP business, to investing in and creating a contemporary digital printing unit, and finally moving on to business in LED lights and solar panels.

It occurred to me while attending the condolence meet of this very interesting entrepreneur that here is a story of a man who deserves to be written about.

I thus ventured into Paramara Road with my friend Mahesh to meet the young Sebastian Thomas, who takes off from where his father left. In order to understand more about this man who most likely has dimensions not fully understood by us. We started off with a cup of tea at the City Mess, which along with Computer Park; was the go-to place for print buyers and brokers who went to process a film or design a job at Computer Park in the 90s. Computer Park is not as crowded now as it used to be, but City Mess still is. A fresh cup of tea is always sought for by customers. It’s a technology which is not going to be obsolete anytime soon, I guess.

Coming back to Computer Park, Computer Park is a story in itself. As we climbed up the stairs to the first floor of this very prominent landmark of Paramara Road, I remembered the early days of my career when I used to come to Thomas sir to discuss the possibilities of promoting CTP plates in the market. This was in the late 90s and CTP then was looking to be the next big technology which the industry would eventually adopt. Seeing printers afraid of investing Rs 2 lakhs-odd on a Proteck Plate exposing system, I had no idea, whether the same printers would invest in expensive technologies like CTP. Of course, Thomas sir was not as clueless as me. He said he would invest in the platemaking technology, and I should buy and sell the plates. The superiority of the technology would eventually make it 'the' way of making plates. Our joint venture did not take off, but the technology obviously did. I don’t need to say any anything more about that.

The Computer Park room was as spacious and full of computers as it always was. The other common feature was the frequent clippets of sayings, basically asking you to excel in what you do. “Imagine having 50-odd computers in one room during the 90s. It was quite a sight. It was the place where youngsters who love programming used to assemble because they get to work with their favourite device - the computer. I was also a regular here though I was more interested in computer games rather than any serious programming,“ says Sebastian. Among those starry-eyed young programmers was a certain Jayakrishnan, whom Sebastian remembers to this day as a particularly brilliant programmer who was ahead of his time. Suspecting a link, I ask Sebastian the whereabouts of this particular person, and I am told he is very much in town running his own company -XTend Technologies developing hmmm……… software. I guessed correct. This Jayakrishnan is my next door neighbour and a good friend. More on that a little later.

Having 50-odd computers during the 90s was not a Joke. Thomas sir had this idea of leasing out these computers to professionals working in varied fields like graphic design to structural CAD designs. This must have unleashed the creativity of an entire generation who had the talent but couldn’t afford an expensive gadget like a computer back in the day. He even had a Microsoft Certified Training centre in the early 90s when NIIT or Aptech were yet to make a real impact.

I was trying to absorb the impact of what this institution would have looked like at that time; when I was still in high school and only used to see computers in English movies.

With computer prices coming down and their popularity going up; Thomas sir realised that it’s time to “let go“. As the interaction with Sebastian progressed, we realised that this was a recurring theme in Thomas sir’s career. He was never shy of exiting a business when he sees that its time is up. And more often than not he had a better idea in its place. While letting go of the Computer Park he simply leased out the space to independent designers. Here a designer got space to install his own computer to a plug point inside Computer Park, and access to customers who would not know him otherwise. In return he'd pay a rent to Thomas sir for using the space and Computer Park identity, or location or both. The simplicity of the strategy left me stumped.

Thomas sir did the same thing with calculators. In the early 90s itself, he could predict that sales of calculators would come down, and personal computers would take their place. He was far sighted enough to predict that accounting software in computers would replace books and calculators. He had computerised billing during the DOS, Foxpro times, long before Windows and Tally came to the scene. The computer he used to type his bills were being used until as recently as 2014. He had a strategy for this too. His view was that you should be able to generate a bill in as few steps as possible. Thus you get to minimise wastage of time and energy. For instance, he would not appreciate the software asking you whether you wanted to print - Yes/No. Of course, you want to print. Why would you hit Control-P otherwise?

The steady influx of designers created a ripple effect, with other pre-press houses setting up in the vicinity, then other o p d p and s printers following each other in quick succession. By the early turn of the century, Paramara Road had arrived. The term “Printing Street” started becoming a common usage in the industry. Often in not so flattering term, because of another phenomenon - cheap rates.

This was another pattern in the Computer Park story. His entry into any business would be followed by a drastic drop in rates. This would leave the overall industry confused and existing players frustrated while tremendously benefiting the end-customer. And he would only deal in cash. Here’s the price, pay the cash and take your goods. The customers obviously took full advantage from this situation. This happened with lith films first, then CTP and eventually digital printing. Digital printing would probably be the only activity that he carried on doing, until the very end.

Exhibitions were the other activity that Thomas sir was obsessed with. He made it a point to visit every technical trade fair that he could. Drupa of course was his preferred destination. I was in his company during the Drupa 2012. The man whom I have never found wearing anything other than a light-blue shirt with a white dhoti suddenly turned up immaculately dressed in a three-piece suit. He had a clear thought process behind it. "You dress like you mean business. That’s a given." I was more interested in his ascetic-like dressing back home. But his logic was simple. "When you provide contemporary technology with killer pricing, the end users come here to get things done. You dress meticulously when you go to customers. Dressing is not that critical when they come here. Then the important thing is to get dressed quickly and get to the work place as soon as you can," he said.

And get there quickly he did. Almost every day he would be in his office by 8 am. During the initial days of his CTP platemaking venture, he used to put in brutal hours, often working until 2 o'clock at night. Sebastian is amazed how he pulled it off all these years. Even in his last days he would ask Sebastian to see the print taken on his latest Fujifilm machine. Barely able to get up, he would fondly look at the print. Strangely, I wasn't surprised hearing this as it sounded typical of my previous generation whose resilience and capacity for hard work my generation often lacks.

My friend Gopanchettan of GK Printers tells me this interesting story of a high-ranking manager from Heidelberg Germany, who visited Thomas sir along with his Indian colleague. Upon seeing the man he immediately made a mental note that he is wasting his time. What happened later stunned this German gentleman. He was amazed to see this man in a dhoti and beard asking him where he studied printing technology……… in German! What he learnt later is even more interesting. Thomas sir apparently studied printing technology in the same college in Germany! Subsequently, during one of his marketing team training sessions, this gentleman cited this story while telling his people to never underestimate a customer based on his appearance.

The biggest impact on his career came from the fact that he was a pioneer in digital colour printing. Back in those days, he was the first man to show people that you can take a colour printed sheet from a computer without the complete process involving film, plates et al. This is how the Paramara street achieved the traction of printing designers, getting quick digital proofs and so on. His first machine was a Xerox Majestic bought in 1995 at a cost Rs 22 lakhs, which was a lot of money in those days. He took a loan to buy the machine and the auditor and bank manager came to see the machine as they couldn’t believe the price of the small digital colour printer. Infact the auditor Mohanan, who was the last person to visit Thomas sir, told Sebastian, “when your dad bought that machine in 1995 I thought he was crazy to buy such a machine, that too in Paramara road, which had only a temple and empty plots. Needless to say, the auditor never questioned any of Thomas sir's subsequent decisions.

There is another dimension to the story of course. Just like every other story, his detractors accuse him of spoiling multiple industries with predatory pricing like what he did in the film making industry. But in the process, he made it affordable and cheap to a vast majority of people and this eventually resulted in print consumption growing at the pace that it did.

Nobody can vouch for this more than Gerard Chandy (Jerry chettan) of Jerry’s Colorzone who once worked with Thomas sir as his partner. “I learnt the basics of business from Thomas sir. According to him, business is all about the facts and figures and there is no room for sentiments here. Today I know it in my head but when I do business my sentiments always have an impact on how I work. I may have been at the receiving end of many of his decisions but the fact remains that if not for Thomas sir I would not have been where I am today,“ Jerry says.

Jerry vividly recollects Thomas sir’s ability to identify talent. During his initial days, he had designed a wedding card for one of his friends and those days Computer Park was the only place where he could get an A3 print and so he went there. Thomas sir saw the design, asked him to wait and after the print was handed over, he gently called him aside and made him a proposition. He said, "I have this design centre in mind where everybody can come here with and idea and go back with a computer design and or a print. I see a spark of creativity in you. Would you be interested in joining in?" Jerry said yes, and this little exchange changed Jerry’s life forever.

Thomas sir was generally not an easy man to understand. He had strong and unconventional views about many things, including religion. One of his contemporaries, Babu sir of Colortone Process remembers how he travelled with Thomas sir together to Drupa and often found Thomas sir a bit of an enigma. Because of this general reticence, Thomas sir made very few friends if at all. This same sentiment was shared by none other than Sebastian, his son who remembers that if there was one thing, his father was not good at, it was delegation. He believed in doing things himself and never really created a team. Probably that is what Sebastian needs to be doing in the years to come.

More instances of Thomas Sir’s business-like approach were elaborated by his younger brother Rajan Sir of St Francis Press. Rajan sir mentioned about the basic enterprising genes running in the family with his grandfather himself being a printer. In the 60s, letterpress was used for doing print jobs. He remembers how Thomas sir essentially smelled a more lucrative opportunity selling engineering student’s material like drafting tables, set squares, scientific calculators and so on. Thus was born Engineering Equipments, which is still a prominent shop in Paramara Road along with Computer Park.

While leaving the family business for independent things, he left the more time-and effort-consuming printing business of St Francis Press to Rajan Sir. Rajan sir being a pure engineer, enjoyed every bit about the printing business and to this day derives satisfaction out of tinkering with a broken-down printing machine and getting it up and running. Needless to say, St Francis Press is still one of the well run and prominent printing companies in Kochi.

I still remember Thomas sir casually mentioning to a visitor while I was waiting for him to talk about the plates' business. This visitor was hesitating to buy a house that he liked because he had to pay Rs 20 lakhs or so, which was a huge amount of money at the time. The visitor was apprehensive about the huge amount of loan that he would take. Thomas sir simply said,“Go for it, the 15,000 Rupees you will have to pay as your EMI will look daunting now. But 15 years later, you will still be paying the same 15,000 per month, whose worth will be fraction of what it is today."

It took me close to a decade to figure out the significance of this simple statement.

My journey to know more about this man finally ended right next door at my friend Jayakrishna Kurup of XTend Technologies.

Jayakrishna remembers his early days as a student of Zoology who had very little interest in zoology and whole lot of interest in computer programming. Many things that Jayakrishnan chettan told me flew over my head, and he forgave me for not possessing his depth of knowledge on computers and programming. But he mentioned about those days in the early 90s when the Internet had just started making its appearance. The only provider of the internet, VSNL had two schemes or plans: one was the TCPIP plan, which would give you a complete graphical user interface (just as you see the internet today) and the other plan was the shell plan, which gave you a basic internet platform looking more like the DOS Interface of the time. The shell plan costing Rs 5,000/- and the TCPIP Plan costing a princely sum of Rs 15,000/-.

Jayakrishnan chettan and his partner Kurian had just started XTend Technologies at the time, and they created a new interface which gave you the best of both plans: that is, an interface which could give you the TCPIP experience at the price of the shell plan. He remembers to this day how VSNL immediately filed a case allegedly for hacking. At the time, the young founders of XTend along with some other entrepreneurs and Thomas sir started what was called the Cochin Internet Forum, and they used to have regular meetings with roundtable discussions on how this new thing called the Internet could impact our lives and how to create a business around them. The venue for these meetings was also ….where else… Computer Park.

Jayakrishnan chettan has the last word on Computer Park. He says, “What Thomas sir did was to provide an incubation centre where techies could come together and hatch ideas and bring them to fruition. Please remember this was two decades before the start-up villages of today.”

I bow to the memory of this “technocrat” who changed the face of the print market, forever.