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Takeover marks a new chapter for printer amid a changing industry

PUBLISHED: 13:48 16 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:41 17 May 2018

Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay.
Managing director Paul Hulley.
Picture: Nick Butcher

Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay. Managing director Paul Hulley. Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2018

The boss of printer Clays believes a takeover by an Italian printing giant has put it in the best position to tackle the challenges of an evolving industry. Doug Faulkner visited the Bungay book maker.

Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay.
Picture: Nick Butcher Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay. Picture: Nick Butcher

When he stepped off the plane back from Italy, Clays managing director Paul Hulley found his phone full of unread messages.

Over the Atlantic, a threat from Donald Trump to get an injunction against an expose of his White House, The Fire and the Fury, had forced the book’s US publisher to spring into action by bringing its release date forward.

Now, the Bungay-based printer would have to do the same with 55,000 copies needed by the next day.

It is an example of the changing demands on the print industry – with quicker turnaround times, shorter runs and books sent over by PDF.

Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay.
Picture: Nick Butcher Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay. Picture: Nick Butcher

“It is all about us being agile, we need to print those extra tens of thousands of copies but also meet our other deadlines,” Mr Hulley said. “It requires some balancing and moving around but we have a good team who know what to do in these situations.”

The need for agility means Mr Hulley now sees Clays as a logistics business rather than just a printer. Getting products to their destinations on time is as important as producing them in the first place. The days of printing 500,000 copies of a book and then pulping the remainder are long gone.

Mr Hulley said: “In publishing the release date is so important, especially for new books. If a customer needs 50,000 copies by a certain day they are going to get 50,000 copies.”

Flexibility has become vital to the industry and Clays has kept up by investing in ink jet printers over the years which are able to do smaller runs quickly with a lower lead-in time. While traditional printers are still used for larger runs, such as the Christmas “big ones” which will see 500,000 printed at a time, the company is able to complete smaller orders to meet a surge in customer demand.

Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay.
Picture: Nick Butcher Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay. Picture: Nick Butcher

“With a publisher like Penguin Random House they have such a huge back catalogue so it becomes a case of almost printing to retail order,” Mr Hulley said.

While reading habits have threatened to change with technology, book sales have remained strong in the UK in recent years. Digital sales were down 2.8% in 2016 compared to a 7.6% increase in physical sales, according to The Publishers Association.

Clays, which started out as a family firm, had been under the ownership of printing giant St Ives for 32 years but as the group reshaped itself into a marketing business, the company found itself outside of the core structure. In April, it was sold to Italian business Elcograf.

The Verona-based group is one of the largest printing companies in Europe and Mr Hulley said it was the “best possible outcome” for Clays.

Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay.
Jason Rodwell working in the print hall.
Picture: Nick Butcher Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay. Jason Rodwell working in the print hall. Picture: Nick Butcher

He said: “We needed to be owned by people that were passionate about print and that is what has happened.

“We have been acquired by 
the third largest printing group in Europe and they want to 
help Clays deliver our business plan.

“We now have the capability to invest in that plan and we are also more competitive than we were before, because with Elcograf comes the ability to print colour books in their factory in Verona.”

Part of that plan will be investment in developing technologies for binding, the most time-consuming part of the process.

Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay.
Picture: Nick Butcher Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay. Picture: Nick Butcher

The family atmosphere of the company is still important, Mr Hulley said, and had not left under St Ives. Mr Hulley said: “The company still has something of a family-owned business culture. It was founded in 1875 and owned by the Clay family for the longer part of its history. Now we are back to being family-owned which is a good fit.”

While the days of all the workers living in Bungay have gone, the business is by a distance the largest employer in the town and its sprawling factory remains a significant presence.

Last year saw some tough times for Clays, with the loss of a large contract with publisher Harper Collins which led to the firm making 70 redundancies – which Mr Hulley said were mostly voluntary.

He said: “It was a significant contract for us and those things do happen in contract manufacturing. You win some and you lose some – that’s the way of life and we had to reduce the size of the business to reflect that.”

Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay.
Stephen Pitcher checking the newly printed cbook covers.
Picture: Nick Butcher Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay. Stephen Pitcher checking the newly printed cbook covers. Picture: Nick Butcher

But he insisted the company was on a solid footing. While a contract loss would always bring pain, wins could equally bring growth, he added.

“Clays isn’t as profitable as it once was because the margins are tighter but that is the way of the market,” he said. “It is still a strong business and will be stronger going forward with the ownership structure it has.”

Clays in numbers

Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay.
Managing director Paul Hulley.
Picture: Nick Butcher Business feature at Clays book printers who are based in Bungay. Managing director Paul Hulley. Picture: Nick Butcher

In a busy week Clays can produce 5 million books and averages around 3.5 million, meaning it prints more than 150 million a year.

Last year it used around 60,000 tonnes of paper with five to eight lorry loads arriving on a daily basis.

The Suffolk printer was bought for £20m by Elcograf, creating a group which employs some 1,600 people across Europe.

In the 12 months to July 28 2017 Clays reported increased turnover of £77.7m, up 12% from £69.2m in 2016, however with the loss of the HarperCollins contract it warned of restructuring costs for the next year. It posted a loss before tax of £1.6m for the year.

Managing director Paul Hulley said the company supplied around 60% of the trade market, supplying books to retailers such as Waterstones, Amazon and the major supermarkets, as well as a smaller portion of the academic market.

Famous names

Over the years Clays has been responsible for printing a plethora of famous novels, autobiographies and non-fiction titles.

The company printed the Harry Potter series under tight security after the increasing popularity of the boy wizard’s tale meant their was huge anticipation for each new book.

Back in 2003 two coverless copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth instalment, were stolen from the factory and offered to The Sun newspaper leading to several arrests.

Other famous names to have passed through the Bungay printworks include Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, Tom Clancy, Terry Pratchett, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

More recently Clays has printed Stephen Fry’s Mythos, Philip Pullman’s

La Belle Sauvage, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and Michael Wolff’s peek inside Donald Trump’s White House, The Fire and the Fury.

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