Wallpaper print specialist john mark is doing rather well by providing an innovative service. So could any printer with large-format digital capability follow suit?
John Mark doubled its turnover to £1.4m in the 12 months leading up to this interview. Its commercial director Jason Gilliat reckons that will be doubled again this year, which is a good job because its investment in print and associated solutions is not insignificant. Since MD John Mark Watson set up the Lancashire-based specialist wallpaper print business in 2012 it has spent around £1m on hardware alone, predominantly on HP latex machines. It has also had a bespoke cutter developed and built at a cost of £180,000. Add to that the investment in getting an AVA CadCam/HP partnership running to develop the colour matching capability the company is so proud of.
But it’s not all about production kit, though digital inkjet was the impetus for John Mark Watson to break away from his family’s Surface Print Company where he was MD “as being of the fourth generation to manufacture wallpaper I knew a lot about wallpaper, but not so much about digital print because what I’d done was all analogue. I left in 2011 and started looking at digital equipment, and at Sign and Digital in the summer of 2012 I saw the HP LX600 and started playing with one at ArtSystems, using files customers who had followed me allowed me to use. By July 2012 John Mark had a machine and become operational - with me printing and just a Cad operator.”
The company decommissioned that first machine only in April this year, the day before installing a HP L1500 and L570, bringing its kit spec up to four big HP latex machines and three smaller ones. But John Mark is not a printing company. Well, it is, but it’s not how either Watson or Gilliat want it to be seen. The focus is very much on it being a ‘wallpaper specialist’.
“Suppliers telling everyone with a wide-format printer that they can do wallpaper is my bugbear,” says Watson. “That does real damage in the market. PSPs believe the machine sales guy telling them what the machine can do and in this business it isn’t just about that to be successful. It’s not just about the printing. A lot of it is about the trimming and finishing and understanding how spot on everything needs to be. We have customers who charge £770 per drop for the wallpaper we produce for them - so there’s zero tolerance from them when it comes to mistakes.
“I’d say it takes a £500,000 investment to get into wallpaper production - apart from the printers you need to have the skills, right software, proper trimming capability and proper wrapping/packing set-up.”
You also have to have a bit of vision and to be able to hold your nerve when it comes to business development. Both Watson and Gilliat understand that you need to be able to play the long game when it comes to innovation, the only way they believe to retain and attract the type of customers it wants.
“We don’t do stickers for walls. We do high end wallpapers and wall coverings and our customers include the big five - Osborne and Little, Designers Guild, Cole and Sons, Romo and Linwood - plus smaller boutique designers,” stresses Watson. “Many want wallpapers to match the fabrics they are doing, especially the smaller guys. With digital print we can do that. But they also want something different, so we have to keep innovating and searching for new options.”
That is largely Gilliat’s remit. A graphic designer by trade, he was brought into the business in March 2016 as business development manager because as Watson explains: “I was doing the printing and not able to get out as much as I wanted”. Apart from account handling, Gilliat’s role - both then and now as commercial director - is product development, and to find new clients.
“Not having a sales background helps,” he laughs. “When it comes to talking to designers I’m on their wavelength and talk their language. You are judged on how you come across not just on what you deliver.” That’s why the company rebranded not long after his appointment “to modernise our image and attract high end design studios.” It’s also why John Mark is currently developing a customer suite “where clients who are spending a lot of money with us can spend time comfortably when they come to check what’s coming off the printer.”
Crucially, John Mark is also constantly developing new offerings. “We’re looking at patterns, colour, substrates that won’t hit high street retail for years,” says Watson, who is somewhat underwhelmed by the approach of some substrate suppliers. “Make no mistake, some suppliers are great and want us to work with them as development guinea pigs if you like - they’ll give us materials to try for free and if it works we get a head start on using it commercially. But some of the ‘new’ stuff some show us has been around for years.”
Gilliat agrees: “We do have to push the envelope and be constantly seeking out new options.” That’s done online and on foot at shows both home and abroad. “I’ve done lots of travel,” adds Gilliat, pointing out that pay-back can be some way off.
“We work on new products, produce samples, walk the walk at shows - like Heimtextil, Decorex, Deco Off - where our types of customers congregate, make the calls and do all the marketing but it can be a long haul before business comes in, especially from new customers,” says Gilliat, with Watson adding: “Some designers can be pretty rude initially, but slowly and surely you keep plugging away.”
“There’s one client that I’ve been plugging away at since I got here. They told me they used a local printer and would never use us. Now they do,” demonstrates Gilliat. “Two years is not an unusual timeframe to keep on at one contact.”
John Mark’s sights are now set on attracting more big players and developing its customer-base beyond the UK, in particular in Milan, Paris and New York.
“The small guys tend to come to us organically now - they all go to the same shows and know of us by word of mouth. More of the big boys are our focus. Digital print does mean we can do the sampling and shorter runs many of the smaller outfits want of course, and from small acorns large oak trees grow,” says Gilliat, adding: “and the small designer of today may well become a ‘name’ of tomorrow that will bring in bigger business so we certainly value them. But the smaller bespoke jobs require lots of handholding time, and the margin we make on them is not double what we make on the bigger volume jobs.”
About 75% of John Mark’s turnover is from ‘volume’ jobs, which Watson defines as 100-200 rolls per month per pattern. There’s a desire to see that type of work grow. In terms of market development there’s a keen eye being kept on ‘repeating murals’ - easy apply repeats for high end domestic settings, as well as for single image bespoke murals for the likes of galleries. The digitisation and production of historic patterns are also proving a hit, as are touchy-feely offerings. “We’ve done a ‘tapestry’ mural wallpaper where the feel echoes that,” explains Gilliat.
So where would he and Watson like to see further development? “Opaques and metallic would be nice,” says Gilliat, “and faster machines!” adds Watson. “We are printing high-end quality wallpapers here, but it’s still slow. We realise there are people working on faster machines, with players in the wallpaper analogue market working with digital partners to produce high speed machines that will cost £2-3m and be really high volume. That’s not our market, but even for players like us, speed will have to go up so roll price can come down.”