Sat, Jun

IR Talks to... Nathan Swinson-Bullough, MD, ImageCo

Wondering when it will be ‘back to business’? Isn’t everyone. There can’t be a single print operation that has not been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, nor can there be a single way of coming out the other side as fit as before, but is there a case for what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger? I asked ImageCo MD and Fespa UK board member Nathan Swinson-Bullough for his take 

How has the pandemic impacted your business so far?

Massively. First off, all of our event and exhibition work was cancelled - tens of thousands of pounds worth of work was cancelled with in a few days. We still had plenty of retail work in, but then once the shops closed, this was then cancelled.

We didn’t panic as we were in a good place financially and we reworked our monthly targets to face the grim extremities of what was in front of us and calculated how long we could continue on a drastically reduced turnover. The Government’s announcement of the furlough scheme was a huge relief. We furloughed all but five of us, who could keep the company going should we have any work.

It was at this point that I instructed our sales and marketing to get creative, brainstorm innovative ideas that could help in the crisis. We came up with a range of products, from sustainable sanitiser stations to anti bacterial vinyls, floor graphics and face visors. We also thought of ways to help the key workers and NHS.

We devised a visor that we made from stock materials and donated them to local nurses that were friends, and started to reach out on Facebook if any other nurses needed them.

I then had friends messaging me if they could donate money to help. This, I thought, would be messy in terms of payment so I came up with the idea to create a Just Giving page.

In just over two weeks we raised £4,300 and delivered 2,900 visors to hospices, hospitals and care homes in the region - this is ongoing.

At the same time we put effort in to marketing the Covid-19 products, my instructions were not to look like we were trying to profiteer from the crisis but just get the message across that we were open and still operating. Due to our large 30,000 sq ft factory we could work safely and not come in to contact with each other.

The plan worked and we started to pick up lots of work for social distancing and Covid-19 safety signage. We also had some regular work coming in including a six-site rebrand for a builder’s merchants and some office branding, so that’s good.

We have remained positive throughout the crisis, and have also been working on a brand new website which will be live once this article is published.

The whole crisis has made us think differently - we’ve taken a step back and evaluated how we can improve the business going forward.

We’ve been in close contact with Fespa UK and had Zoom member catch-ups to talk about how everyone is finding it, which has been good to know. Suzi and Carol [at Fespa UK] have also been incredibly supportive helping us with the visors distribution and production and also with live enquiries for some obscure request for branded PPE.

What do you think will be the key challenges facing your business going forward?

One of the main challenges will be our exhibition and event work. As it stands we don’t see this returning any time soon. That said, a few of our events clients have said they are starting to see sign of activity.

We will assume that we won’t see much work from this side of our business so we’re reworking our financial plans accordingly. We expect retail to have a huge surge once the shops open so our POS and retail display could prosper.

Then there is the new-found work of Covid-19 safety signage. This will repeat throughout the year, so we will benefit there. However, we have already seen lots of competition for this work and prices are hitting rock bottom. We won’t get into this battle as there is no point - we’ll focus our energy elsewhere. We are service lead and hold value in our services of design, project management and overall can-do attitude.

Nothing is set in stone and things seem to change weekly. We are in a good place as it stands but I wouldn’t want this to last too long. I think I speak for every business manager in the land there though - we are not alone.

Do you think these challenges are typical for the wide-format print sector as a whole?

Yes, with out a doubt. As I mentioned, we had a chat with other Fespa UK members and everyone is saying the same. Some PSP’s have chosen to shut down completely. Others have made the decision to stay open. Many of us have been making PPE, and also there is a large market for the Covid-19 graphics so that has kept a few busy from what I have seen on social media, which is good. 

The general feeling is that we are in this together, and there are cases of companies working together to help each other - be it lending ink or passing on work - which is how it should be.

Make no mistake, things won’t be the same for a long time. I hope everyone comes out of this OK once things are back to normal, but I know that’s not going to be the case, which is sad.

Such an unexpected situation for everyone - unprecedented and impossible to plan for. I hope to God we see nothing like this again.

Do you think the virus will permanently change the way large-format print providers do business?

I think for the short-term, things will be different. We have seen some suppliers increasing prices, which is shocking. Everyone has the responsibility to try maintain business as usual and not over emphasise the situation.

With work dropping off in the likes of the exhibition sector, for now at least, we need to refocus and innovate. We are always looking at new products, technology and ideas so this is nothing new and we enjoy the challenges.

Overall I don’t see things changing too much, and if anything we will pick up new work.

We will certainly be watching the cashflow, spending, and trying to improve our efficiency further. I would have been a nervous wreck had we not been in the position we are in, so we are thankful for that.

What lessons can the wide-format sector learn from the crisis? 

I think the main lessons are take nothing for granted, you never know what is around the corner, watch every penny - and wash your hand regularly!

Do you think anything positive is likely to come out of this?

Like I have said we have remained positive throughout and we have seen a wave of innovation in the crisis.

I personally will never take being busy for granted again. We are always thankful but will be even more so now. I have worked every day through the crisis and lockdown and never been as happy to come to work. I would like to think our staff will return with a renewed sense of purpose and drive. The same applies for every other company out there - employees will hopefully return with renewed energy and be thankful for their jobs.

What are your expectations for market recovery?

On the whole it’s going to be up and down and more competitive. We like to be challenged and will deal with whatever the future holds.

I think some sectors will flourish, others not - for the time being anyway. Our sports retail I expect to go crazy, whereas anything we get from events and exhibitions will be a bonus. 

I would expect to see rebrands become a big thing with increased marketing levels on some of the big brands so graphics will be refreshed. What would be a disaster if we started to see even more of a shift or retail to online, I don’t think that will be the case though.

At the end of the day, it’s only work. As we have come to reallse over the last few months, the health of loved ones and friends is the most important thing. Speaking on behalf of ImageCo and Fespa UK we want to thank all the key workers and NHS staff our problems are nothing to what they have faced. They have made us proud, and we are thankful for all they have done. Stay safe everyone.

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