The Hardest Time of my Professional Career

Mentally, I am going to file the last six months as ‘the hardest time of my professional career’. Even our flood, which was pretty catastrophic, doesn’t compare to this.

We closed our production for the whole of April but kept the admin side of the business open to make sure the financial side of the business remained operational. We needed to make sure money owed to us and of course the money we owed, continued to flow.

April was a time of spreadsheets for me. Plotting every financial scenario I could think of and making sure the numbers kept adding up in our favour. It was not a good time and seemed to go on forever.

We made the decision to re-open the production in a limited way and with a skeleton staff at the beginning of May. The work started to come back in and because there were so few of us, we got our families involved and worked evenings and weekends to keep the work going out on time.

I distinctly remember a snap-shot when we were working one evening, it was about ten o’clock at night, my son was packing ACM Signage, Wayne’s two sons were building roller banners and his eleven year old daughter was running one of our Zunds with his wife.

During the day from to May to August, myself and Wayne dealt with all the enquires, quotes and job processing on the phones and via email and I can only apologise to all of our customers who had to deal with us rather than our superb customer service team who were on furlough at the time. It had been a long time since we had done that job, but we winged it and I think we got away with it.

Now in October, absolutely nothing is back to normal unfortunately. We’ve had to lose a small number of staff to redundancy, our turnover is down some forty percent and our two FabriVU textile printers are looking like enormous paperweights because that part of the business has taken the biggest hit. And that won’t change until they start opening up exhibitions and events again.

Thank goodness for banners, Foamex and floor vinyl.

I am very sad at where the whole country finds itself but I am not disheartened—we’re all well here and the business is solvent without having to be propped up by Government loans. I do get the feeling we’re in this for the long haul and that next year is going to be, in inverted comas, interesting.

So right now, with previously-furloughed staff back in the business, I am looking forward to slowing down a little and then, I fear, in 2021: ‘The hardest time in my professional career – The Sequel’

That Poxy Virus

Venture Banners Website

Tuesday March the 17th 2020… my wife’s birthday. I’d taken the day off and we drove to Frinton to take the dog on a nice walk along the beach. We had lunch in a little cafe and talked about how we thought the Coronavirus might affect the business.

Things were quite calm, and while there were small signs that this was going to be different, work was still coming in and overall it looked like we could weather the storm.

Within 24 hours we had our entire sales and studio team working from home and the level of work coming in halved (literally overnight) and then dried up almost completely as the government guidelines started to bite.

By Friday that week, we were talking about running a skeleton crew and working out how to socially distance the production team, which is logistically difficult when running machines. By Tuesday 24th March—just seven short days after walking along the beach with my wife—Wayne and myself made the decision to close our production completely.

That wasn’t an easy decision but it felt like the right thing to do. We are not an essential business, and we primarily service the event and exhibition industry which ostensibly had been destroyed.

We felt like we needed to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and that meant furloughing our staff for their safety, closing the doors and going home until it was safe to return.

That was four weeks ago. We are now just approaching the subject of when we return in a limited capacity with a small number of staff but as yet that does seem a little way away.

Stay safe.

Transforming the Shell Scheme Market

Venture Banners Shell Transformer at The Print Show 2019

Every year without fail, I write an objectives list. It usually happens around November/December and outlines what my objectives are for the coming year. I keep them in a folder on my desktop so that I can have a look every now and then to keep me focused. But, sometimes objectives are too big or too difficult to get done in twelve months, and get ‘rolled over’ to the next year.

In 2015 I wrote for one of my objectives: “Exhibition Hire Module for Venture. Must dress a shell scheme to make it into a decent looking stand. Hardware hire model to keep costs down?

I’ve always noticed that at any trade shows I’ve visited, around the edges, in the Shell Schemes, it is a sea of badly-printed Roller Banners and poorly-fitted Pop-Ups. Go to almost any show, even a print-based show and the Shell Schemes really do look like the poor relations compared to the vibrant, seamless graphics of the bigger boys and I wanted to address that.

The overall objective was to make a Shell Scheme look like a premium stand. I knew it had to be supplied on a premium material with hardware so easy to transport and install that the end user could do it and therefore negate any expensive put up and takedown charges. This was why I favoured the hire of hardware model, I knew any product that matched those criteria was going to be expensive.

For four years that goal has been in my objectives list, but it was a tough nut to crack. Now, finally we have our product: Shell Transformer. The hardware is Tecna T3 with SEG Channels for beautiful vibrant fabric graphics. It’s simplicity itself to install and it looks awesome with its Display Polyester fabric graphics printed on our FabriVU 340 dye-sub printer.

Have a look at the picture in this post. This was our test stand at The Print Show 2019. I installed that 5m × 3m two-wall shell system with graphics, on my own, in about an hour.

So there you have it. When you next get an enquiry to kit out a shell scheme, show your customer Shell Transformer. We’ve made a reseller information pack to download as well as a product brochure with prices to send your customer (note, you must be logged-in to download it first). I think it certainly gives you a better alternative to the traditional Pop-Up and Roller Banner, and your customer will love you for it.

When It Rains, It Pours

September 20th 2014. Five years ago. I’d almost forgotten the anniversary with all that’s happened since then. Not my anniversary, but the anniversary of the disastrous flood at our previous premises in Witham.

Maybe in Taipei or Haiti where they are used to catastrophic weather events, but Essex? It was early on Saturday morning and no staff were in the building when the cloud burst hit. Someone checking the CCTV later that morning alerted us to a problem and when we arrived the scene was like something out of a disaster film.

The water had receded, but the devastation was complete. Water marks on our very expensive printers revealed the water level had reached one and a half feet. Deep enough to kill both our VUTEks, every hemmer and eyelet machine with floor mounted pedals and our new Zund Digital Cutter, not to mention rolls of material printed and unprinted that had been submerged.

The water had been so deep on the industrial estate that a huge recycling container had floated to the other side of the car park. We wondered why even the first floor offices had been flooded, until we realised that the water pressure on the drains outside had created geysers out of the gutter pipes on the roof and that water had come in through the ceiling.

I remember wondering around like a zombie not knowing where to start and then bumping into my co-director Wayne, both of us welling up. All our hard work over the last five years was soaked in filthy water and silt.

Luckily, Steve (our production manager), who is unfazed by literally anything, gathered the troops and we had our incredible staff working the rest of the weekend to clear the mess. Max, our engineer sat in a puddle behind the VUTEks dismantling the water-damaged components and ordering new ones from EFI, which with amazing customer back up were flown in overnight.

Unbelievably, by Tuesday evening we were up and running again and we worked through the night to clear the backlog of work. I was suffering with a urinary infection from the filthy water and all of us were suffering from a stressful situation and a serious lack of sleep.

It was five months before the offices and production were back to their pre-flood condition. Silly things you don’t think about, like a few weeks after the flood we had a mosquito infestation. Now, to compound the already damaged building, the interior walls had to be cut out to knee height because larva from the filthy water was in the insulation behind the walls, and was now hatching.

Looking back on it, I am immensely proud of our team. Their dedication and hard work meant we made it through. In hindsight I am almost glad it happened, because if you can make it through something like that, there’s not much that can faze you.

Hard Profit from Soft Signage

We at Venture Banners have always looked at ways we can apply our economies of scale to parts of the large-format market that enable our customers to increase their product offerings, and in turn their revenue streams. There is no downside to this business model – our customers can offer a complex array of large-format and exhibition products without huge investment but with plenty of margin. We work on large volumes of these products but with small margins and this works well for us.

With textile and soft signage becoming more and more popular in this country over the last couple of years, we decided we wanted to offer our customers our considerable economies of scale in this sector as well. So at the beginning of 2017, we embarked on an eighteen month capital expense exercise that turned out to be the steepest learning curve we had ever faced in our ten year history.

We’ve learned about the advantages and disadvantages of inline ink fixation, how humidity—or in this case, a lack of humidity—can have a disastrous effect on your ability to print literally anything. We learned about different materials, their different applications and then we had to learn their individual stretch and shrinkage properties.

We vigorously researched the various different types of sewing machines available that do vastly different jobs. Single needle, twin needle, overlock—there was a lot to take in. And I don’t care what anyone says, people who can sew properly are few and far between. Finding someone who can join two pieces of material together without it looking like Eeyore’s bottom has turned out to be a huge challenge for us. Sewing has been a dying art in this country over the last few decades and as textiles become more prominent in our product line-up, it has become clear we need to act to bring in more young people to train in this skill set.

So, our kit list has expanded considerably to include seven sewing machines of various types, a production-wide humidification system, and if you’ve been to Disney in Florida, think those fine mist sprays you get around the park. We’ve bought an MTEX 5032HS 3.2m high-speed dye-sub machine with inline fixation for our flag production, as well as an EFi FabriVU 340 3.2m machine and a separate Klieverik calender unit for backlit, display and stretch materials (which indecently, gives the best print quality I’ve ever seen on a large-format machine), as well as a 3.2m-wide Zund with a textile cutting system to make sure that after we’ve printed all this stretchy stuff, it gets cut out accurately.

If you’ve seen our marketing over the last few months, the result is the most impressive line-up of hardware and materials we have ever had, which will enable our customers to offer new products and find new markets and profit streams—without all the headaches, barriers and costs associated with getting into dye-sub.

You’re welcome!

The Fabric of Life

FabriVU 340As a stereotypical middle-class family, we have two cars. My neighbour only has one. But his is a Bentley Continental GT and in a game of top trumps his Bentley will always beat the pickup truck and the Mazda SUV that frequent my drive.

I drive an old pickup because we seem to spend all our money buying really expensive printers. Last year we had a new EFI FabriVU installed for dye-sublimation printing onto textiles. We had the production environment humidity-controlled and if you’ve ever been to Disney in Florida, think the fine mist sprays that cool you down… but on an industrial scale. The purpose of this incredibly expensive humidity system is to reduce static in the textile printing process, which as a result gives a sharper print quality, on a machine that is already considered to be the Rolls Royce of fabric printing. And boy does it work.

We’ve entered into the fabric market because the cost to entry for the jobbing printer is extremely high. You can buy a small dye sub printer but what they don’t tell you is that you’ll need a calendar unit which, I can almost guarantee your building won’t have the electrical capacity to run, as well as a humidity system and a team of sewing machinists to rival Armani.

By doing it properly, the Venture way, we can share our economies of scale and give our print trade customers an easy route to this lucrative market and another revenue stream.

Prior to buying the FabriVU we did some market research on the entry level dye-sub printers available, but the speed and print quality of these machines were nowhere near what the VUTEk produces. In fact, we would have had to buy at least ten to do the volumes the FabriVU does, and still not match the quality.

To continue the automotive analogy a Rolls Royce will always eclipse a carpark full of Nissan Micras.

Here Comes The Sun

Solar Panels at Venture Banners

It’s January, and as I sit here in the office looking out of the window, the sky is grey, the drizzle is falling and every now and again the roof patters with the sound of a brief hail shower just to remind you that it’s cold out there as well.

It all suggests that Great Britain isn’t the best place in the world to promote solar energy. Which is unfortunate, since we at Venture have just had one hundred and seventy six, two-metre solar panels fitted to our roof.

However, all is not as it seems. Our Solar Panels have their own web-based control panel and it is telling me that we’ve offset 3.27 tons of carbon, planted 8.96 trees (I am assuming metaphorically) and saved over £600 in electricity costs! The project was only commissioned at the end of October, and what’s more it’s been grey and miserable ever since!

If I am honest, we spent a small fortune on these strange black panels, not to metaphorically plant trees or save polar bears with our reduction in carbon, but rather it was expense reduction that was the driving factor. You see, ever since we bought a FabriVU 340 and installed a huge calendar unit for sublimation, which basically means heating a huge drum of oil up to 200 degrees and keeping it there all day, our electricity bill has been going skywards at a dramatic rate with seemingly no signs of stopping.

So if the figures on my screen are to be believed—and they seem to be backed up by a reduction in this month’s electricity bill—I can conclude that covering the roof in Photovoltaic Cells has actually been a canny investment. I’m remembering the great summer we had last year, and I’m already looking forward to March when the sun starts occasionally peeping out from the clouds.

We’ll be reducing our expenses and our carbon footprint at the same time—that’s a win-win in anyone’s book.

Suppliers and Demands

Complaints are not a common occurrence here at Venture. Though mistakes occasionally happen, I am of the opinion that it’s the measure of a company as to how the mistake is rectified, and so we bend over backwards to resolve any issue that arises.

Last week, one of our customers complained of poor customer service, which immediately triggered me as a Director getting involved. The complaint was centred around the fact that we had rescinded his credit account. After some initial investigation, it turns out that this particular customer had a very poor payment history with us, which at one point, after months of us being actively ignored by this customer, resulted in us (as a complete last resort) threatening court proceedings to recover an outstanding debt.

None of our numerous and varied attempts at contact looked unreasonable to me, and yet here was someone screaming ‘poor customer service’ because we had rescinded his credit account and ultimately his trade access, which is a matter of company policy following the threat of court action.

His argument was that his customer hadn’t paid him. My response was that you can’t make YOUR cash flow issues MY cash flow issues. He then said he couldn’t badger the customer for the money, as they were a really good customer of his. To which I had to disagree again. Customers who don’t pay their bills, you can get anywhere.

The whole sorry scenario caused me to think back to when I first started in large-format print, working from my spare room outsourcing banners and roller banners to a multi-million pound company in Leeds. I was putting through a reasonable volume of work to them, but I was always acutely aware that without them, I had no business whatsoever.

Understanding this, I always paid my account on the day it was due, even if I hadn’t been paid, and that meant using my own personal credit card. In fact, I distinctly remember in the early days a time when I duly cleared my supplier account and a couple of hours later my wife phoned from Asda saying our card had been declined at the checkout. Supplier: happy. Wife: not so much.

Eight years on, and my opinion hasn’t changed one iota. As a company we have evolved with several million pounds worth of kit ourselves and of course our suppliers have changed with that evolution but they are as much the lifeblood of the company as the customers, and are treated as such.

A good supplier should be treated like a good customer, because when you find someone who does exactly what they say they will do and provides a good service and a good product, they are worth their weight in gold.

Received in Good Condition (Except When it’s Not)

As a national supplier of large-format print to the print trade, the most effective way of getting our finished product to our customer or the end-user is using couriers. We’ve been sending out approximately five thousand separate items every month for the last six years, so we like to think we know a thing or two about couriers. I can confidently say that TNT, who we use, are among the best in the country for handling what is known in the industry as ‘ugly freight’ i.e. the large unwieldly packages we send out every day.

Of course, there are one or two ‘rogue’ depots that seem intent on smashing everything they touch but overall it’s a superb service.

Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often, but today was a prime example: we are emailed a picture of a Foamex board hanging out of its shredded (yet considerable) protective packaging with the accompanying content stating that it has turned up damaged.

Our immediate response was to apologise on behalf of the couriers and get a re-print into the system, asking if—more assuming that—the recipient had signed for the delivery as ‘damaged’ or ‘unchecked’. However, the ruined package wasn’t signed for as damaged. It wasn’t even signed for as unchecked. In fact, when we looked at the courier tracking system, it had actually been signed for as ‘received in good condition’!

Now we have a problem. Because the customer has signed for a clearly damaged package ‘as received in good condition’, they have absolved the courier from any further responsibility for that package. We can’t claim back the cost of a re-print from the couriers, which is normal practice when an item is damaged and signed for as damaged. We can’t even claim back the cost of the delivery as it could (and would by the courier) be argued that the board was damaged at the recipient’s premises after they signed for it (in good condition).

There is no question a re-print needs to be produced, but now it’s going to cost someone money. And not the people that damaged the board—they’ve got a get-out-of-jail-free signature.

So who pays for the re-print and subsequent delivery? Venture Banners? The courier is our subcontractor and therefore our responsibility. But the original board left here in perfect condition, well packaged.
The customer? It’s not their fault that the board has turned up looking more like a jigsaw because their receptionist signed the courier’s PDA whilst on the phone and without looking at the package.

Answers on a postcard please.

The Print Show 2017

Earls Court 2002, the London Boat Show. I found myself sipping champagne on the top deck of an 80ft boat (should it be called a yacht?) with a very nice man in chinos and a blazer who was showing me how the flybridge barbeque worked.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t have afforded even the tender to this leviathan (let alone the yacht itself), but that meeting cemented my, albeit slightly one-sided, relationship with Sunseeker.

And that, in a nutshell, is the point of shows in general and trade shows in particular; to put companies and prospective customers together, to put a face to the company and encourage business to be done.

Every year we go to Sign and Digital as visitors and it’s rare that we don’t get an idea for an additional revenue stream or find ourselves a super-efficient new supplier. We once bought the demo GS series on the VUTEk stand at FESPA and spent the rest of the day smiling as we walked past the machine sporting a sign that said ‘Sold to Venture’ on it.

We are very excited to be exhibiting at The Print Show in October, and I am hoping it will be a chance for us to meet some of our existing customers and perhaps attract some new ones. What I didn’t comprehend is the hard work it takes exhibiting at one of these shows. I have a new-found respect for the organisational skills of anyone who exhibits regularly at shows. The Print Show has taken our working lives. For the last few weeks, we have been organising our stand, designing branding, ordering flooring and sorting out electricity and Internet. Also working out who of our staff is going to be on the stand and what they are going to wear. Writing risk assessments and method statements… the list is endless!

I am sure, however, once the organisation is completed we are going to have a great show and it will be a blast, but better than that, just imagine what it could do for the business!… “Hello, is that Sunseeker?…”