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Going green to stay ahead

SINGAPORE — While coping with change brought about by new technology is one of the constants of the business world, those plying their trade in the printing industry in recent years face it more often than most.

Eric Boo, CEO of Colourscan. Photo: Don Wong

Eric Boo, CEO of Colourscan. Photo: Don Wong

SINGAPORE — While coping with change brought about by new technology is one of the constants of the business world, those plying their trade in the printing industry in recent years face it more often than most.

The story of Colourscan, a local firm that started in 1997 as a colour separation house, is typical of the constant search to diversify, expand and reinvent a business model that printers undergo to keep their businesses afloat.

Those like Colourscan that bite the bullet early at the first hint of irrelevance often live to fight on another day in a newer, more lucrative battlefield. Those that fail to do so fall by the wayside, laid low by the indiscriminate march of technology.

“We started off in colour separation and colour management. In our prime, we were Asia’s largest service provider. But along the way, it became a sunset industry, so we diversified into printing and invested heavily in presses and binding equipment,” said Mr Eric Boo (picture), 40, the company’s Chief Operating Officer. The firm currently has 180 employees and five printing presses.

The business blossomed, and the firm established itself as a specialist in printing publications and marketing collaterals — including brochures, catalogues and mailers — for international publishers and advertising agencies.

But as digital media asserted its dominance over the print product, the company was forced once again to find a way to differentiate itself in a shrinking market with too many players. That was when Colourscan’s management decided to embark on a strategy that would focus on providing eco-friendly services, even at the cost of hurting its bottom line.

“Going green is a very expensive process; the demand is not as well-received compared with other countries,” explained Mr Boo. The firm has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which means that it sources its paper in an environmentally-friendly manner. Apart from using FSC-certified paper, it also uses more environmentally-friendly soya-based ink.

It was an expensive strategy and, on paper, potentially foolhardy. At 50 cents to 60 cents a piece, the cost of recycled paper was more than double the usual variety. Many clients baulked at paying the higher prices, and some who agreed initially pulled out at the eleventh hour. To these customers, they were paying more for a product that looked no different. “In terms of print results, the layman can’t tell the difference between soya-based ink and normal ink,” he explained.

Yet, with more customers worldwide demanding sustainable solutions from suppliers, Colourscan felt compelled to evolve even before the trend had taken hold in its home market.

Not that it is waiting to see if it all pans out in the end. Already, it has diversified its business in a new direction to go beyond advertising agencies and deal directly with end-users of its product. What is more, it has started to offer design services for print and digital publications, a logical extension of its current business that cuts out the margin-eating middleman.

“It’s difficult to stay on as a printer. We moved out of colour separation and now we are looking to become more of a marketing services company. Printing is one of the core businesses we provide, but we are expanding into related areas such as graphic design and e-publications,” said Mr Boo.

The move has allowed it to access a much bigger universe of clients — from marketing materials for telecommunications companies and hotels to annual reports for listed companies. In 2010, it snared a big project when it did a Formula One promotion that featured a mailer with movable elements, including a race car.

While there will undoubtedly be more challenges ahead for printers such as Colourscan, what is equally certain is that they will continue to seek new streams of revenue that will continue to fuel the growth of the business.

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