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Thu, Jun

Alex White, MD, Blackman and White

What does 2017 and beyond hold for this UK-based finishing systems manufacturer and those investing in its kit? Lesley Simpson went to find out.

In 2017 Blackman and White expects to create a bigger network of overseas distributors to increase export, move to larger premises, and bring to market a specialised textile cutter that managing director Alex White says you could “liken to a hybrid printer” in that it will straddle graphics arts and industrial markets.

“You ask about the company’s development strategy and quite honestly it is difficult to look more than five years ahead because things are changing so rapidly. The next decade will bring so many changes that it will be similar to the Industrial Revolution. My key focus therefore is just to grow the business and keep it in the family,” adds White, who has been at the helm of the Essex-based company for the last decade. He is now one of three shareholders in the business together with its founders Les White - his dad and current chairman - and Jack Blackman, still a director of the firm that was formed in 1964. Back then the local sail making and maritime industry was the focus for its cutting tools. Now it’s graphic arts - which accounts for around half of its anticipated £3.5m turnover for the year ending this coming March - though the cutting systems it builds continue to be sold to the marine and leisure industries, as well as into the construction sector, and to the aerospace, automotive markets and indeed anywhere machines are required to cut composite materials. And then there’s textiles.

“Sail cloth is a material we’ve been dealing with for years, and the MasterCut Versa-Tech options in our portfolio are very capable of handling flexible materials,” says White, but admits that other developments are on the cards for what he expects to be a huge opportunity for the company.

“PSPs normally equate profitability with printer investment rather than with finishing, but that’s beginning to change and we are aware of an increasing number of medium sized digital print companies looking to get into textiles - perhaps sub-contracting out the work right now and at the stage of investigating the market and costs etc.

“We feel that textile finishing is now our real development focus going forward. It’s all about maximising efficiency and minimising floorspace required. We are developing a machine specifically for textile cutting and hope to have something to show by the end of 2017.”

He also hopes to be exporting more cutters in general by that time. White says around 50% of Blackman and White’s business is UK-based, hardly surprising given that it assembles all its kit at its Maldon, Essex, site - apart from those earmarked for the US. For that market it ships the gantry to its US-based partner MCT (which also manufactures the base of the Versa-Tech by the way), which handles the assembly there.

“As I say, around 50% of our business currently comes from the UK. If you’re looking at it by sector, then sales to the graphics arts sector is also about half of our turnover, and a growing part of our business as more and more come to us for flexible machines that can route, knife-cut, laser etc. So we’re happy that we will continue to serve what is clearly a good replacement market here at home. But in terms of the bigger picture, we know we can offer an attractive package to distributors in other parts of the world, and we’re actively recruiting those that can prove they can do a good job.”

It’s at this point that Brexit raises its head, with White - a staunch ‘remainer’ pre-vote - saying: “Brexit might not be the disaster we thought it would be.” He explains: “I wanted to remain because I felt it would give British companies a firmer footing for future development. We still don’t know what Brexit actually means, so UK companies are a bit unwilling to invest - and they’re not being encouraged to do so by the Government. What we’re seeing are businesses saving for a rainy day and with the attitude ‘be prepared for sales to decline until we at least know what’s going on’. There’s a ‘wait and see’ mentality. Here at Blackman and White we try to keep a healthy chain of UK component supplies so costs are kept level and we’re not panicking over the value of Sterling. And Brexit may end up being good for us in terms of export.”

At the time of this interview, Blackman and White had a distributor in Dubai looking after the Middle East region, and the company has others for bespoke machines in various sectors. But the hunt is on to extend its reach. “We wouldn’t supply a machine outside Europe without the proper support mechanism and we’re working on that,” says White. “We hope that in time for Fespa 2017 we will have reps for most geographical regions in terms of the graphics arts markets.”

Asked about developments to its finishing equipment offering for the print sector, particularly in terms of handling and workflow, White is clearly not one for robotics, believing “it looks good at shows, but the cost/capability/space equation just doesn’t work for the large-format print sector.” However, the company continues to look at further machine automation. White

points to developments like the Versa-Tech conveyor system introduced to the public at Fespa in 2014 and updated since, saying that “as the graphics market moves towards handling more rigids, systems like this will be demanded, but it has taken a while for the market to accept it.” And he admits that “inline finishing is a conversation we’re having.”

In terms of workflow Blackman and White has a “close relationship with many printer manufacturers but doesn’t want exclusivity with any of them,” and White says the company also works with software developers like Caldera etc.

“We are launching our own rebadged workflow program too that effectively replaces the Rip in that our solution will handle maximised layouts etc.” Called Versa-Tech Griffin it was introduced at SGIA 2016 and is available in the UK now too.

“Our vision is that we can supply finishing solutions with all the necessary software integration,” says White - who’s other vision is to keep the business in the family.

“For the last three or four years we’ve been growing at around 15% year on year and with around 30 staff we are struggling here in terms of space so by the end of 2017 we hope to be in a bigger space - but still local, as we don’t want to lose our skilled people. Being a family business with our own freehold premises allows us to be flexible. I have no thoughts about retiring or anything so succession planning is for now a non-conversation.”