Perton Signs in Acton, London, is 150 years old this summer, and has been in the same family for all that time.
The company, which now has a staff of 25 and a turnover of around £2.8m, produces and installs event graphics and signage. The current MD is Mark Perton, great great grandson of the founder William Perton.
I met him to ask about the firm’s longevity and his plans for moving it forward.
By Lesley SImpson
Your business is called Perton Signs. At a time when many print providers are trying to rebrand themselves as ‘solutions providers’ would you still describe the business as a ‘sign maker’?
I suppose I’m not keen on contemporary terms. What does ‘solutions provider’ mean to somebody who wants a large banner or large sign? A sign maker is what we are and it’s what we’ve been doing for 150 years. Much of our business today is making signs – approximately 82% of our turnover is the actual production. Methods have changed over the years, some dramatically since the days of brushes and paint pots. When we first started we were sign writers and guilders, and during my time we’ve seen that the introduction of computer aided graphic machines have changed the way things are produced. Our default when it came to large-format was sign writing – so for large posters, banners for the exterior of Earls Court, Olympia etc. I suppose we could have always called ourselves a ‘solutions provider’ – it goes with the job. A recent request was for an entrance feature to an exhibition at the NEC – it was a conversation over the phone, and she needed “something 9m x 4m high, double sided, an odd shape, oh and you only have an afternoon to install it!Can you come up with something?” So of course an hour later we’ve come up with an idea that will meet the budget - a timber frame covered in printed vinyl - we made it and put it up and provided the ‘solution’ to her problem.
Your company has served the exhibitions industry for generations. At a time when many printers are diversifying into niche markets, do you think this will remain your key focus?
Yes. Exhibitions and events represent 70% of our business so we will continue to focus on that. Could the exhibition and events industry be described as a niche or vertical market? The rest of our business could be described as horizontal business, where we provide a broad range of services to a large group of customers with wide-ranging requirements. Actually, all the work we do has similarities in that any job has similar problems.
As a boy I’d be asked what my father did as a living and I’d say he was an exhibitionist!Most people at that time thought of exhibitions as public events – Ideal Home exhibition etc. Last year we were directly involved with 132 events throughout Europe. A lot we have been involved with for many, many years. But, what we have seen recently is a lot of spin-off from TV shows – Top Gear, Grand Designs, Good Food Show etc. – and this has represented quite considerable growth for us over the last few years and I think will continue to do so.
I understand that about 75% of your turnover is now largeformat print related. What about wide-format profit?
It’s tricky to pull out that figure from the accounts. Our actual sign production is 82% of turnover. Of that, 74% is production from our large-format machines, of which we have two. OK, they are expensive, but the increased productivity, the need for only one operator for each, allows for a higher gross profit margin, even with the maintenance contracts we have. It’s only right, that with a high capital outlay, there should be a healthy return. When one is considering investment of £300,000 plus, you need to be confident it will pay. The two Vutek wide-format machines we have contribute a substantial amount of the company’s gross profit.
They need the right mix of work though. We do not operate as a bureau, but that’s an area where we’re looking to expand and grow sales because we now have the capacity for that. Alternatively, we could look at acquisition. We only have 12,000 sq ft here and I’m conscious of space limitations.
Do you think large-format will grow as a ratio of your business?
Since the introduction of large-format in our business some 13 years ago, we’ve seen a steady increase in demand and we expect that to continue. Clients have been educated in what’s achievable – long gone are the days when you’d carry swatches of PVC and self adhesive vinyls around to people. Everything is full-colour now, and with no real increase in cost I suppose. Previous methods were intensive and the advent of digital inkjet machines have added-value. I suppose the ratio of large-format versus small-format print will increase. The kit coming onto the market is quicker, more affordable, and can open new markets – soft printing (textiles) for instance. There’s machinery that we will look into there. Obviously, with our broad mix of exhibition products we have to keep abreast of developments across them all. For the Spring Fair for instance, we do all the banners, pop-up, small displays, the door cards so we’ll have to replace small-format kit too.
What wide-format kit do you have, and is there anything you would dearly like to have?
We have an EFI Vutek QS2000, used primarily for sheet-fed material; and an EFI Vutek GS3250r which we’ve had for just a year, replacing an Ultraview 3300 that we’d had for about 12 years and was a real workhorse. The increased speed and quality is amazing and it’s taken the pressure off the QS which we had used occasionally for roll-to-roll because the quality was better on that than on the other machine we had. But now the quality is the same across both. In the studio we have a Roland Soljet Pro, an Oce ColorWave, Roland VersaCamm printer/cutter, HP DesignJet 5500 plus various plotters, a 3m panel saw, mounting machines, CNC router etc. In fact the latter has opened up a new revenue stream, because we can offer work we couldn’t previously have done. That is another growth area that we’re looking into. I’m no longer fazed at the thought of buying new kit if it improves quality, speed, output and adds another string to our bow. I remember taking delivery of our first electrostatic machine many years ago – it cost more than my house and we planned to pay it back in three years!That was really the start of realising that to make good profit you have to invest. We try to keep up to date and my production manager is always on the internet and reading magazines and saying “Have you seen this?”. I’ve just bought a Vutek GS and I’m not wanting to replace that anytime soon, but of course processes change and soft signage is certainly something we’re looking into – whether it be dye-sub or transfer… I think there will be a market for such output, I’m just concerned about where it’s going to go.
As the industry changes shape is it becoming more difficult to remain an independent family business?
Let’s say it would be easy to sell-up!We’ve been approached in the past, but I firmly believe there is still a place for independent family businesses of small and medium size where the name on the door is still that of an actual person and where the service provided is perhaps more personal than that of a large, multi-faceted operation. As technology moves on, we try to keep up with it, and we don’t have the baggage of larger firms where they would have to do forecasts and profit projections to please the bean counters as to whether a piece of kit would be viable. We’re able to move much more quickly, dare I say, sometimes on a gut feeling. Explain that to an accountant!
How many family members now involved – and how big an issue is succession planning?
I have my sister, now my son, and occasionally my niece. In fact Perton Signs has been a stepping stone for many family members over the years. Succession planning is an issue, but not I hope, an insurmountable one. I inherited the business when my father died. I was 24, having started in the business when I was 16. I have this notion in my head that I am just the custodian of Perton Signs, and that’s not to say I’m anywhere near retirement, but it will be up to the next generation to take the company forward. I’m hoping my son will be able to in time, but who knows? I only have the one child and often wonder whether it would have been easier, or harder, to plan for the future if I’d had a dozen children.
What message would you send to other family owned print businesses?
To trust your instinct. I have done so on may occasions and it’s worked out. To be honest and fair to clients and staff. And not to grow too quickly. It’s taken us 150 years to get to £2.8m turnover. We have recently done work for John Lewis which is also celebrating its 150th this year and I dare say its turnover is a little larger than ours!But don’t be greedy – there’s plenty of work out there for all of us.
To view the video people watch here: http://www.imagereportsmag.co.uk/videos/238-talking-point/5136-ir-talks-to-mark-perton