The latest in our 'Spotlight on...' features focuses on Jeff Biggs, Managing Director of wide format printing solutions distributor Colourgen, which is due to celebrate its 25th anniversary in business this year.
The large format printing market is still relatively young, only really forming properly twenty or so years ago. In that time, there aren’t too many companies or even individuals that have endured all that it has been through and remained positive, popular and profitable. Colourgen and its founder and managing director, Jeff Biggs, certainly meet those criteria.
Unlike many in this industry, Jeff does not have a printing background. He was trained as an engineer and started his professional career as a computer operator and technician at the University of his home town in Liverpool and was part of a team that established the Computer Science department when computer science was first recognised as a pure subject.
He went from there to an IT provider, Cubix, where he designed and built multi user micro systems and telephone call logging systems for commercial businesses. The systems were also used by the Accor group to run the reservations and back office for small to medium sized hotels. Thanks to his engineering skills he was also called upon to provide specialist servicing of these units across Europe and northern Africa.
Jeff left Cubix to establish a specialised reseller under the wing of a distributor of Mitel telecom and call logging equipment. This meant dealing with the more technically difficult sales that other resellers and Mitel couldn’t handle directly. Jeff took this step because he strongly believed that voice and data would merge in the coming 5 years. He was mostly right - but it ended up taking a little longer than that and other opportunities soon arose.
The sudden shift of direction to large format printing came purely by chance. A secretary’s ex-husband’s next door neighbour who worked for Xeros Engineering Systems (XES), needed a PC supplied and supported to form part of a trial for a large format RIP from Colossal Graphics that would drive an XES electrostatic printer.
Jeff’s eye for potential when it comes to technology was caught by this solution and what the whole area of digital printing would require. Companies needed a lot of technical support around these products. This included programmer level support, which was required due to the issues with PostScript, specifically how applications generated the PostScript and fonts. Jeff already had software engineers employed so it was an easy transition for his new company to supply the font and file fixing support over a modem for the end clients who were generally working to very short deadlines. He obviously had to learn about colour, as well as educate XES engineers about colour and quality expectations. To this end, Colourgen retained a colour expert and consultant so it could offer colour consultancy services to end clients who were often very familiar with the chemistry of colour, but not necessarily process colour printing.
XES sold the solution initially with Colourgen’s support. However XES realised quite quickly that they needed to focus on selling their CAD and engineering systems. Solutions (Colourgen’s trading name at the time) was appointed resellers for the XES electrostatic printers and we went on to sell 70 plus systems throughout the UK. It is in Jeff’s nature to know the technology behind his businesses inside out so he established a print production company, Colossal Solutions with Graham Terris, in order to gain a better understanding of end user demands and requirements.
The XES based solutions initially supported by Colourgen were major investments of around £100k to £140k. Jeff could see that a lower cost solution would open up whole new areas of the market and so approached Encad, which allowed them to offer a more entry level £30k to £40k solution based on 36” inkjet printers. Once appointed as an Encad distributor, Colourgen went on to develop an aqueous dye inkset with Lyson, which was more suitable for the print for pay graphics market rather than the CAD drawings that the printers were actually designed for. This desire to work with other leading companies to develop a complete and compelling solution continued with further partnerships with the likes of Rexam Graphics (now Intelicoat), Seal and Epson and more recently Seiko and Mutoh.
This history also shows why Colourgen has such a strong approach to the service and support elements of a digital printing solution. Its focus is on providing a complete solution to the needs of both manufacturers and resellers and has developed as a result of first hand experience of how these relationships work and how they can be optimised. The channel, albeit in a different technology area, is where the company came from and this has been key to its long term success.
Colourgen has survived three recessions, each bringing its own set of difficulties that have been overcome. Jeff believes the current recession is showing small glimmers of a recovery that is very likely to be slow and tortuous. “There is still a lack of business confidence out there. Marketing budgets have been slashed and that means there is less demand for print. This filters all the way through the industry. We also have to accept that the funding from the banks isn’t there yet to support investment and any funding they can achieve is still relatively highly priced compared to base interest rates.”
He continues, “Sign shops looking to invest in hardware and ink technology need to take a very close look at their business requirements and invest in what best suits their needs based on the budget available. This is the main reason why we insist that end users have a proper demonstration because desk research often leads them in the wrong direction in terms of technology and what is best for them. People often come into our demo room
with a clear idea of what they thought they needed, but after discussing their requirements, walk away with something completely different and right for their business.”
Whatever has happened to the economy, the large format industry has enjoyed at least one reliable constant. Colourgen will soon be celebrating its Silver anniversary and there aren’t too many other companies in this sector that can say they are part of that particular club.