Narrow Web Europe

Belgian blues

By John Penhallow | January 24, 2014

Mark Twain’s advice for making money was “Buy shares, wait for them to go up, then sell. If they don’t go up, don’t buy them.” Fund managers with the Bencis Capital Partners might possibly be pondering that piece of homespun financial lore. In September 2013 this Belgium-based company completed the acquisition of a majority holding in Xeikon N.V., makers of digital narrow web presses. On November 15, Xeikon reported its sales for the third quarter of 2013 down by a rather disastrous 29% year-on-year. This dragged the January to September 2013 sales down by 9.3% to EUR 80.1 million. According to Xeikon management this fall has nothing to do with label press sales but is entirely due to its Prepress Solutions business.

The Linoprint digital press, marketed by Gallus
This optimism from Xeikon seems to be at least partly borne out by recent sales successes, particularly with its simpler, more affordable presses. Label converter LP2i is a case in point. In September 2013, this family-run business with just 12 employees and annual sales of less than $3 million invested in an entry-level Xeikon press and a GM laser finishing line. Visitors to the Côte d’Azur will find LP2i in a little picturesque village in the hills North of Nice, where on a clear day you can see the Alps on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. “We got into the label business almost by accident,” says owner-manager Patrice Néri “Our business was selling consumables for the IT industry, then one day we acquired a small label business. Today, labels are 95% of our sales.” With the French economy in a fairly poor state, and with uncertainty as to which taxes the government will increase next, investment in new machinery is down. The nervousness is not for want of attractive interest rates, but more often because French banks aren’t lending to anyone who is not A1 at Lloyds. LP2i must be that, or better, because they had the banks (almost) lining up outside their door. “Our sales grew by over 20% in 2012, and with the new press we aim to achieve that or better in 2014,” says Néri. “Many people have this idea that the Côte d’Azur is all about drinking pastis and playing pétanque, but I can assure you that our customers want fast, dependable delivery. They are into just-in-time and very small order quantities, and with our letterpress equipment, even with modern, in-house pre-press, we just couldn’t keep pace. The new Xeikon is an entry-level press but which can be easily upgraded as and when we need to.”

Thais in their cups
British press manufacturer Edale is back in the news with the sale of a narrow web flexo press to a Thai company making paper cups and packaging. The customer was finding too many production bottlenecks with its offset presses so opted for an eight-color Edale FL-5 adapted to print on thicknesses up to 600 micron containerboard, and supplied with a finishing line from Martin Automatic. According to Edale’s CEO James Boughton, this FL-5 Carton line was customized to suit the exact requirements of the customer and to combine in a single pass the multiple processes normally associated with folding carton production. “With this press,” says Boughton, “job change times and set up wastage are kept to a minimum and the converter can perform a full station color change in under 70 seconds.”

Edale has also been active in the Algerian market. Although this North African country has a big population and lots of oil, it suffers from one or two little problems that tend to deter exporters. A vast and inefficient state sector soaks up most of the country’s investment, while state-controlled banks and high import duties choke off the rest. Interviewed by your correspondent, a label converter near Algiers said it could take up to three months to get imported spare parts through customs. “Fortunately,”  he added with a shy smile, “We have ways of getting round that sort of problem.” Recently, the Algerian government has started encouraging banks to extend loans to small and medium industries which want to invest, and Edale has jumped on the bandwagon, successfully installing a second flexo press for Algiers-based Etiq Color. This is good news for a sector where nearly all the presses are second, third or even fourth hand. According to Bruno Vitali of GIC, Edale’s local agent, when the financing is provided by a local (state-controlled) bank, the import paperwork tends to get done faster as well. Edale is a British press manufacturer with French-speaking managers, and so has a unique advantage in this former French colony where old animosities die hard. As one nationalistic Algerian importer put it, “If you’re French, we won’t buy from you. If you’re not French, we won’t understand you.”

The three Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) are often lumped together, but their politics, culture and business could hardly be more different. Morocco, a more-or-less constitutional monarchy, is the most stable of the three by a long chalk, and has a relatively open economy. However that doesn’t stretch to being open to its neighbor: the Moroccan-Algerian border has been hermetically sealed for several decades following the Spanish Sahara rumpus way back in the 1970’s. Tunisia has had bad press lately with further outbreaks of violence, but the country has plenty of private industries of all sizes, as well as thirty or forty roll-to-roll label converters, many, like Alpha Etiquettes in Tunis and El Ouchma in Sfax, using modern flexo equipment.
Ticket sales for the Sochi Winter Olympics are heating up, despite the fact that several of the world’s Great and Good have announced that they will not be attending. The official ticket provider has announced that the tickets themselves will not be printed before mid-January, in order to discourage fraud, and they will certainly contain advanced security features. In addition to a valid ticket, fans will also be required to obtain a “Spectator Pass” issued by the Russian security authorities after a background check. All in all, even if it’s not a sellout, the event will be a bonanza for Russian security printers.

At a slightly lower level of security, and two thousand miles to the North, retail distributor Atak recently opened a 125,000 square foot logistics center to handle its growing retail business in the Moscow area. Atak is part of Auchan, the major international retail group. The logistics center was planned and built by ID Logistics, who also operate it, and will handle 22 million pallets per year, each one of them labeled – another modest bonanza for whoever gets the contract. CCL, with its big label converting plant just down the road, is said to be a top contender.

All the fun of the fair
Before low-cost airlines were even thought of, a UK-based company called easyFairs invented the low-cost trade show. These strictly no-frills events are starting to move gently up-market, and in February 2014 the National Exhibition Center in Birmingham, England will be the venue for a triple event: Labeling Innovations, Converting Innovations, and Print Innovations. The provisional exhibitor list includes many familiar names from the world of labels, including suppliers DuPont, Esko, Kurz and Herma, and label press manufacturers HP Indigo, Xeikon, Epson, Intec, Primera, Durst and FFEI. Also exhibiting will be some twenty label converters, mostly UK-based but also including Germany’s number one converter Rako and Poland’s Drukarnia Multipress. Not quite Labelexpo, but worth the visit for anyone interested in the UK label market.

Printing for profit
If there is one company worldwide which reflects the fortunes of the printing industry, that company is surely Heidelberg. Based in the German city of the same name, Heidelberg operates worldwide, manufacturing almost every conceivable type of printing equipment. In the label and packaging field its Speedmaster presses are leaders in sheet-to-sheet printing, it owns 30% of Gallus, and is lightly present in digital label printing thanks to its 2012 purchase of CSAT (now re-branded as Linoprint). Three years ago the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as the financial crisis and the digital revolution dealt body blows to its sales. Its competitor Manroland went out for the count and many analysts reckoned Heidelberg would follow suit. Today sees significantly improved profitability in its second quarter results (to end September 2013), despite a 15% drop y-o-y in quarterly sales (and the shedding of over 1000 jobs). The group’s new CEO Gerold Linzbach predicts a net overall profit for financial 2013-14. Not surprisingly, Heidelberg has made the label and packaging sector its number one priority, and is also actively working to catch up with competitors in digital print technology. In October 2013 it announced a wide-ranging cooperation with Fujifilm to develop inkjet printing. Says Linzbach: “With Fujifilm inkjet technology, Heidelberg will be expanding its digital business and further optimizing its portfolio. We’re looking to use this to offer our customers offset and digital print solutions for a wide range of applications. 
Time to buy their shares, and wait for them to go up? lnw
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