“If the sun shines at the weekend, sales drop,” Christian Burkhardt, CEO of Swiss company Bubu AG, mentions more in passing. Say what? One of the largest Swiss bookbinding businesses is dependent on the weather?
Yes indeed, significantly more orders are received following a rainy Sunday than after a weekend of bright sunshine. That’s because on days like that people prefer to go hiking or skiing rather than spend their time on their photo collections.
The difference can be as much as 40%, says Christian Burkhardt. You can’t do much about the vagaries of nature. Of course, this refers to photobook orders and not to the traditional business operated by the bookbinding company based in Mönchaltorf in the Zurich Highlands. That’s because with Bookfactory and everything to do with photobooks Burkhardt is in the thick of the digital consumer business action, where he is at the mercy of both the weather and other seasonal fluctuations.
“Although we keep on trying to spread capacity utilization across the year as a whole by conducting promotions, the typical photobook business however only begins in October.” Photobooks, calendars, posters, murals, puzzles or photo mugs happen to be classic gift items. “You have to be aware of this. That’s because the consumer business has very little to do with our experience in the business-to-business sector. We need to acquire even more B2C know-how and concentrate more on online marketing and eCommerce,” Christian Burkhardt admits. “We are currently morphing from a bookbinding company into an eCommerce business.”
Transformation and generation change
It’s a familiar story – young man joins his parents’ business and turns the place upside down – you might think, because the younger generation is frequently believed to be capable of managing such transformation processes. The same applies to Bubu, if you just consider what has happened in the last few years.
However, Hans Burkhardt initiated the entire change process. As digital printing spread, the current President of the Bubu AG Board of Directors hit upon the topic of “books-on-demand” as a visionary objective. He had already implemented some initial but thoroughly major single-book production procedures in what was formerly known as Buchbinderei Burkhardt prior to the turn of the millennium.
More than two decades ago he had recognized that bookbinding in its traditional form was set to undergo massive changes. Burkhardt was already providing a digital service back in 2005 and he tasked a younger expert, Thomas Freitag, with handling general management, managing the technology and the operational side of the business. He subsequently transformed the bookbinding company’s business model in a series of logical and comprehensible stages.
Bubu itself therefore joined the print industry ranks in 2008, in order to speed up photobook production. And Christian Burkhardt has been on board as co-CEO with Thomas Freitag since 2014 with responsibility for IT, finance, marketing and strategy and is emphatically driving the ideas they’re coming up with at the 75+ y.o. company in its third generation of family ownership forward.
Nevertheless, the bookbinding company’s roots are still clearly discernable. Bubu continues to bind books and turns printed information into a product that appeals to all the senses. Bubu’s employees mentor a book’s production process from its source of inspiration in the impressive Bindorama, a space filled with more than 2000 creative book ideas, via specification through handcrafted, industrial or digital production – from print runs of 1 up to several thousand copies.
Bookbinder’s way of thinking as a foundation
Well, that’s not quite true. That’s because people who order photobooks are provided with less advice than classic book project clients – this is a consequence of how the business is structured. In 2004, i.e. even before top dog Cewe was on the scene, Bubu went online with photobook design software and its Bookfactory platform. In retrospect this was a more than ambitious move that involved plenty of improvisation, off-site printing and a finishing solution at the beta test stage. Even so, Bookfactory’s business now accounts for 40% of Bubu’s sales.
And in contrast to its competitors, which are mostly your classic photo service providers, Bookfactory has a “bookbinder’s way of thinking” in its DNA. The know-how involved in handling different types of paper and cover materials, and being able to process thick book blocks and non-standard formats using different methods, is working to Bubu’s advantage as it evolves as a business.
So, in addition to standardized photobook production using the “PDF-to-book” application, the option of producing highly customized one-offs in a fully automated process, including a PDF upload function, is also provided. This is utilized above all by professional designers – and includes personal advice if required.
That’s because if there’s one thing that Bubu good at, it’s producing fine books. Quite simply books that people like to pick up and which convey emotions. Here it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking handcrafted or industrially produced works of the bookbinding art or photobooks, which Bubu digitally prints and sells via its online platform.
Photo products for the discerning
However, as far as Bookfactory is concerned, Bubu is operating in a highly competitive market. That’s because just like with every online store, the next provider is only one click away. Apart from domestic competitors, several providers from abroad are vying to attract customers. In order to increase its recall factor and raise its profile among potential customers, Bubu expends six-figure amounts per annum on advertising activities.
And while the design of photobooks and calendars hardly changes, the functions that customers are provided with on the website are becoming more and more sophisticated. A not inconsiderable role is played here by algorithms, which for instance detect whether a photo is even suitable to be enlarged on account of its resolution.
Furthermore, Bubu makes more than enough background knowledge available. Information about photobook options, cover versions, formats and other configuration features is provided – by video too. The buyer therefore obtains a clear idea of available finishing options from the word go.
The variety on offer and the pricing structure already indicate that this is all about photo products for the discerning. Bookfactory offers photobooks in eight basic versions with saddle stitching, spiral or adhesive binding, lay-flat books with that particular opening action on premium-look, matt, non-coated paper, real photo papers (matt or glossy) as well as a wide range of premium finishes, such as leather versions or fabric covers with text embossing. Up to 300 pages are feasible, even in the large 400 x 294 mm format.
A single-book-print-run, 48-page haptic experience that has been configured to the max like this can indeed cost as much as 200 Francs. Although you might have to dig a bit deeper in your pocket if you commission Bookfactory to action your photo project, you will be getting premium Swiss quality in return. Bookfactory is therefore probably the only photobook provider that prints black-&-white photos in duplex reproduction form on two HP Indigos.
Books are objects of enjoyment
“We’re seldom if ever likely to be the cheapest photobook provider in the market – but that is not what we aspire to,” Christian Burkhardt explains. “Books are objects of enjoyment. If we get a print order, it will involve something of sustainable value. A photobook in particular is a pure form of self-fulfillment and highly emotional as well, because it is associated with very personal experiences. These deserve to be visualized in the most premium and not the cheapest form.”
Instead of fighting price wars, Bubu has therefore opted for a strategy, which concentrates on utilizing its very own strengths and underlying know-how. “As part of our deliberations we also realized that we did not need to develop a new online editor ourselves. Nowadays there are more or less turnkey solutions that can do more than we could ever achieve with a time-consuming self-developed product,” is how Burkhardt puts it in a nutshell.
Bubu has been relying on an external provider’s editor and store system for a year now. “That has allowed us to make substantial progress, because previously we were virtually flying blind in eCommerce terms – customers downloaded our software and then went offline,” he says. Bookfactory continues to offer that option, but designing a photobook is now feasible too using an online editor. It enables customer preferences to be identified immediately, possible actions to be extrapolated or enhancements to be performed.
Bookfactory – a model of the future
“These days our store and the system behind it are state-of-the-art,” Christian Burkhardt states. “On this basis we now want to transfer the Bubu portfolio to Bookfactory step-by-step and systematically. For example, we offer embossing or edge printing and will adopt other specialties.” This whole process is then intended to result in the “Family of Books”, which will enable Bookfactory to contrast markedly from standard photobook producers.
What might sound banal, does however have far-reaching consequences, as the entire company is to be modelled in one ERP system. Bubu and Bookfactory currently still operate two separate systems. “We are well positioned on the production side of things. What we need to do now is merge the business units, reduce administrative inputs, interface process sequences and integrate workflows,” is how Christian Burkhardt outlines the roadmap for the next few months.
The workflows are intended to trigger further production operations automatically, and this can literally be described as workflow management. Here too, Burkhardt doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but access an established solution, which creates an automated production facility from a range of subtasks along Print 4.0 lines. As a result of this integration work, Christian Burkhardt and Thomas Freitag also questioned what Bubu can learn from Bookfactory. The answer came as no surprise – all process steps in the company’s industrial bookbinding operations will inevitably be automated too.
“Print runs that are getting smaller and smaller as well as more and more customer-specific mean that we can and need to reach out to customers in a different way. While standard products can increasingly be handled online, there are no creativity limits when customers seek advice from us. But machinery resources have to be matched to these new print-run sizes and automated, without premium finishes suffering as a result,” Christian Burkhardt explains. Since the summer of 2018
Bubu has been operating a Müller-Martini finishing system, which is designed to be highly flexible and to produce print runs of 1 to 5000 copies cost-effectively, alongside its existing bookbinding lines.
Change management is called for
This is obviously the order of the day. That’s because Burkhardt has been observing a clear trend towards small print runs for some time now. Although the quantity of orders is increasing, volumes overall are declining. The situation was completely different a few decades ago, when the majority of orders were placed by publishers, who commissioned massive print runs of works of fiction. Nowadays this segment only accounts for a small percentage of total business volume.
Yet such market-driven changes seem to motivate Christian Burkhardt rather than cause him concern. He says with plenty of self-assurance: “Change management is what’s required. And we recognize what a smart move it was to enter the books-on-demand segment as an industry pioneer. That’s because production tasks at Bubu and Bookfactory are converging rapidly. There’s a fair amount of merging going on – and our experiences from this pioneer period are migrating to the technology we currently employ. That gives us a clear competitive advantage, and allows us to take a positive view of the future.”
You can digitalize information but not communication!
“Leading the way in the development of media products, haptic communication skills and integrated industrial, craft and digital production – this is how we have defined our activities,” Christian Burkhardt quotes from the company’s set objective. The headcount of just under 100 also has trust in this objective – irrespective of whether they work in Bubu’s craft, industrial or digital divisions. “Identification with our future strategy extends throughout the entire workforce.”
In any case, trust is an issue that’s gaining importance – in the minds of traditional book customers, of people who order photobooks and of employees as well. Honest, transparent communication is what trust is based on, says Christian Burkhardt and follows this up with a remarkable statement, which is worth thinking about: “You can digitalize information but not communication!”
My take: What you have been reading so far is the slightly abridged article from our print medium, “beyondprint unplugged 4”. But I believe it is important to publish it online as well. That’s because the example of the Swiss company Bubu AG highlights the potential that any company can unleash by entering the online print industry without abandoning its own roots – if the attitude is right. And if smart people manage to reconcile corporate transformation and generation change virtually at the same time, that deserves massive respect. Very much in line with the saying: where there’s a will, there’s a way.