The Flyerline success story is more than unorthodox. And now, founder and CEO Steffen Tomasi has sold the company – but the story doesn’t end here. In collaboration with Druckmarkt, we decided to find out more from Steffen Tomasi in a personal interview.
The fact is that Steffen Tomasi has sold Flyerline Schweiz AG to Elco AG, a family-run business with 100 years of history. A surprising move at first glance and not at all the kind of scenario we have been seeing in the market for eBusiness print for some time now. What we are talking about here is consolidation and that all the online printers are buying each other out to create the largest possible pool for their print media. The sale of Flyerline shows that these forecasts will not necessarily come to pass. And Steffen Tomasi is not one to interpret any sort of strategies into the deal. “I sold the business. That’s it,” says Tomasi. After all, that is an everyday occurrence in business.
“You have to look at the whole thing as part of scenarios,” he adds, putting a stop to imagined scenarios. “I always knew I was going to sell it at some point – it’s all about exit strategies. My son is too young to take over and it would be too risky to hang on to the business for years.” He wasn’t under any pressure, he really didn’t have to sell. Steffen Tomasi had numerous meetings with prospective buyers over recent months but none of their expectations offered the right perspectives for him. After all: he had a responsibility for the just under 70 employees of Flyerline.
“Some of them wanted to buy Flyerline – specifically the brand, the customer base and the turnover – but would have closed the production facility in Switzerland. That wasn’t good enough for me,” explains Tomasi. Then Elco got in touch and he agreed to a deal with the Swiss-based company. “Elco and the Swiss Wipf Group standing behind them are also known for sustainability in the dealings with their group companies. I no longer have to worry about Flyerline being exploited, cut up and my people being made redundant.”
Others simply take the money and run – without a thought about what will happen next. But not Steffen Tomasi – he will be sticking around. “One of the reasons why I decided to sell was that I want to set the course for the coming years and ensure continued growth for Flyerline Schweiz AG. That was and still is very important to me,” Tomasi explains.
“I will therefore continue as CEO and managing director at Flyerline and the company will remain at its Altnau location under the same management and with the same team,” he continues. With obvious pride he adds: “Although I have sold the company, I can still look every one of my employees straight in the eyes without shame.”
In other words: everything basically remains the same and continues as before.
How did it all begin?
The idea for Flyerline was born in 1995. Tomasi did not start the company as an online-printer with the objective to completely redefine the market – no, his goal was cost optimisation. Tomasi was involved in the music industry back then, where he was – among other topics – responsible for print material purchasing for big name labels. He was looking for ways to reduce costs, because even then the music business was in deep trouble.
“I didn’t know the first thing about printing,” remembers Tomasi. During a visit to the print shop he was working with, he found out that all of his orders were collected and printed together – but he was being charged for individual orders. “That’s the way it was done. And the printer earned quite well that way,” he continued. He then decided to have his orders produced as collective prints instead. At conditions he dictated. The idea quickly made the rounds in the industry and the whole thing soon grew into a purchasing group with one common objective: Lower print costs.
From a sales agency …
In 2002, the idea developed into Flyerline Schweiz AG in Kreuzlingen and the story of success began. Flyerline started with offering low-cost flyer, postcard, business card and poster prints. Just one year later, Tomasi had to find a new location to accommodate company growth and company headquarters moved to Altnau on Lake Constance, where Flyerline remained to this day.
An important detail of this success story: Flyerline was purely a sales agency without any own production and only a handful of products. “The problem was that I couldn’t find a printer in Switzerland at the time, who was willing to work with us,” explains Tomasi looking back. Cooperation or partnership was a pipe dream. He continued to work with “his printer” in Germany instead, until one or two Swiss-based printers finally recognised the potential of the business model and began working with him.
… to a print shop
What began as a modest print media trader, now started to grow with an ever increasing product range and clever marketing campaigns. Even more so, because Steffen Tomasi decided to go for individual print orders quite early and added various print products for external marketing to the range. When orders began to increase exponentially – specifically for posters – the cooperating print shops were quickly out of their depth in terms of timing.
Flyerline officially left the realm of pure sales in 2008 with the purchase of their first Océ large format printer for the production of billboards. Steffen Tomasi in no way went blind into developing his own production. “The first thing we did was to develop our own pre-press; we then printed on additional large format printers and in 2010 our first high-end digital printing machine for postcards, flyers and small print runs of mounting instructions was installed, as second one soon followed. The take-over of Schaub & Rüedi Druck AG in Berne brought us into the sector for offset production and we initially installed a four-colour Speedmaster CX-102 with coating and in Altnau in 2014 and shortly after an SM 52-4.”
In 2009, Flyerline started the development and production of packaging and POS materials and became the official and certified supplier of Audi and Volkswagen in Germany for the development, packaging and production of mounting instructions.
The first restricted access web portals for key customers and other web to print services for B2B customers were created. In addition to the development of patented framework systems for poster advertisement, a number of other innovative ideas were implemented for print media, packaging, furniture, trade fair stands and POS articles on a variety of substrates.
More than just an online print shop
Today, Flyerline has around 140,000 active customers in Switzerland, who are well aware that the company is more than just another online print shop. “We grew alongside the wishes and requirements of our clients and are able to fulfil some quite extraordinary orders in addition to our standard product range. Today we are developer, service provider and producer – all rolled into one,” explains Tomasi. The new possibilities of digital printing have opened an entire new universe of creativity, business areas and products for Flyerline. “We don’t limit our thinking. And it doesn’t matter if we are talking about print media, trade fair stand construction, displays, packaging, furniture, web to print solutions, campaigning, app solutions or the entire fulfilment process end to end. We think outside the box – but always methodically from start to finish”, says Tomasi, who allows his teams – including his in-house graphic design department – the kind of creative freedom that is needed for ground breaking new ideas.
“Our product spectrum is broad, but clearly defined. These are all solutions that are based on standard offerings. That is how we can turn around our services quickly, with top quality and reasonable prices.” This is where Tomasi sees Flyerline’s unique selling proposition in comparison with traditional print shops, who basically want to be able to do it all. Anyone offering too many products, formats, paper or finishing options will not be able to optimise their workflows as well as Flyerline has managed to do. And while ever faster machines create ever more capacity in the market and everyone is complaining about decreasing profit margins due to the shrinking overall volume, Steffen Tomasi is still looking at steady growth. He sees Flyerline as being far ahead of the competition in Switzerland, when it comes to the marketing of print media. “We did online marketing when most print shops didn’t even have a website yet,” says Tomasi. And he obviously recognised the importance of the internet in the procurement market long before the rest of the sector caught on.
In comparison with the large German online print shops, which also want to have a piece of the Swiss cake, Flyerline is a dwarf – or rather a lightning-fast, cheeky little rat, which has remained part of the market landscape and has become the recognisable emblem for Flyerline. “Well, the thing with the rat just kind of happened,” says Tomasi in an aside.
He explains that especially in comparison with some of the big players, the differences become apparent. “We are an online print shop with a consulting culture. Every print order we receive is checked for data quality at the time of receipt and if there is a problem with the date, we inform the customer. The big online print shops don’t do that. Order receipt and confirmation, payment, data upload – that’s it. These companies can’t look at the individual requirements of their customers, because they are simply not equipped for that. Each phone call, every data manipulation, every correction would turn each individual print order into a financial loss.”
“Flyerline proves that things can be done differently and despite all the doom and gloom forecasts continues to commit fully to growth in the online print segment based on their highly unorthodox and successful profile.” – Bernd Zipper
The subtle difference
One other thing sets Flyerline apart from all the other print shops and online print providers. “We get 60 percent of our orders online, the other 40 percent via direct client contact – just like traditional print shops. What sets us apart, however, is our highly developed service concept.” According to Steffen Tomasi, clients will in future no longer just want their print media at a good price, in the desired quality and at the right time. Virtually anyone can do that today. “That is why we are expanding Flyerline exactly where it is interesting and meaningful for our clients,” says Tomasi. After all, the most interesting part of the business is B2B. “Because we can develop a customised solution for our clients based on their input. This part of the business is becoming increasingly important for us.”
For Steffen Tomasi it makes absolutely no difference if something is printed digitally or using offset. The only question that concerns him is what he can produce in-house and what he has to buy in. “We are looking for the right production solution to match the requested volume. This is the philosophy that sets us apart from other print shops that focus mostly on utilising their own production capacity as much as possible.”
Anything Flyerline can’t do in-house is bought in. “Nobody can produce everything anymore today,” says Tomasi. That is why he thinks it perfectly normal that between 150 and 200 Swiss print shops are purchasing their large format products from Flyerline. Especially because Flyerline has quite an attractive offering of extraordinary solutions.
Upcycling: Thinking things through
The commitment with which the Flyerline teams think things through is demonstrated on the all-weather lightweight poster. The 3 mm PVC hollow-chamber sheeting is highly robust despite its low intrinsic weight, is digitally printed using UV inks and offers an attractive alternative to traditional poster material. Firstly because of the innovative replacement frame system by Flyerline and secondly because of the sophisticated concept, which gives the posters another lifeline after their initial use: They are processed to become furniture for indoor and outdoor use.
“We call that upcycling: We guarantee clients, who order our all-weather lightweight posters that we will take back the used posters when they are no longer needed,” explains Steffen Tomasi. “They are the raw material for our SlabUp furniture. Many of our clients take advantage of this concept for their marketing activities and then offer the designer furniture pieces made from the campaign posters to friends or business partners or put them up in raffles or auctions.
Another example is the growing demand for custom prints on furniture made of Re-Board, with which new customer segments were explored. Re-Board is a lightweight sandwich cardboard with exceptional rigidity, which makes it a suitable material for shop interiors, trade fair stands and furniture construction.
Anyone looking for a low-cost, customisable and reusable trade fair stand concept will find nine modular standard models at Flyerline, which can be matched with Re-Board furniture and offer a sensational price-performance ratio plus super easy handling during construction and deconstruction. The Re-Board materials can be disposed of with paper waste. “Our SlabUp furniture is a clever and eco-friendly option for getting rid of used posters,” remarks Tomasi. “And it aligns with our philosophy: Our main concern is to fulfil the communication needs of our customers, not their print needs.”
Understanding for a changing market
“Our business has grown with the internet and with digitalisation. But I don’t share the omnipresent doom and gloom attitude regarding the future of print and print media. There will always be a sufficient market volume. And especially if you think beyond paper and cardboard. One thing, however, that has changed completely is the manner in which this print volume can be tapped,” elaborates Tomasi from experience. “I recognised the possibilities of the internet and how to produce print media more cost effectively very early. To this day, the engine that grows our business is the internet. But the true basis of our success is understanding the changed market,” Tomasi goes on. “A print shop can today no longer be just a trade workshop. It must understand its role as a proactive service provider as well. I believe that many print shops have still not understood this change.”
After all, the internet has not just changed the print sector. Banks, insurance companies and the entire retail sector is undergoing radical changes. The customer expectation of “right now” was brought about by the internet and customers are a lot more savvy and professional today than ten years ago, meaning they know exactly what they want. Anyone can buy virtually anything via the internet. “The selling component has long since taken a back seat in business,” muses Tomasi. “It is all about recognising needs and offering tailor-made solutions today.”
And sometimes about creating needs. “We are always on the lookout for new solutions. You can’t always just react to market needs. You have to try to sell services and products your clients didn’t even know they would want or need. Let’s take for example packaging in small print runs. Nobody used to ask for that, because it wasn’t an option. Now that we are offering it, demand is growing rapidly.”
Talking about the bottom line
Tomasi sees only marginal growth for the future of standard print media. “That market is for the most part saturated and will only marginally grow in future; the erstwhile steep curve has definitely reached its plateau. We can clearly see that trend in the big name European print shops. Some can only grow with further acquisitions, others by diversifying into markets like merchandise and such.” He sees a much greater potential in custom print materials – meaning specifically the large format applications like displays, POS material or trade fair stands – definitely not in personalised print media.
That can be a quite positive signal for the traditional print shops as well. “There will always be print shops. Printing as a learned trade, however, will disappear into a niche sector with some exceptions, I fear. I don’t believe that the big online print shops will completely take over the market either, especially because they can only offer standard products. Customers, however, are increasingly looking for custom solutions. This trend will open up plenty of exciting perspectives in our industry!”
Even for Printed in Switzerland? “Yes, of course. Swiss print shops can definitely be competitive enough to sell into Europe,” says Steffen Tomasi. “Everybody should stop whining. The main complaint of the much higher personnel costs in comparison with Germany simply isn’t true. I really do know what I am talking about.”
Of course there are price differences with regards to print media. The battle for prices abates as soon as the products or services offered are dissimilar to those offered everywhere else. According to Tomasi that means that print shops have to step off the trodden path, develop new ideas and take risks. It is a strategy he has always fared well with and it has paid out. “In the end I am a businessman and my main concern is the bottom line in any deal.”