Since July 2020, “diedruckerei.de” has been operating in Germany under the name “onlineprinters.de”. Whether this is more than just a marketing idea from two managers from outside the industry, Bernd Zipper was keen to find out for his podcast series, “Zippers Insights”. He spoke with two calm strategists, Roland Keppler, CEO of ONLINEPRINTERS and Christian Würst, Managing Director and Chief Commercial Officer (CCO). During the discussion they announced how they are managing their company in the pandemic and how they are making it fit for the future. Their opinions on how business could develop in Europe, for both small and large companies, are very interesting. The two have a very instructive concept, although or perhaps because they are not printers.
Bernd Zipper: We have already done an interview for Beyond Print unplugged. Now I would like to talk about the people and the ideas behind ONLINEPRINTERS. You two are not often in the public eye. Roland, what is the reason for that?
Roland Keppler: I have had just one good year in the printing industry. Basically, the public is familiar with me from my previous positions at the airline or car rental company. In that year, I first familiarized myself because I wanted to understand how everything works. How online print and the industry work. Then Corona came along to make things even more difficult. Everything you normally would do at events or during visits just didn’t happen.
Bernd Zipper: Christian has been with the company in 2017. You went from “1&1” via “Affilinet” to the printing industry.
Christian Würst: That’s right, I was with the United Internet Group for six years. “Affilinet” is part of the United Internet Group. There I was the CEO. Before that I was the sales director at “1&1 Telekommunikation” for hosting products and technical products. Similar to ONLINEPRINTERS, we successfully marketed a standardized product portfolio online across many countries.
Bernd Zipper: “1&1” has certainly made a name for itself and you were also involved with the tour operator “Thomas Cook”. And Roland, you come from “TUI Fly” and “Car2Go”. You have worked together in the travel industry.
Roland Keppler: At least we have a common industry past. I spent most of my professional life in the former Preussag Group, which became the TUI Group. I was in the airline business for a long time and, among other things, I helped build up and manage Hapag-Lloyd Express (HLX) as a low-cost carrier here in Germany. After that I was with Europcar for a long time, first in Germany, then in Paris.
Bernd Zipper: Exciting, on the one hand the experience with Mobility and on the other hand with “1&1”, which fits like a glove for ONLINEPRINTERS.
Roland Keppler: I am often asked, “How did you actually get to print? Basically, it’s always about where digital change takes place? Where are there, what are now called disruptive processes or disruptive structural approaches? In recent years, the way production processes are changing, and customer relationships are changing has been massive in the printing industry. There is already a common ground with other industries. In the airline sector, both Southwest in America and Ryanair here in Europe have completely turned the industry around. We were involved with “HLX” and suddenly we had a completely digital sales model without travel agencies. Likewise, a brutal digital change in the car rental industry. This has been happening in the printing industry for a while now. That fascinates me.
Bernd Zipper: In 2017 ONLINEPRINTERS was still in Neustadt. Now you are also in Fürth. You come from the colorful world of the Internet. Is that how you envisioned it in the printing industry?
Christian Würst: In essence, yes. I got to know the teams in the production offices during the onboarding process. The Neustadt site still exists. We now have our headquarters here in Fürth, where essentially sales, marketing, finance and the management spend a large part of their time. Nevertheless, Neustadt is still the nucleus of the company and our largest European production site. We spend time there in various configurations in coordination with production. But to get back to your question again: ONLINEPRINTERS is a company that has grown out of a classic print shop. That’s exactly how the company is still at its core today. A great deal of pride in competent, high-quality production is associated with this. Over the years, the whole thing has been expanded and very successfully transformed into a digital online print model by Walter Mayer. That means a high degree of automation and a high degree of internationalization. This is where we differentiate ourselves from our competitors in Germany. ONLINEPRINTERS invested early and consistently in internationalization. Today this generates dividends, with quite large, diversified sales across many countries. The move to Fürth has brought us forward in the online environment, where we are actively seeking competent personnel.
Bernd Zipper: Don’t get me wrong, but wouldn’t Munich have been better?
Roland Keppler: Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. Of course, Berlin, Hamburg and Munich are the three cities that stand for digitization. At the same time, we live on employees who come from this region and enjoy living here. The Nuremberg, Fürth, and Erlangen metropolitan region is large and comparable to others. We feel very comfortable here. We are a company that has evolved from medium-sized structures with an incredible amount of entrepreneurial spirit. We have many people who simply know what they are doing. The physical proximity to production is a great asset.
Bernd Zipper: You are on the road internationally. That means you both have to be in Denmark, England or Poland from time to time. You recently took over “Copysell” and “Sombracero” (both near Madrid) in Spain. How does that work in Corona times?
Roland Keppler: It is a challenge. Of course, a lot can be done via video first. England and Spain are a huge issue, especially when things are tight in Corona. Things would go faster if we could meet up sometime.
Christian Würst: With the Danish and English colleagues, we have the advantage that we invested a lot of time even before Corona. That’s what we lack in Spain. If you have already had the opportunity to experience each other personally and the more precisely the topics are defined, the more efficient it is to exchange information via video conferences. In the past, we have created good basic conditions for this in that the people involved understand each other well and that the topics were relatively clear.
Bernd Zipper: The strategy of you, Roland, is to continue in the direction of internationalization and broadening.
Roland Keppler: That is what makes ONLINEPRINTERS stand out. Founder Walter Meyer established the course to expand beyond Germany and Europe. We are continuing to expand upon this model. Our Danish colleagues at “LaserTryk” are now making a strong push into Sweden. We went into Spain because we simply saw that the Spanish market is ripe for online printing. In my opinion, the state of the online market in Spain is where it was in Germany or Central Europe probably five or ten years ago. This is an opportunity and in this respect we will continue to expand the topic of internationalization. We have a strong focus on the Benelux countries, France, Switzerland and Austria. Our home market Germany is one of the largest markets we have.
Bernd Zipper: ONLINEPRINTERS are not as strongly represented in social networks and you are rarely seen at events. “Flyeralarm” or “Cimpress” do it differently. Aren’t you losing something if you don’t participate in this type of activity?
Roland Keppler: Historically, we have focused very strongly on online marketing. Christian and his team have built this up very successfully in recent years. The market is so huge that these different sales approaches are simply justified. “Flyeralarm” has adopted a completely different strategy there. It’s impressive what they have done, but it is not our way now. A lot of things have now slowed down over Corona and are not quite as visible at the moment. We are investing in our sales force. We are investing very heavily in technology in various places. We already have a presence there and you can’t just focus on Germany.
Bernd Zipper: Are you finding synergies there?
Christian Würst: On the marketing and sales side in various places, we can successively develop synergies. That means using the same tools. On the online marketing side, there is a very close exchange between the teams. What are the right new customer acquisition strategies? What are the right bidding strategies in the pay-per-click area? There are many technical and content-related projects when it comes to search engine optimization, in order to get the search engine visibility of all web presences to the top accordingly. This works in many places independent of the brand. Offline and online communication is a core challenge. How many brands that have a perception beyond the core target group do we want to install across Europe? How strongly do we want to engage offline, be it printed, events or sports sponsoring? This contrasts with the activities in online sales. Which, as far as Google is concerned, tends to work late in the customer’s decision-making process. The pure search engine advertising business picks up customers at the point where they have already decided that they are deliberately looking for flyers or leaflets. Or perhaps at an earlier point in time, when one positions oneself on “YouTube” or in the “Display” network and tries to address the right target groups in the right content environments using a variety of strategies. We still have to optimize here. But as of today, I would say that the teams have grown well together. With every technical innovation, which we regulate uniformly throughout the Group, we are creating new opportunities to act better and more cohesively in our teamwork and marketing.
Roland Keppler: Making ONLINEPRINTERS into a proper group is one of the main tasks I have set for myself. At the moment, we are very closely intermeshing the production sites. “Copysell” is such a small example, but one of our plant managers has been working very closely on this from the very beginning and is basically introducing online printing there, right down to the IT systems and website that we now have in place there and run on our system. We have a very close exchange with Stettin. We form a competence center for large format printing there and have moved our production from Neustadt to it. Conversely, we are now investing heavily to strengthen web inkjet technology at the Neustadt site and produce for the Danes. This whole intermeshing is now really taking off. An incredible amount has happened in the last year.
Bernd Zipper: The topic of group formation is great. But of course, we always have the discussion in online print: How do you get the jobs through production, how does that work? When I hear that you guys are doing something technologically, I immediately think that you have set up a huge system where the jobs are fed in and at the push of a button it runs automatically in Denmark, England or anywhere else. What is your approach?
Roland Keppler: We start with the product. We make sure that the products are transferred in such a way that they can be produced. We are in the process of building long-term IT platforms that provide uniform definitions. We are doing this very pragmatically. We have outstanding experts in all areas who understand each other.
Bernd Zipper: Has a lot changed there now?
Roland Keppler: Corona is not simply a risk, but also an opportunity, it demands pragmatism and forces us to act.
Bernd Zipper: Corona, in the middle of March, there was suddenly a curfew.
Christian Würst: Everyone in the industry and we in the management team at ONLINEPRINTERS were surprised by the vehemence with which incoming orders fell. In the beginning we quickly realized that it was happening all over Europe and that it affected all products and all customer groups. After a few weeks it became clear that office products were less affected and that there were of course differences between countries. The attention from the management team was very quickly focused. As an organization and as a management team, we reacted very quickly, very decisively and very consistently.
Bernd Zipper: Bregal Unternehmerkapital GmbH is your investor, who surely sets targets. I know of onliners, where overnight there was an 80 percent drop in sales. The machines stopped and six dramatic weeks followed before things recovered somewhat. In some cases, there was already the question of whether the entire business model would break down. How do you explain that to an investor?
Roland Keppler: What is special about this crisis is that it basically affects the whole world. At Bregal, it was actually the case that they already had signals about their investments in China before they reached us in Europe or Germany. It was more a matter of pointing them out as quickly as possible: How do I react to this? What are we doing as an organization? How do we secure liquidity? How do we deal with the employees? How do we protect the health of our employees? These were the big issues to be addressed. We set up many platforms on which we maintained communication with managers, with employees, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily. The issue of the home office distinguishes this crisis from other crises. You cannot present yourself in front of the team in such a way that they see you and feel your energy. You are suddenly at home somewhere, trying to convey messages via video.
Bernd Zipper: Keeping the team together and taking away their fears, that is the job of managers.
Christian Würst: Acting decisively is one thing, communicating transparently and promptly is another. Roland spoke of the daily manager calls. When I, for my part, reflect on these, I have to say that they have put us in a position to make quick decisions, to take Corona security protocols live, to secure liquidity and to reduce unnecessary cost positions at short notice. These were the achievements in terms of content that resulted from this close and timely coordination. A second component is that the teams have grown together very strongly.
Bernd Zipper: Turbo digitization worked well in management, but what did it trigger in production?
Roland Keppler: At this point we have to say a huge thank you to the employees. Production very quickly adapted to the hygiene requirements and completely changed shift schedules. Within a few days, the incoming orders fell like a brick. Then it gradually rose again, always with a lot of uncertainty: what will the next week or the following week be like? So, the flexibility that the production areas in particular had to have was enormous. Nobody has ever before had to register for short-time work benefits with us. The marketing departments, which were suddenly on short-time work, had to completely reorganize themselves. The employees simply accepted the challenge and held together very well. Everyone stuck to their goal of getting through this crisis successfully.
Bernd Zipper: Did you have any Corona cases?
Roland Keppler: We had a case rather late. As a precaution, the two contacts were also given a leave of absence. But so far we have come through it well.
Bernd Zipper: There are production steps where you have to stand side by side. Hygiene concepts are increasingly difficult in production when working hand in hand. How did you master this topic?
Roland Keppler: Partly with masks. Always disinfecting again, always checking that the hygiene rules are observed. Also talking a lot to employees. I think that’s exactly where we are with the issue of personal responsibility. If I notice that I have a scratchy throat or these typical symptoms, I don’t say “It’ll be alright”, but rather report it.
Bernd Zipper: What are your expectations regarding the recovery of this sector in general and the print and online print industry in particular?
Roland Keppler: I think there are two trends. One is that we will have a very uncertain autumn and winter for the time being. The current news situation is not very encouraging. There are more unsettling signals and I believe that this will continue to accompany us. We have to see how the insolvency figures change when the old insolvency law comes into force again. At the moment, many people are living of of the fact that sales are still able to take place outside. However, this is now simply becoming less and less possible. In this respect, there is a lot of uncertainty in the market, which is falling back on us and changing our industry. The countertrend is that digitization is getting a new boost, as you can see from many key figures. Online printing will profit from this. Price will play a major role. We are simply able to offer online printing at a lower price than traditional print shops can. So there is a countermovement that speaks for us at the back end.
Bernd Zipper: This turbo digitization has another effect. People have gotten used to buying complex things via their mobile phones. Why don’t you have an app?
Christian Würst: The first and in my opinion much more decisive step is that the online presences of ONLINEPRINTERS works well on a small device. This does not necessarily have to be an app. It could be a responsive website. We have responsively redesigned the entire website. This is due not only to the fact that it is a turbo-digitization trend that customers want to interact on small and medium-sized end devices, but also due to a very tangible online marketing approach. The “Mobile First Indexing” of Google is a fact. That means we need a highly responsive website. That’s where we come in. We combine this with various modernization measures, which we consider useful and necessary for the users. The keywords here are an intuitive, better user guidance system that should make it easier to make the relatively complex decisions I have to make when ordering an online print product. The final aspect is to become more modern in terms of the overall look and feel and to create more advertising space on the website. Which we can control differently for user groups or individuals. So here’s the whole idea: The website doesn’t look the same for everyone, but it adapts to the user. Based on how they found their way to us via a certain path, we want to offer them more relevant products. In this way we want to improve the conversion rate.
Bernd Zipper: Google’s Mobile First Indexing has been around for quite some time. The last time I spoke about it was at the Online Print Symposium a year ago. It’s great that you’re doing something there. I am sure that the more easily accessible online print is, the greater the sales success.
Christian Würst: There are different phases in the interaction between our customers and our website and especially in the search and orientation phase. One would like to compare prices and see what grammages or portfolio restrictions does ONLINEPRINTERS have? In this phase we like to use the small mobile devices. Later on, when I’m uploading data, I may be sitting in front of my desktop, because there are simply many practical reasons for this. This last stage, ordering and uploading, works better on the desktop. Before this happens, the search takes place and you simply have to be able to competently navigate through the responsive website on a large cell phone or on a tablet.
Bernd Zipper: You have a very heterogeneous landscape of companies in the group. “Solopress”, for example, has specialized in producing very quickly. 24 hours, 48 hours. That is a great concept. Why doesn’t it exist for Nuremberg?
Christian Würst: What we need in the Nuremberg, Fürth, Erlangen region, we can offer nationwide with our logistics partners. This is not to say that lightning production, as we call it, is a small percentage. Blitz production is already an important production option at ONLINEPRINTERS and is chosen by many customers. Blitz-Production means that it is produced the same day and delivered the following day with the logistics partner.
Bernd Zipper: But Solopress delivers on the same day.
Christian Würst: They deliver on the same day, if the customer explicitly requests it.
Bernd Zipper: Sure, but someone has to pay for it.
Christian Würst: Exactly. So, in Germany we don’t see the same pressure on “Same Day Delivery” as we do in England. “Next Day Delivery” is something that our Continental European and German customers choose and pay the surcharges for. What we don’t notice as much in discussions with our customers is that there is a demand for even faster delivery.
Bernd Zipper: Maybe it’s worth talking to the customers you don’t have yet. If we look at the characteristics of the various onliners, one could say, for example “Wir Machen Druck” – they are the ones who are especially keen on price. Then we have “Flyeralarm”, who focus on branding and value perception. “Saxoprint” has been focusing more and more on price lately. ONLINEPRINTERS always has something so solid. Solid, but not really sexy. The products and the quality are good. I am talking about what I like. Don’t you have to become even more attractive for the customer?
Roland Keppler: The question is, why is solid not attractive? Our products are not only okay, they are really good, and we stand for quality. At the end of the day, the customer has a product in his hands in which everything has worked. Funnily enough, that’s perhaps a little bit my personal fate. I was with “Europcar” and competed with “Sixt”.
Bernd Zipper: They challenged you.
Roland Keppler: They challenged us a lot! But we challenged them as well when I changed the strategy with “Europcar”. That was a very fruitful coexistence and I appreciate the Sixt family very much. It was a very exciting competition, which we faced in Germany and Europe. Solid and approachable are qualities that have a higher value in this time of crisis than in other times.
Bernd Zipper: diedruckerei.de is now called ONLINEPRINTERS. Why now?
Roland Keppler: Christian and his team had been planning this for a long time. The crisis has prepared a good basis at this point. It’s better to avoid doing something like that under a full load, and we wanted to get out of the dark with new momentum. We are active in all European markets with the ONLINEPRINTERS brand, but not in Germany. To harmonize this made absolute sense and it was the right time.
Bernd Zipper: Are you doing sports marketing or something similar again?
Christian Würst: Currently we have various engagements in this area, with SPVGG GREUTHER FÜRTH we have a partnership for the current season, which of course unfortunately didn’t quite meet expectations in the Corona environment. Nevertheless, this is something that is locally important to us here and from a marketing point of view pays off well in terms of our positioning and can increase awareness accordingly. In addition, we have some small activities in the sponsoring area in Neustadt with the highly successful basketball players in the regional league. This is designed to show locally that we are part of the community, to donate in solidarity and to positively boost the company brand. Roland and I will certainly be discussing whether further sports sponsorship activities will follow. The opportunity costs must be weighed up.
Christian Würst: Es gilt immer zu bedenken: Wo erreiche ich meine Zielgruppe? Wir haben 90 Prozent Business-Kunden im Upload- und Print-Marktsegment. Im Sport-Sponsoring lassen sich über die Banden und die Werbung eher Endkunden ansprechen. Das sind die Diskussionen, die wir führen.
Bernd Zipper: Printers are also a big target group for you, aren’t they?
Christian Würst: We have many resellers. Many print shops that prefer to source some of the jobs they acquire from their customers rather than produce them themselves. It is precisely in the professional reseller segment, of which we include print shops, that the focus on quality brings its rewards. In the Key Account segment, we can engage in a competent dialog with our colleagues in the print shops that place orders.
Bernd Zipper: We do mystery shopping from time to time. Just to reassure you, you are always in the top third. The subject of quality is something you don’t have to worry about. The question for me now is: Online print is still a growing market, even if some people view it differently. I maintain this view because we are undergoing a huge transformation and every printer must now make a decision: Become a reseller and have a small in-house production or go online on a larger scale. Most people can’t do it because they don’t have the capital to invest in this direction. You can’t have a small online store and say “Hooray, I can produce 40 products now”, because “one-stop shopping” is becoming more and more important. What is your view on this? At the moment we have figures of 7.4 billion total sales in Germany, Austria, Switzerland before Corona. If you consider 18 billion as the total amount of print, that is already high, what is there in the online segment. Where do you think the industry will stand in five years?
Roland Keppler: The total print volume is shrinking. Despite everything, it is still a gigantic volume. The online component is growing and will continue to grow. The industry as a whole will consolidate because investments are made in technology and know-how. After all, it’s not just a question of having an IT system, the team must be able to handle it. It’s not enough that I have someone who can handle e-commerce or SEA in some way. He may be on vacation or sick. A team that has this capability is not so easy to form. Those who have started early simply have a head start. To that extent: I am very positive about the future of online printing. The market is so large that there will be a number of competitors who are well positioned in this market.
Christian Würst: “Offline to Online”, as it is often described, has a lot of potential and it will lead to the online segment increasing. We can draw new customer groups into the online market. We can make products more easily accessible to them. I think the innovative power of companies that are active in the online market is great. There must be suitable data standards that enable customers to describe products, that enable resellers to connect to the large online printers via interfaces. We have to make sure that amateurs can make decisions on the websites: What grammage do I need, what processing method? How can I recognize in the “Online Pre Flight”, after I have uploaded my data, if I have made a mistake? What will my print product look like? How does the online print shop interact with the customer if there are unanswered questions? How can I automate this? A second area is: How can I bring more products online that currently account for a small percentage of the total. To bring products that are still in offline printing today into the online sphere, so that these products become less expensive and still look exactly as good as those responsible in the company want them to look. The industry has achieved sustained double-digit growth through innovation, and the “Initiative Online Print” has played a major role in this. Every small and medium-sized print shop must make a decision for itself: What do I want to capitalize on? Do I have access to the financial resources to position myself as a full-range online print shop and invest in e-commerce? Or do I want to capitalize on the customer relationships I have built up over the years? How do I produce a part, maybe a smaller and smaller part myself and distribute a larger part? This is a great way to build excellent reseller business models.
Bernd Zipper: There are other ways to do this. Some rely on APIs and offer to use the full range of products. Others say: “We have white label stores; you can use them as printers. Are there any specific recommendations from you in that direction?
Christian Würst: On the interface side, we have been set up for years so that we can receive orders from the majority of our resellers via the interface into our system. We are constantly working on improving the interface. There are complex requirements. We do not yet have a classic white label offer. Counter question: Do you need your own white label offer? Or is it more important that I establish connectivity to the many systems that already exist today? This is what we are focusing on.
Bernd Zipper: I came to this conclusion because I recently made a podcast with André Hausmann from “Be Beyond”. He says that of ten inquiries, eight are not from print shops. What is in demand are print stores that are then to be connected to a third party. In other words, there seems to be a need here. Finally, the question: Where will ONLINEPRINTERS be in five years? What is your goal?
Roland Keppler: We will further expand our market position in Europe in the key markets. In many markets, such as Scandinavia, Spain and Switzerland, we are already very well underway. We will continue to expand in Germany. This can happen with acquisitions. The second major topic we have for the next five years is simply the further development of our technological platforms. We are investing very heavily in printing technology and in IT. In five years, we will see a different platform there.
Bernd Zipper: I find this statement to be quite nice, because every now and then I hear exactly this statement: “We are the market leader or world market leader or this or that”. Thank you very much for your time and for the very pleasant conversation about the future of the printing industry: “God bless art”!