Not all online printers took a summer holiday. At least Onlineprinters in Neustadt an der Aisch, number 3 in Central European online printing, was very active indeed and has new owners. Bernd Zipper in an interview with CEO Michael Fries with a behind-the-scenes-look.
Bregal Unternehmerkapital, the holding company for the C&A family, had never acted as an investor in the field of printing before now. However, the diversification of the Bregal Group is interesting – numerous corporations in the field of technology are part of their portfolio. Now, Bregal has taken over the majority of the medium-sized online printing company. The sales price is unknown. Onlineprinters, which is in third place in the German ranking of online industry, is considered a “solid rock”. Business is good and the company is developing positively. And that is exactly why the reasons behind this takeover are of interest to me. Shortly after signing the purchase contract, which is still pending validation by the Anti-Monopoly Office, I was able to reach Michael Fries and he granted me a spontaneous question and answer session.
Bernd Zipper: The takeover by Bregal Unternehmerkapital from Munich came as a surprise to many. Why did TA back out of its partnership with Onlineprinters?
Michael Fries: As a shareholder, TA contributed a great deal to develop Onlineprinters further. In the past 3 years, we have established a new management team, expanded our in-house marketing competence, considerably advanced our IT processes, re-structured our production organisation and have tweaked many further parameters. Now we are well-prepared for the next leg of our journey. For an investor such as TA, there is always a question of whether they will take the next step themselves or whether they will pass the baton on to someone else. Because a competent new partner was found in Bregal, TA ultimately decided to sell off their shares.
Bernd Zipper: If one were to take a look at Bregal’s portfolio, it is clear that this is the first acquisition the company has made in the online printing market. What were the reasons for this investment?
Michael Fries: Bregal is looking for medium-sized success stories which still have considerable growth potential to offer. Bregal has a network with great expertise in the field of internationalisation, eCommerce and production organisation. With the way we run our online printing, we are a perfect match. I am happy that working with Bregal means that a shareholder which doesn’t have fixed investment periods because of its background as a family-owned company is getting on board and that we will be able to develop entrepreneurially over the long term.
Bernd Zipper: This means that Bregal has identified online printing very clearly as a growth area. What challenges was the Onlineprinters management team faced with during negotiations?
Michael Fries: We only had to explain our business and our market well. (laughs) During discussions like that, even the management learns quite a bit about its own business. Clever people arrive, look many things over and ask clever questions. Many questions are already familiar while others help develop one’s own ideas. During the discussions, Bregal very quickly concentrated on essential matters thereby setting a high standard for speed that day. That was challenging and fun.
Bernd Zipper: Bregal is the holding company for the C&A family and previous investments were primarily in fields outside of the printing industry. What do you expect from this commitment?
Michael Fries: Bregal has had no previous concrete experience in online printing. However, Bregal has been able to establish networks and competencies in other companies which will help us to develop as an eCommerce and production company. Printing is, after all, only a part of our competence. Internationalisation, marketing, UX, customer retention, IT, process organisation are all areas in which I expect contributions from Bregal which will promote us. And last but not least, we will continue to have a financially strong partner that opens up many options for us.
Bernd Zipper: This also means that you will be able to pursue investments with fresh capital. What line of approach are you looking to pursue?
Michael Fries: We are also capable of managing many steps forward without additional capital from external sources. But it is, of course, great that our shareholders are also at the ready if any interesting investment opportunities that we can’t shoulder alone should arise. This may become relevant in the coming years.
Bernd Zipper: Among partners, the chemistry also has to be just right and until now, cooperation with TA has been rather successful. Now one could simply interpret that TA has lost its interest in online printing and view its pullout as a sign. What do think?
Michael Fries: For a shareholder such as TA, it is normal to develop a company for a certain time and then invest capital elsewhere – and I believe I can safely say that TA’s investment in Onlineprinters was very successful. (laugh) We were also very satisfied with it and I am grateful to TA for its development of Onlineprinters in the past few years. We would have been happy to continue working with TA if an interesting next step had not revealed itself in the form of Bregal – a next step that makes more sense for all partners.
Bernd Zipper: Walter Meyer has been a significant shareholder for Onlineprinters. What will change in the shareholder structure and how will the company be set up now?
Michael Fries: As the founder of the company, Walter Meyer will remain an major shareholder of Onlineprinters and will continue to take an active part in the business. However, he will be changing positions from management to the advisory board. This means that the relationship that has existed between us for some time already will become somewhat formalised. As the CEO, I will concern myself with the development of the company and he will support the action we take with the great deal of experience he has gathered over 12 years of online printing and his 32 years in the printing industry.
Bernd Zipper: Now you are keeping the volume of transaction a secret. Why? Would you like to comment on this?
Michael Fries: No, I’m sorry, but I don’t want to comment on this. We have agreed to remain silent.
Bernd Zipper: Major players such as Cimpress have been using partner printers for production more and more and connect this over a network. In terms of production, you are rather strong. Will your course continue on expanding production or will you pursue the same strategy as other companies?
Michael Fries: One of our strengths is our own production and our origin as a medium-sized printing firm. This means we have a thorough understanding of our customers’ needs and can influence the quality of our products as well as the continual improvement of our product service in our own production. This principle has been successful. Why should we change it?
However, new products are joining the scope of online printing all the time – products that we could potentially add to our range. Then we certainly will not make everything ourselves. There are specialists for many similar fields whose production competence we could market in our shop and among our customer base. That way, everyone will get something out of it – and especially our customers.
Bernd Zipper: Could you summarise in two or three sentences what your prognosis for the original online printing market (that is, excluding photo products) will be over the next years? Many are saying that the market is saturated…
Michael Fries: The market still has plenty of potential for growth. Only a small number of customers use the advantages of online printing today. This growth will continue in Germany and even more so abroad where the markets are still in early stages. Even online printers like us contribute to expand market growth with integration of new alternatives and product groups which customers would like to be able to order online but are not yet able to. For example, we recently added brochures, stickers on rolls and admission tickets with the option of flash printing – ordering with same-day printing – to our range and will add three-month wall calendars soon as well.
Bernd Zipper: It would be possible to fuel the current price wars with “fresh capital”. What strategy will you be following for the end-of-year rush?
Michael Fries: I believe everyone on the market has enough potential for growth without slashing prices.
Bernd Zipper: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you on this topic on such short notice. Would it be possible to hear your own personal assessment? Do you feel comfortable with these new circumstances?
Michael Fries: I look forward to further cooperation with Bregal, Walter Meyer and our Onlineprinters team. As one of the leading European providers, we have a lot of opportunities and a wonderful playing field in this nicely growing market that will ensure we remain successful and continue to grow.
My take: Bregal has already proved they have a good nose and has made a good purchase with Onlineprinters. And more: Bregal has sent a clear signal that even investors from outside the industry are beginning to recognise the development potential of online printing and react accordingly. This field requires more courageous investors that believe in the power of print and will advance the “communications infrastructure of printing”. There is still a great deal to do because nothing could be further from the truth than market saturation.