Matching HK printers to the world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am

Until recently the overseas market for fast, short-run print jobs was considered impossible for Hong Kong printers to crack, owing to high shipping costs and other logistical problems. That appears to be changing with the arrival of Icicle, a local company filling a vacuum between buyers and low-cost printing services.

'We have special knowledge on how to allocate jobs, how to generate savings,' says Icicle's business development manager Bonnie Chan.

She says the firm can be described as a print-management company that matches orders to those best suited to deliver the job. While it may not sound like rocket science, matching the flow of jobs to the printers with the spare capacity at the right price - all with a 36-hour turnaround time - is harder than it appears.

Before Icicle was launched by Ms Chan's father Alex six years ago, no one had ever thought of the idea. An industry veteran with more than 30 years' experience, Mr Chan undertook the venture on a gut feeling that a mediator between the buyer and printer could benefit both parties.

By studying the efficiency issue, he saw that print jobs could be allocated to print houses with spare capacity to keep them running through the night.

Printers like the idea because it enables them to squeeze extra margins against equipment, rent and other fixed costs; buyers like it because prices are lower.

Quality is also said to improve because the job-allocation system ensures print orders leverage the technical expertise of the local industry. Under the old system, printers with long-term clients had little incentive to send orders to competitors who could do the job better.

As an analogy, Ms Chan says it is possible to think of Icicle as similar to the system airlines use for reservations. By matching bookings with spare seats over a computer reservation system, both consumers and airlines benefit.

'I think it is the knowledge that is generating the savings,' says Ms Chan, a master's graduate who studied arts at Oxford.

She says Icicle offers prices 15 to 18 per cent below the industry standard in Hong Kong, while United States orders (even including the cost of air freight) are up to 30 per cent cheaper.

The company works with 20 local printers. A small number of print jobs are also allocated to mainland printers, mainly large quantities where timely delivery is not a priority.

Short-run print orders are becoming more popular in the US and Britain as retailers target consumers with special promotions through coupons and display materials.

Icicle did well from launch, but the company moved into the international league three years ago when a Swedish company began using Icicle as the main printer for its global needs.

'They were very impressed by the way we modelled the whole company,' Ms Chan says.

After the Swedish company signed on, more multinationals followed - all content to use Hong Kong as the base for their global printing needs.

Icicle also provides a digital printing service through its in-house Kodak press.

Mr Chan continues to play an active role in the company, but he appears to be grooming his daughter for eventual succession.

The 28-year-old recently played the lead role in establishing the company's first overseas sales office through a joint venture based in Omaha, Nebraska.

Future plans include a sales office in Britain, to be followed by another in Japan.

'The focus of our business is now the international market,' she says. 'I want to revolutionise how people think about printers. They are professional people using our knowledge to save costs.'