Fifty Years on and Printers' Ink Still Courses through His Veins; Alistair Houghton Meets BOB McWILLIAMS, Owner of LT Print

Article excerpt

Byline: Alistair Houghton

HE JOINED the printing industry in 1959, back in the days of clanging metal and moveable type, when Liverpool printers waited eagerly dockside for business from the latest transatlantic arrivals.

But, despite the presence of a clanking 80-year-old die-stamping press in his firm's Wirral home, Bob McWilliams doesn't see the old days of the printing industry through sepia-tinted glasses.

Instead, McWilliams sees himself as part of the "new breed" of printers who have pushed the industry forward, consolidating small family businesses and investing in new digital print technology.

His company, LT Print, has grown on the back of several successful acquisitions, thanks to which it has picked up clients from exclusive London restaurant The Ivy to five-star hotels like Claridges and The Savoy.

That die-stamping machine is far from just an antique - the embossed stationery and documents it produces are still in demand. But LT, which works in sectors from education to exports, has invested pounds 1.5m in equipment over the past five years as it pushes into digital printing.

And, as many smaller printing companies have been hit by the recession, there may be more opportunities for McWilliams to snap up rivals at a discount.

"We are always on the look-out for businesses that are failing or falling by the wayside," he said. "There are a few jewels out there.

"Buying the die-stamping business, for example, was an excellent move for us. It took us into the five-star hotel market. We want to go for products with better margins.

"What used to happen 10 years ago is that when a printer closed, some guys from that company would start up a new business.

"That's not happening in this recession because the banks won't go with them. That makes it easier for us to buy established businesses."

McWilliams was born in St Helens, but moved to Aintree as a child.

After leaving school at 15 he "drifted" into the printing industry, starting at Thomas Brakell.

Liverpool was home to dozens of long-established family printing firms - many of whom relied for their income on the firms trading through the city's docks.

"Gutenberg invented the moveable type process in the 15th century," said McWilliams. "If he'd have gone to Brakells in the 1960s, he would have recognised the process we were using. It had been mechanised, but it hadn't much changed.

"They were still putting ink on a piece of metal and banging it on a piece of paper."

McWilliams also reminisced about the world of the old-fashioned family-owned printing firms - many of which, he said, were left high and dry when trade through Liverpool's docks dried up as they were too reliant on too few customers. "It was almost feudal," he said. "The owners of businesses would wander in at 10 o'clock. The minions would wander in to do their bidding.

"Then the bosses disappeared at lunchtime to do business in the gentlemen's clubs."

After leaving Brakells, McWilliams spent a decade at Wiggins Teape, before working for a number of other companies. But, by 1980, he had decided that he wanted to strike out on his own.

"I decided it was difficult to work with people I didn't respect," he said. "I thought 'the time has come', and I set out to look for a business."

So, in 1980, McWilliams bought Birkenhead firm Instaprint. He bought out his business partner 18 months later, and hatched a plan to grow the business through acquisitions.

The first company it took over was Liver Transport, in 1985.

"That's where our name came from," said McWilliams. "Instaprint was a crummy little name.

"We took over Liver Transport and took their name.

"They had this licence from the DTI to print export documentation and certificates of origin.

"They are forms every exporter in the UK has to use to identify it's manufactured in Britain. …