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Growth Engines: It’s the storms that make skilful sailors

In this article, originally featured in Business Leader: RNB Group has weathered a series of storms, from GDPR to Covid, but has learned to invest for growth.

Aged only 22, a naïve Ryan Metcalf, armed with intuitive tech skills and innate entrepreneurial drive, left the comfort of his job to join his former boss and start RNB Group, a print and mail management company based in Leeds, in 2005.

Competitors found ruin on rocks, shallow seas and mutinous crews. How did Metcalf survive and thrive? “Beyond the job, being valued mattered more. The opportunity to start my own business made me accept the offer,” he says.

The calm before the storms

Things took off. His former boss’s industry experience and relationships were ignited by Metcalf’s energy and innovative problem-solving capabilities. From nothing, the team grew to 83 people, fed by a heady £10m turnover. Yet the first major challenge was appearing on the horizon.

2018 ushered in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, like most new legislation, it was widely misunderstood and poorly interpreted. Big mail users, such as charities, feared contravention and stopped marketing to cold lists of potential donors.

This was made worse by internet platforms offering targeted communications, agility and measurement. The industry responded and manufacturers built smarter machines to print, sheet and close printed mail to increase efficiency and drop printing costs.

“To survive and thrive, we needed to recapitalise,” recalls Metcalf.  

Conflicting captains

But Metcalf and his former boss had different ideas. The time and attention spent on managing growing conflicts between the two of them took its toll, amplified by each holding equal shares and requiring consensus on all decisions.

The buy-out decision that resolved it allowed Metcalf to focus solely on external market challenges and opportunities. Luckily, it occurred amid industry shifts that brought new customers and talent to the company, positioning it for future growth.

New officers

That new talent arrived in the form of two men: Dave Martin and Carl Blake.

Each evening, Martin arrives home, kisses his partner and asks: “Any post today?” He lifts each envelope, smells it and holds it up against the light, enjoying a mug of Yorkshire tea. Martin loves mail, has deep industry insight and knows the production mechanics behind print and mail. Today, he leads the production floor and manages the big projects to meet quality and timeline commitments.

Carl Blake, newly accepted into biomedical science studies, needed income. He loved the mechanics of the industry, and his diligence and conscientiousness caught Metcalf’s attention. Needing a trusted right hand and with an eye on the future, their paths aligned, and Metcalf found his managing director.

The storm of storms

A year later, Covid arrived. Revenues plummeted. To survive, Metcalf scaled back the company. Many of its rivals didn’t survive, dwindling into ‘mom-and-pop’ lifestyle printers riding and, in the main, shutting down post-pandemic.

Modernising his production line would be vital to Metcalf’s survival and, in the end, thriving post-Covid. He made two big calls.

A favourable wind blows

The first was to approach the big print hardware manufacturers, which were equally desperate for business. He won a deal to replace his old equipment with a new print system capable of printing 60,000 double-sided A4 sheets an hour, which cut print costs and increased productivity.

Cost pressures across his client base led to the second innovation: Intelliprint. Accessible online, a customer can access templated letters and brochures to design their marketing communications, load their mailing list or request a mailing list based on their intended audiences and, in doing so, ensure compliance with GDPR.

Including QR codes enables recipients access to websites and discount coupons for products or services. Once ready, each personalised letter or brochure, programmed directly into RNB’s printer, sheeter and folder, produces a bulk batch of mail dispatched to Royal Mail for delivery to the recipients. A single, simple system managing a complex process, compliant with GDPR, customised to the recipients.

Yet, print and mail are old industries with old relationships and conventions. Innovative propositions presented by Metcalf would be well received, only to ghost him the next day.

Full sail ahead

But crises like Covid and rising inflation change the game. The financial pressures across the industry brought more eyes to procurement. Metcalf targeted finance managers with a cost-saving proposition, which they found deeply appealing. His first big deal saw a customer slash their print and mail operating costs from £126,000 a month to just shy of £61,000.

Armed with a modernised production plant, reference clients advocating the benefits of Intelliprint and an aligned leadership team, Metcalf is ready to scale, grow and dominate a few segments across the print industry. And his timing could not be better.

A reported 72 per cent increase in online customer acquisition costs has customers seeking new marketing arrows to add to their marketing and sales quivers. Intelliprint is a viable contender. Unlike digital advertising, it enables marketers to measure their return on investment by directly linking each mail run to website visits and products sold through redeemed coupons, while owning the engagement data.

Today, Metcalf’s business is stronger, and he is on course for a 10X growth destination. He has learned to invest in difficult times to emerge more ready for growth. After all, it’s all he knows.

Growth and Value Perspectives

  1. Partnerships either sail or sink your ship: Partnerships make for sinking ships if poorly conceived, diverting time and attention from the market into internal politics. Successful partnerships offer complementary skills and aligned values and agendas. Clarity of roles, delegated authorities and dynamic shareholder and employment agreements to accommodate changing agendas over time are vital to business longevity. To constantly align and correctly prioritise decision-making, add two seats to every discussion table, one for the customer and one for the company.
  2. Invest or die: Remaining relevant requires continuous investment in people, technology, plants, equipment and market propositions, as well as attitude and leadership. Evidence of this attracts talent, customers, suppliers and funding, all of which want to work with forward-thinking, growth-minded companies.
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