Printing company’s old-school tech spells out a bright future

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 02 July 2020 8:58

Printing company’s old-school tech spells out a bright future

As we wonder what kinds of businesses will emerge from the other side of lockdown there is a one in the Cotswolds sure to make its own unique mark.

Lockdown has seen millions embrace a digital world as they work from home, but the Wotton-under-Edge printing specialist says some unashamedly old technology will be spelling out its future.

Cotswold Letterpress is a business built around the mesmeric qualities of 50-year-old Heidelberg presses, which use technology dating to the dawn of printing, and which imbue its products with a charm and detail digital was designed to delete.

Pete Roberts business – modern under the bonnet with highly skilled staff, but drawing on expertise he began learning in his youth (he is 73) – was increasingly in demand pre-pandemic.

It is a triumph and testament to his encyclopaedic knowledge of a trade he has boxed clever in for half a century.

If news he is ahead of the game aboard old tech is not counter intuitive enough for you, Cotswold Letterpress, part of Clarendon Press, also runs out of a high street shop in the West Cotswold town.

The video above was filmed and produced by Gloucestershire videographer Matt Bigwood.

“I started in the industry when I was 16 in 1963. I had a one-minute interview with the careers officer who looked at my O-Levels and said there was a job going as a compositor,” he recalled, shuddering slightly at where the time had gone.

It was to prove a good move, and he has been in work ever since.

“I have had to adapt. I have been around the country chasing the money,” he said, referring to moved which saw him work in everything from the newspaper industry to the Cambridge University Press as a Russian type-setter, and five-year spell as a print salesman.

With his eclectic armoury of skills, he set up Clarendon Press way back in 1981.

The business did well and touched a £1 million turnover a decade back with staff numbers in the mid-teens, but then the internet arrived to re-shape the landscape.

“We are now selling the same product for half of what we did in 1985,” he said, giving an idea of how mainstream print prices have been slashed across the board.

Not that he fought the digital revolution. His business went with it, investing in the very latest machines – but the margins were as thin as the paper.

When he trialled an idea on one of his old printing machines with the Clarendon font, he had brought all those years ago from Exchange & Mart (think of a printed version of eBay) the salesman in him detected a hit.

When brides-to-be saw the product – invitations on beautiful card with every letter indented gently – they say ‘yes please’.

There was something tactile about the product, something unique about each invitation or order of service, something about the quality of the paper (perhaps three layers of car thick, with the centre piece a subtlety different shade).

And to everyone’s astonishment, and his own joy, he found he needed to buy more of the reliable Heidelberg machines. Their steam-engine-like regularity - gentle huffing, puffing and swooshing and occasional frentic shifts of gear, are all part of the theatre, charm and thrill for customers.

“Gutenberg would be familiar with the machines we use,” he said, referring to the man credited with the invention of the printing press back in the 15th Century. “In fact, if he walked in off the street today, he could go straight to work on what we use.”

But although the magic is strong, it does not work against the effects of covid-19. He has had to furlough some of his four staff.

Even for a man who has danced clever as a once super-powerful industry has crumbled around him, he does not have words to describe the challenges ahead currently.

The business remains open – and ‘yes’, trading online. His wife, Pauline, (currently on furlough herself from her own job) has come into the office to assist.

But one thing is for sure, as lockdown eases and the dust begins to settle Cotswold Letterpress will come riding out of the lockdown ably assisted by modern tech and digital, but powered by its fleet of sweet, trusty Heidelbergs.

A film made by Gloucestershire videographer Matt Bigwood captures the flavour of the company and has been seen on social media by more than 1,000 already.