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Business Advice

Tech gamble pays off for print firm

Investment in technology helps Filmscreen stay ahead of rivals in printing business
The Straits Times - January 4, 2012
By: Joyce Teo
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Tech gamble pays off for print firm -- ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

FILMSCREEN is something of a poster child for productivity in the competitive local printing business.

The firm, whose clients include United States cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, recently invested more than $1 million on a new Hewlett-Packard printing machine - a large sum for a relatively small operation.

But the investment has paid dividends in two important ways.

First, the company can churn out posters - its main business - at a much faster rate than previously. 'What used to take five to seven days now takes two days,' says Filmscreen's managing director and owner Lee Chee Yong, 38.

Second, with its high-tech machines, the firm is also making fewer printing mistakes, he says. 'The knowledge really goes up exponentially.'

Most of its competitors are not keeping pace with technology, he adds.

Thanks in part to the increased technological firepower, Filmscreen projects that this year's sales will rise by about 30 per cent. Last year, it registered more than $2.5 million worth of sales.

Mr Lee wants to grow by helping customers differentiate themselves. 'Our game is not to be the cheapest in the market but to empower our clients so that they come back to us,' says Mr Lee, who is married with two children.

In practice, this means its staff will discuss what else the firm can do with a new machine or brainstorm new ideas with clients, one of which is SMRT.

'We need to grow together,' he says.

'As an SME, we don't have a big sales force, so if we were to go to end-customers individually, we will be spreading ourselves too thin.'

Mr Lee's father started Filmscreen back in 1983 when he hired one employee to help him print T-shirts mostly. That has surged to a staff count of 40.

The firm prints outdoor posters like the ones seen at bus stops and MRT stations, indoor posters for cosmetics firms and sticker installations for taxis and buses.

And its posters are not just for the local market. One major coup was getting Estee Lauder, which became a client in 1998, to engage the firm for its global printing needs in 2000. Estee Lauder previously had its posters printed in New York and Paris.

'We had to do a lot of in-house upgrading such as training our people and making our processes more consistent,' says Mr Lee.

'Gradually, we evolved... We wanted to bring our printing standards to the European and US standards so that they (clients) can rely on us to do the same things that they were getting in Europe,' he says. 'You have to know what they were doing, so we went to a lot of trade shows in the developed countries... Since the late 1980s, my dad had been travelling to Germany every couple of years, and I am still doing that now.

'More recently, I've also gone to China to see the competitive machines that are coming out... We really need to invest in machines.'

Mr Lee got the firm to acquire its first computer when he came on board in early 1997, straight from school. Since then, technology has been a key priority to stay ahead of its competition.

The managing director, who took over the reins from his father in 2006, admits the journey has not always been smooth.

'When the company is small, you tend to concentrate on the client who pays you the most, and you tend to ignore the rest. But then, we later lost that major account,' he says. 'It was a lesson for us.'

The 1997 financial crisis also hit the company hard, he says, forcing it to 'trim fat and leverage on our debt'.

Fortunately, by then, running the business was almost second nature to him. He had been hanging around the workplace with his father since his primary school days and by the time he was in university, he was given entire projects to work on.

But today, he has new challenges such as manpower issues as the younger employees tend to not stay for long, he says.

So, the next thing he wants to do is to look at developing his people and keeping the talent he has. There are plans to send staff for overseas training, for instance.

Mr Lee is also planning for an ISO certification to bring the standards at Filmscreen up to an international level.

In a few years, he hopes to move from the current 20,000 sq ft space in Depot Road to bigger premises.

'We can't rest on our laurels. We need to keep improving and help our customers achieve more,' Mr Lee says.

'We want to forge relationships, without which I don't think we'll be anywhere. We want to help our customers so that they can help us back.'



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