DIGITAL digest 4-01
Its Own Digital Roadmap
Toward the end of last year, Agfa Corp. announced that Robert J. Stabler had been named president of its Graphic Systems North American business unit. Stabler replaced Alexander van Meeuwen, who had led the business group since 1996.
The new group president joined Agfa U.K. in 1984 and has since held a variety of positions of increasing responsibilities in photo sales and marketing, both in Agfa's U.K. and U.S. organizations. In January 1999, he joined the U.S. Consumer Imaging group as vice president of marketing and was promoted to senior vice president in April 1999.
To gain some insight into his vision for the company and hear his first impressions about the graphic arts industry, Printing Impressions sat down with Stabler recently for a Q&A session. We also were joined by Susan Wittner, marketing director of Graphic Systems, Agfa Corp.
PI: When you were named president of Graphic Systems, were you given any mandate for the business unit?
Stabler: The group had an existing strategy in place, which I very quickly bought into. There were no preconceived ideas that when I came in there was going to be a major change. It is my job to be the leader of the team that is going to execute the existing strategy.
Agfa's product portfolio probably is the broadest of any manufacturer in the industry, for the part of the industry—prepress area—that we service. Our strategy is to leverage that product portfolio into a business model that is more salient and touches our customers much more.
In this very technology-oriented industry, the tendency has been to focus on products, and not necessarily to focus on providing solutions. What we see, with the increased complexity that technology brings, is printers in all segments of the market looking for manufacturers that are going to consult with them and talk about solutions across a wide breadth of products and technologies. That is the position we think Agfa can occupy very well.
PI: What are the main areas of difference in dealing with the Consumer Imaging business versus Graphic Systems?
Stabler: Most of our consumer imaging business in North America is business-to-business. We deal with professional photo finishers and wholesale finishing laboratories.
Even though the technologies and market obviously are different, the business proposition—of a complete, integrated system approach—is very similar for both groups.
The core competencies of the organizations are very similar across all of Agfa's business units. We coat material and produce systems and software around materials to deliver compelling solutions to our customers.
PI: You said printers are looking for solutions. As you bring those to market, do you see any change needing to be made in terms of Agfa working through dealers versus direct sales?
Stabler: We will continue to work through dealers, and we want to develop much closer relationships with our dealers. As we are starting to sell much more of the intangibles and consulting with clients—and selling more products that require consultation—our dealers, being impartial arbiters of what is happening in the market, are in a very strong position to actually deliver those messages.
PI: Are you talking about offering business/technical consulting to clients as a standalone service?
Stabler: We do consulting as a standalone service now, but I'm thinking more in terms of the orientation of the business and how we present ourselves.
What concerns printers the most is the shifting technology—when to invest, what to invest in, getting good operators, etc. Printers are looking to strip out costs and become more efficient. They are trying to differentiate themselves against the competition.
I don't think there is one dominant technology or one dominant way to go in serving the marketplace. In the digital world, the decision-making process is much more complex. I see our role as offering consulting if customers need it.
With the consolidation that is going on in the industry and the technology changes, becoming more efficient is a prerequisite to survive. Having a very well-defined process is an absolute necessity.
As an outsider coming in to the industry, it seems to me that we've only just started to see how far that trend will go. The speed at which certain new technologies are being adopted will grow very fast, as people start to see the efficiencies they can gain or that will be used against them if they don't get into those technologies.
If you are going to totally change the way you do things, though, the human element is the one that is often overlooked. Success depends on people and how they use the technology.
PI: What about consolidation among suppliers, and the growing list of co-development efforts? How do you see that trend progressing?
Stabler: There are areas of our business that are on the more mature side, and that is where we've principally seen the consolidation. How far that will go, who knows?
In terms of new technology, for those who are in the system side of the business it is a prerequisite to have the best and latest technology. This is true not just for Agfa. We are involved in a number of partnerships and alliances with third-party technology companies, as well as developing our own proprietary technology. I don't see that changing.
We may even compete with somebody in one market segment and cooperate very effectively with them in another segment. With our breadth of products, that's inevitable.
PI: How is Agfa positioning its computer-to-film versus CTP product offerings?
Stabler: That's a fascinating question. The first thing is that we will not dictate what is going to happen, because the market defines how our product offerings evolve.
Since CTP is the newest technology, everybody is talking about it. We are perhaps guilty of talking too much about CTP, because when we talk to certain customers they say, "You guys aren't so interested in computer-to-film anymore." We are, though.
Our position is that we have computer-to-plate and computer-to-film solutions, and which technology you should go with depends on your company's size, your market, where you want your company to go and what capabilities you already have in your plant. We are not trying to back any one technology.
Wittner: We've promoted the concept of "freedom of choice." If you look at consumables, we have film, polyester and metal plate materials. We are the only manufacturer that has chosen to offer every type of CTP plate, whether that be violet or thermal, internal or external drum, polyester or metal. We cover the spectrum.
We don't want to shove a technology down customers' throats. Digital printing taught a lot of people what happens when you do that.
Stabler: It is dangerous to back a technology. If you are going to take a position in the market that you are there to serve your customers and offer solutions, you must have a balanced product portfolio. That is very much our approach.
PI: The Printing Industries of America's Vision 21 study talked about the high CTP adoption rate among large publication printers, but reported a relatively low rate among smaller sheetfed printers—the four-up market. How important is that market going to be for Agfa?
Wittner: Very critical. For example, take our new Phoenix imagesetter product family. We didn't invest in an eight-up imagesetter; we invested in a four-up model.
We believe this is a part of the market where shops are going to need productivity enhancements. When they are ready to go CTP, a lot of these printers are choosing polyester plates as an option. Should they choose metal instead, they may opt to invest in a four-up platesetter. But if they have growth plans, they may decide to go with an eight-up device at that point.
PI: As you have been getting your crash course in the industry, what have you found to be the biggest concern among printers?
Stabler: The economic environment is the foremost on most printers' minds. Fear of a possible recession reinforces my point about the need for efficiency and knowing when to invest in technology.
There also is the issue of capacity looking for new markets. There is the tendency for every segment to think the grass is greener on the other side of the hill. Never before has there been a greater market-need for companies to invest in new technology to become more efficient.