Why service is part of the package

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The Independent Online
Before Robin Chudley joined his father's printing business more than 20 years ago, he was a chef. But he insists the two are more closely linked than you might think - and not just because the company he joined specialises in making food packaging. In both, "customer needs and service are paramount", he says.

Certainly, Northampton-based FFP Packaging Solutions has set out its stall on customer service. As Mr Chudley, who became managing director four years ago, explains: "Our customers are under great pressure competing as suppliers to supermarkets and we can help them by taking on some of the load."

He notes that suppliers of such items as garlic bread to Sainsbury's and ready-made meals to Marks & Spencer need to know a lot about food preparation and nothing about packaging. He is determined, therefore, to be able to offer them constant improvements in products and service by knowing their needs before they do. For example, Mr Chudley has recently changed the process for printing the packaging for products like Bird's Eye peas to one that offers greater flexibility and drastically reduces costs.

With a turnover last year of pounds 17m, FFP claims to be the biggest independent specialist printer in the country. But Mr Chudley wants to see that figure grow to about pounds 30m over the next four to five years.

And to help him get there he is investing heavily - pounds 2.5m in the current year - in machinery featuring the latest technology from the United States and Germany. Not that he puts all his faith in the equipment. "Other people can buy the same machines," he says. "It's how you put it together and supply added value that really matters."

A key part of that value comes from the approach to customer service. Each client is allocated a project manager who is responsible for seeing the job through from start to finish.

FFP has installed computer systems that enable designers to transmit their plans electronically. And before the design is sent to the presses, it is checked rigorously. The company operates its own ink factory and does its own distribution.

It has not been an easy road. Mr Chudley became managing director in 1990 - just in time to face the fiercest recession in living memory. It was "a painful period", he says of the experience of having to reduce the workforce of a family business from 240 to 135.

The tough times led to tensions with the trade unions, but he says he and his management colleagues are now able to work well with them - and between them they have managed to increase productivity dramatically in recent years.

In the early days, the factory specialised in printing aluminium foil for such confectionery manufacturers as Cadbury, Rowntree and Mars. But that side tailed off in recent years and was sold off - along with other activities seen as being outside the new focus.

With the change of product emphasis came a concentration on customer needs. The idea, explains Mr Chudley, was to offer a niche - something that food suppliers could not buy from large groups.

Consequently, after what he admits was a patchy period, profits are rising again, with pounds 1.5m the target this year. But he insists that increasing profits is not the primary aim: "Without customers, we are nothing. Profit comes as a result rather than as the main objective."

q There is just a month left to take part in our survey of Britain's fastest-growing privately-owned companies. The league tables are compiled by the Independent on Sunday in association with accountants Price Waterhouse and are published in the spring. They have in the past featured such well- known names as on-line information provider MAID, mobile telephones supplier The Carphone Warehouse and the television production company Hat-Trick Productions.

If you think you deserve a place in this company, you must have achieved strong sales growth over the past five years, from a base of at least pounds 500,000. There is also a middle-market award, for which the starting point is sales of pounds 5m. The deadline for entries is Friday 28 February 1997. Further details and entry forms can be obtained from Julie Harwood at Price Waterhouse. Tel: 0171-939 3000.

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