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Consider this: in 2010, imports of printed material and related products from Hong Kong and China to U.S. shores hit $2.397 billion (or nearly 45% of the category total). That is almost back to the pre-crisis level of 1998. Obviously, the outsourcing flow has not ebbed despite fervent calls for made-in-U.S.A. books. Then again, there is the slumping greenback and weak economy. For print suppliers, it is indeed the best of times and the worst of times.

Closure of big chains like Borders or small indie bookstores translates into fewer outlets for selling print books. At the same time, e-publishing, hot as it is, is still a new venture with an uncertain future. Meanwhile, the soft U.S. and European economy adds considerable pressure to both publishers and print suppliers," says executive chairman Matthew Yum of Hung Hing, pointing out that wages in China have risen around 20% per annum since 2009. "The cost of materials and energy has also gone up, and currency exchange remains volatile. In light of these tough times, consolidation within the publishing and printing industries is unavoidable. Publishers select sustainable and leading businesses as printing partners, and vice versa. But for the partnership to work and flourish, both parties have to sit down together and work things out, in addition to looking for innovative ways to add value and reduce costs." (Hint: don't expect the same prices as those quoted three or four years ago.)

One thing characterizes Hong Kong and China suppliers: their total disregard for the status quo and for the forecast of doom and gloom. They see opportunities where others do not—and they have the guts and vision to act on what they see.

When PW looks at these suppliers, we see leaders, innovators, trendsetters, and game-changers within the industry. Collectively, they have built the Hong Kong and China printing industry to what it is today. Many of them, reviewed here in reverse alphabetical order, have appeared in this report since the first issue back in 1985. And while there are many more outstanding suppliers capable of providing great quality, fantastic services, and reliable delivery, this report focuses on the feisty ones that are taking the boldest leap forward in such areas as green management, product innovation, color proofing technology, and digital printing.

Our goal is to show what is achievable and desirable in a print supplier poised to meet the new age of Amazon, Google, and iPad head-on. These suppliers' innovative and can-do spirit is what cost-conscious and deadline-driven publishers need in order to survive any downturn and reap profits during the boom time. As always, doing one's homework before selecting a supplier or signing a contract is essential.

WKT
wktco.com

"Twenty-five years ago, we were a small company, but with quite a big presence in the overseas markets that we chose to operate in. Even then, we opted to work directly with our clients, and that remains our policy to this day," says marketing director Jeremy Kuo. "Technological advances have made the business more challenging and demanding, especially in meeting client expectations. Clients now want a more complete buying experience. Responding to inquiries, solving production problems, contributing to product enhancement and creation—these are all part of our daily routine."

But putting service first does not mean always saying yes. "We believe that clients value honesty. While it hurts business sometimes to say that we cannot do certain things, we feel that it is better in the long run." Kuo considers the past three years as one big project for WKT, one that will have a huge impact on the industry. His challenge, of course, is to convince the industry that his claim about his production team's ability to match color samples by any client is not outrageous. "Firstly, there is D-Tone 5040K, our neutral-gray color bar. It answers one major question: how closely the proof matches the look of the printed page. In general, this is achieved using GRACoL and FOGRA standards, both working on the premise that if each output meets the standard, then you can be certain about what you will get on print. The problem is that while it is relatively easy to make digital proofs match these standards, it is difficult for printers to achieve the same throughout a print run. D-Tone 5040K is the solution."

Kuo is now working on providing a printed sample to clients, as well as the originating file if requested. "If the client produces a proof from a file that is based on FOGRA or GRACoL, they will find that it matches our sample. This reverse engineering will show that we can meet these standards using D-Tone, and that we are able to do the same for the whole print run. We can print without seeing the proofs—which happens for some projects—and it will match."

Secondly, there is the use of stochastic/FM screening for every job that lands in WKT. "The better contrast and the color gamut greatly enhance an image," adds Kuo.

Lastly, there are the green aspects of the business. "Our clients' concern about having products that meet environmental requirements has influenced everything that we have done companywide, and we are gaining recognition as a green factory that is focused on waste recycling and carbon footprint reduction. So, yes, we have indeed come a long way in 25 years, especially in the last few."

TSE Worldwide Press
TSEWorldwidePress.com

With the first phase of its U.S. office remodeling completed, TSE Worldwide now has an additional digital proofer to speed up proofing and a state-of-the-art videoconferencing setup to maintain constant contact with clients. Then there is high-end furnishing and a modern decor to provide a stylish working environment. "Over in Hong Kong, we have acquired a new office right off the harbor on Kowloon's side to serve as a convenient stopover and a central meeting place for our clients—global, regional, and local," says CEO Sarah Tse, who also implemented a brand-new internal quality assurance program to ensure the highest manufacturing standards. "This eliminates the need for on-site sampling or quality testing, saving time and money."

In recent months, Tse and her team have been seeing more highly confidential projects that require considerable R&D. "Because of this rising demand, our engineers have developed new tools and guidelines for the manufacturing process to create novel printing, binding, and folding effects. Customers can bring in sketches and ideas, and our creative team will take care of the rest. Much of this growth, I believe, is due to our zealousness in protecting clients' intellectual property. As such, I'm not at liberty to reveal project details beyond saying that some have been completed and prototypes are available for viewing at our U.S., Hong Kong, and China showrooms."

In short, printing projects that combine special craftsmanship with meticulous printing are TSE Worldwide's focus. "The U.S. is still one of the biggest print buyers around. However, demand for high-quality printing from emerging markets such as Russia, the Middle East, and Brazil is growing. And that is partly because of Hong Kong print suppliers' ability to offer great value at competitive prices," adds Tse. But the need for middlemen or regional offices, she says, "is waning, as clients are directly contacting Chinese printers—thanks to technology and the Internet. However, there is ample room for creative folks like us to carve our niche in the marketplace."

When it comes to CPSIA compliance, Tse says, "We have rejected several clients who wanted to use noncompliant materials in the production process. We are all too aware of CPSIA-related concerns, as we review its legal requirements regularly and keep an eye on the latest lawsuits in this area. We are able to keep our clients up-to-date on safety guidelines and make recommendations regarding the choice of materials at their end. And that, to us, is what value-added service means."

Starlite
hkstarlite.com

A broad-based business plan has shielded Starlite from the slowing economy. Its Paris office is doing very well, with "business expected to increase 30% to 50% this year, especially for children's edutainment projects as well as DIY, craft, and hobbies titles," says chairman and CEO K.Y. Lam. "Given the higher standard of living and better work-life balance in Europe, the market for such products is set to grow even further."

Back in China, Starlite now has a new plant in Wuhan. This capital city of Hubei Province is equidistant from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou—a fact that would help Starlite's goal to penetrate the domestic market. "We will also start our new production facility in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, this year. Wages there are about 30% lower than in Shenzhen, and it also has a sizable labor pool," adds Lam. Meanwhile, the Shaoguan facility remains Starlite's hub for hand-assembled paper products for children as well as novelty items. "Phase II of its expansion is underway. Labor is abundant, as evidenced by the many Hong Kong manufacturers that have set up shop in that area." As for the chronic labor shortage in Shenzhen, he says the company copes by "continuously improving the benefits for our skilled workers and raising their salaries. At the same time, our Starlite Innovation Center is hard at work to find ways and means to replace manual labor with all sorts of automation."

His team is also busy with bills of materials as required by both PIPS (Publishing Industry Product Safety) and New Directive 2009/48/CE on toy safety, the latter in effect on July 20. "This work involves a lot of data collection from the bills of materials for every single order. But it has to be done. The tightening EU regulation on chemical use and the revised Toy Safety Directive demand that manufacturers of books do vigorous testing for a wide range of chemicals and provide supporting documents whenever required. Internally, we are working on the same for the U.S. market based on the requirements laid out in the CPSIA. It is critical to make sure that our products are safe not just for children but for consumers of any age."

Lam is getting his fair share of FSC projects in recent months, even though they represent less than 5% of all projects at Starlite. "The price of FSC-certified paper is usually not the critical factor as it is just a little higher than that of standard paper," he says. "What makes most customers hesitate are the long purchase lead time and high minimum order quantity. However, if more people go the FSC way, then such concerns will soon be history."

Regent Publishing
RegentPublishingServices.com

"Computers and the advent of the Internet have made the printing business increasingly difficult to sustain," says managing director George Tai of Regent Publishing. "With global communication so convenient and fast compared to 15 or 25 years ago, publishers can get in touch with any supplier in any industry, and at any corner of the world, simply by pushing buttons. Comparison shopping is now as easy as A-B-C, which indirectly makes using print brokers less attractive."

However, Tai is not giving up. "We continue to upgrade ourselves, spending more resources on improving customer service and employing professionals to explore new markets. Our high-quality products, reliable delivery, expert staff, and competitive pricing continue to bring in new clients. With a lot of hard work and close attention to our clients, we will do as well as—if not better than—most of our counterparts. We expect another profitable year, though not as good as what we would like. At the end of the day, we have to make some money to feed the 35 people on the payroll."

The rise of e-books has hit conventional printing, Tai laments: "At the very least, it drives print runs down to a minimum. As far as I can tell, more people are turning to tablets and computers for their reading pleasure. Besides dwindling sales, bookstores are also disappearing." Despite the gloom, Tai remains convinced that publishers will continue to buy from Hong Kong and China. "The capacity, the workmanship, and, most important of all, the value of products that we provide as a collective group of suppliers, are not something that publishers can get elsewhere, such as India, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, or Malaysia. Of course, there are outstanding printers there, but nowhere else can you find a strong and proven print manufacturing hub like Hong Kong and China."

Inflation, labor supply problems, and wage increases in China are serious concerns to the industry, but Tai asserts that a balance can be found. "Clients will have to pay a little bit more, and our manufacturer friends have to find the right resources, keep costs down, and improve productivity. The printing industry has been around for a few hundred years, and we will keep on printing. Perhaps, one day, someone will come up with an idea that will bring down manufacturing costs dramatically so that we can remain competitive in the e-world!"

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