‘Digitisation brought so much to the book industry – but we have to change constantly’

18 Mar 2020

Frank Kelly. Image: Miki Barlok

Lettertec’s Frank Kelly discusses how his business has transformed over the years, and how coffee and a to-do list keeps him on track.

Frank Kelly is the managing director of Cork-based businesses Lettertec and Selfpublishbooks.ie. Kelly founded design and print company Lettertec in 1983 and, after seeing a gap in the market, established Selfpublishbooks.ie in 2012.

Between the two businesses, he works with a team of 20 covering admin, sales, design, printing and book binding, producing brochures and books for clients ranging from self-publishing authors to large organisations.

‘Because of rapid advancements in technology, our industry has become increasingly fast paced’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m managing director of Lettertec Ireland Limited – a printing and book printing company, which encompasses the brands Selfpublishbooks.ie and Schoolyearbooks.ie.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Google Calendar, Outlook with red flags, and a page-a-day A4 desk diary.

I try to complete all items due by Friday evening and mark for attention any that need to be carried over or that are awaiting a response. I use the Saturday and Sunday pages in the diary for stuff running into the following week. I check red-flagged items every morning until the issue is resolved, then tick it as done – that bit is very satisfying!

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Because of rapid advancements in technology, our industry has become increasingly fast paced – and we have to keep pace. There’s a lot of trend analysis and forecasting involved so that we can meet demand. Digitisation has brought so much to the industry, but it has meant that we have to change and shift our feet constantly.

We deal with the challenges by investing in better equipment and technology to make us more productive, and we simultaneously develop new products or niches to explore. We operate at the high end of the market quality-wise, so maintaining that standard is crucial.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

One key sector getting our attention right now is the whole area of publishing and self-publishing. We are skilled at producing high-end books, both paperbacks and ‘coffee table’ casebound books, in short runs.  There is a big and somewhat untapped market out there. Ireland is a great supporter of the arts and the plethora of literary festivals taking place throughout the country is testament to this. These festivals give us a wonderful opportunity to engage with writers and creative writing groups.

We are also working with a lot of designers on corporate and family histories, as well as short-run high-end brochures that cannot be produced elsewhere in Ireland.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

We ‘evolved’ from a sales company to a full-scale manufacturing company, with not only printing machines but a state-of-the-art bindery, as we wanted to bring everything in-house and eliminate dependence on outsourcing.

We upskilled on the equipment over the years, and found that not only could we deliver what we promised, but that there were other markets we could service and high-quality products we could produce.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Personally, buying a very powerful motorbike at 23 and smashing myself up on it a year later. I still have pins and plates and get stopped every time at the airport. I learned never to get up on a motorbike again.

In business, I have not made any such near-fatal mistakes, thanks probably to the people around me putting the brakes on my natural exuberance and optimism.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Just by treating them as equals. It’s simple really. I respect the skills we have in-house from our sales team to design, to printing, to binding and beyond. We have good people who share the same goals and vision.

Seeking advice and running things past people is not only common sense, as they usually know more than me (especially in their own special fields), but by being part of the decision-making process, it allows people the space and time they need, to buy into a concept.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

I can’t speak for the sector as a whole, but it’s not something I have encountered either directly or indirectly. From our own perspective, we are blind to everything except talent. I pay attention to skillsets and what people bring to the table, rather than anything more esoteric and less relevant.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

Yes, I have been fortunate to have had a number of them. Some of them were provided back in the early days, by what is now Enterprise Ireland, and they were all excellent people. These people had a lot more experience than I had at the time, and I learned so much from them.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I think The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters is absolutely required reading for anyone dealing with people. I read The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt about 30 years ago, all about the theory of constraints and eliminating bottlenecks in the production process, and I still have it on my desk. I’m currently reading Blue Ocean Strategy [by W Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne] and Scaling Up by Verne Harnish – both really great books.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Coffee! Lots of coffee!

It’s a hard question to answer. We all use computer programs, mobiles, electronic calendars with reminders and the aforementioned desk diary. I also use Google Keep for jotting quick notes down as they occur to me and for to-do lists.

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