He picks up old chassis at bargain prices, fits them out with computer chips, electronics and fabricated metal. The result: a fully functioning printing press that comes close to matching the fastest output the latest high-end presses can manage.
He is the manager of a company that works its way through 700 tons of paper a month – 300 of which is for other printers. Quality Printing LLC, together with other group companies, brings in AED 25 million (USD 6.80 million) in sales every year. But that’s not enough. Bhatia is bending his mind to growth.
GENERATIONS OF PRINT MAVENS
Bhatia has personally been in the printing and packaging business since 1961. If that weren’t enough, his family’s trading history with Dubai goes back to 1928. It’s a long and colorful history.
“My great grandfather had been dealing with Dubai since 1928. It was the age of camels and pearls. We were primarily pearl traders. He used to come over by ship – a journey that would take four months.”
This particular family of the clan Bhatia travelled the pearling trade routes linking Karachi, Mumbai and Dubai.
But in 1941, the rumble of discontent was in the air. Rumors of a possible schism in the subcontinent were beginning to permeate the zeitgeist. The Bhatia elders made the decision to relocate all operations to safe Mumbai. And that’s where they first caught the printing bug.
Bhatia comes from three generations of printers. “In Mumbai, we had set up in Chira Bazar, where we had about 40 letter press machine – the oldest technology in printing, with dyes being used to compose sentences letter by letter.”
In 1961, the generational baton was passed on yet again. “My father entered the business to support my grandfather. He started trading with Dubai again, this time in paper.”
In 1976, Bhatia Sr. started Quality Printing Stationery – officially the best multi-lingual printing concern in the city at the time. Quality Printing Services LLC followed soon after. It was still the era of letter presses, and the Bhatias ruled the roost.
ENGINEER BEHIND THE PRESSES
Fast forward to 1993 and it was time for Bhatia to step up to the plate. A reluctant recruit, who was far more interested in electronics, he had qualified for his electrical engineering degree and wasn’t very interested in the manual labors of pulling reams out of machines.
Bit by bit, he realized the engineering and technical nous that goes into printing machinery. And that’s where Bhatia started coming into his own.
"In mid-1993, I went to Germany to learn printing technologies and did a two-year post-graduation there. I learnt the mechanics and the operational theory. And that actually pulled me into printing properly.”
By 1995, Bhatia was the engineering force that kept presses running around the clock. There is an unassailable beauty to business being run by an engineer. “Our technical knowledge was first hand and first class. We kept the machines running 14/7. I did the technical haunt for over a decade.”
The competitive advantage Bhatia offered the Quality Printing group was an unerring ability to pick up derelict machines, overhaul them with modern technology and put them into service at a fraction of the cost of new acquisitions. “The idea was to get, with a mere 10% of the investment, machines that could operate to modern capacities. That is how we grew.”
As Bhatia moved towards wearing the dual hats of engineering and management, he often found he was at war with himself. "There is always war between production and management. My job was to be solutions provider and keep the peace between management, sales and technical."
2005 was perhaps Bhatia’s most challenging year. “Around 90% of our business was export at the time, heading to Africa through our operations in Ghana. And suddenly, Dubai’s prices shot through the roof.”
Dubai rents had exploded. A warehouse that could be had for AED 120,000 per year now costs AED 500,000. Bhatia used to pride himself for matching Chinese and Indian print prices from Dubai. Suddenly, that was impossible.
His solution was to consolidate. He started a process of backward integration to bring more of the value chain directly under his control. And he started servicing local orders as opposed to export.
Bhatia doesn’t just fix machines. He believes he can also fix people – through the power of the mind. “I really do believe in positive reinforcement and mind over matter. If I want something, I think about it and reach out for the possibility mentally. And I think our minds can influence the universe.”
He’s also a holistic healer and chiropractor, who says he’s helped over a 1,000 people. For him, looking at the entire system rather than isolated parts is the key to making it all work, be it a factory, a machine, or the human body.
Market flux, as per Bhatia, is just another case of mind over matter. “The reality of the market is that we are still partially in recession, and that there is little liquidity in the print market. But Dubai's win of the Expo2020 has helped because people are more optimistic. They are thinking of business, even if facts on the ground haven’t yet changed.”
Specifically for the print business, Bhatia says size rules all. “There are no small independent print concerns left. They've all been gobbled up by the bigger players. In this business, you need economies of scale.”
Print is under threat as books are challenged by Kindles and iPads. But Bhatia says it will never die. “It's an essential part of product presentation, which is all about making things look appealing. The art of presentation and print will never die out in food and pharmaceuticals.”
On a personal note, Bhatia thinks the time is right to grow out of the SME mold. “I want to move on from being an SME [to] become a far larger concern. The time is right.”
LETTERS OF ADVICE
Bhatia has had quite the journey. And he says he’s picked up some tidbits along the way. “It's all about how you train your staff – the information you put in their mind. If you want to make them managerial, you can. If you want them to stay unthinking automatons, you can do that too.”
The print market is relatively unforgiving. “In this market, you need to know what you're doing. Alternatively, you need the money to hire someone who knows what they're doing, technically and operationally. In print, you can't start with small machines any more. You're going to have to immediately invest in a four- or five-color machine, which is very expensive.”