PROFILE: From The Goldfields To The World – The Pen Is Mightier

Lawrence is small Otago town. In the past it has had its moment of fame when, in 1861, one Gabriel Read found gold there and the first New Zealand gold rush began. Since then, apart from being the home of John Woods, local schoolmaster who wrote the music for God Defend New Zealand, Lawrence has not made much impression on the national life. For many years the settlement languished as rural service town, notable mainly as place passed through on the way to Queenstown and Wanaka. But not any more.
Lawrence firm Tuapeka Gold Print is aiming to be the world leader in the business of printed pens – no more, no less. This is not small town bravado, but carefully planned business projection from company that knows the market for printed pens.
Tuapeka Gold Print was founded by local man Jim Robertson in 1987, arising from the economic reforms introduced by Roger Douglas in the third Labour government. Robertson had left the local district high school aged 16 to work on the family farm and subsequently started weed-spraying business at the age of 18. This carried on until 1987 when the Labour government totally cancelled government subsidies for rural weed control. Robertson’s business changed almost overnight. It went from five employees down to one and made him question his future.
Looking for new opportunities in the Lawrence district was difficult at that time. Poor overseas prices for primary produce plus the government removal of not only weed subsidies, but also the “supplementary minimum price” on sheep meant agriculture and its associated industries were not doing well at all.
However, Robertson saw an advertisement for the sale of small printing press. He took action and, while still running his spraying business, began to print business cards in the evenings and weekends.
As time went by his client base increased and he was asked if he could print promotional pens. He looked into the market, saw there was room for competent and moderately priced operator, and started printing pens for clients in 1990, employing five people.
The business took off and within 12 months his company, Tuapeka Gold Print, was employing 10 people, producing over one million pens per annum and was the second-largest pen printing company in New Zealand. By 1993, it was selling between three to four million pens per year and had become the largest printed pen supplier in New Zealand. In 2008, Tuapeka Gold Print sold more than 12 million printed pens – well over 50 percent of the total New Zealand market. Today the company employs 70 people – all locals. This is about 15 percent of the entire population of Lawrence.
How did this come about?
First of all there was Jim Robertson’s determination to succeed. Then there was his perception of market and his willingness to be flexible and give clients what they wanted.
However, as with any expanding business, Robertson found his hours of work were becoming longer and he saw the company needed to rise to another level. He also saw that if this was to be successful Tuapeka Gold Print needed someone at the top who had sound top quality technical skills, especially production skills.
He found the right man in Brad Houghton. With background as an engineer and in business, Houghton shared the same values as Robertson. Both passionately believe in making the business successful and are equally determined that successful business is one with strong code of ethics which knows its people are its best asset.
In 2007, Houghton bought 50 percent shareholding in Tuapeka Gold Print and moved to Lawrence with his wife Melissa and daughter Georgia. He shares the directorate with Robertson and they also share duties in the company.
Robertson controls product development and catalogue design as well as sales and marketing. Houghton focuses on systems and operations. Both men believe their staff, all of whom are locals, have positive attitudes and the will to work cooperatively.
Together they have planned to make Tuapeka Gold Print grow – staff were consulted and with the help of consultants three-step plan was devised.
The first step was the introduction of single planning and production system in place of number of systems that had evolved as the company had mushroomed. Houghton designed and implemented this plan, which now includes everything in the plant operating on the same “wave length”. That means that planning, production, inventory, marketing (including sales) and finance are all linked. The directors are now able to see at any time just what the position of the company is. This is just one advantage of being small operation. Another is the ability to tweak those areas of operation that need it.
Houghton also points out that this new system has increased Tuapeka Gold Print’s flexibility in production and marketing. New products, such as digitally printed fridge magnets, vinyl labels and resin domes, have been added to the product base and linked into the system so they can be produced economically and immediately.
This first step was aimed at raising plant efficiency. The second step was to introduce culture of constant improvement in the business.
The two directors once again listened to their staff. Both of them are emphatic that they ensure everyone on the staff knows their ideas matter for culture of constant improvement. This also means staff not only being trained at the plant, but also undertaking development through industrial courses.
As result of this staff consultation, Robertson and Houghton have set up business development group within the staff. This team has its own area in quiet part of the company’s plant that currently operates from number of sites in Lawrence. The development group was given the task of working exclusively on the way Tuapeka Gold Print operates and devising ways to improve things.
The third stage was the implementation of the most modern automated printing technology and was undertaken because the owners/directors know that to retain its commanding market share, Tuapeka Gold Print must continue to be leader, not only in quality but also in service and price.
When Tuapeka Gold Print started, Jim Robertson accepted orders directly from customers. However as the business grew, the company expanded its business as wholesaler and today all orders come from industry customers and it no longer supplies end users. That said, unlike some other businesses, Tuapeka Gold Print has no minimum order quantity. Robertson says although small orders initially may be uneconomic they almost invariably lead to bigger orders later on.
The company has always retained its flexibility and its reputation for supplying what the customer wants.
While many other businesses are cutting back export plans because of the economic recession, Robertson and Houghton are about to mount major export drive into the tough Australian market. They say they are not overwhelmed by the prospect, as they have planned this thoroughly like all other aspects of the continuing rise of Tuapeka Gold Print. Both men say that in doing this Tuapeka Gold Print is not making leap in the dark but playing to the company’s strengths of expertise, versatility and prompt delivery. It is this passion for expanding the business that keeps the company out in front in an increasingly competitive promotional business world.

Peter Owens is freelance journalist.

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