Seated in her cozy office, just to the right of the front lobby in a simple low-rise industrial building, Emily Lai responds to one last e-mail before clearing a path on her desk and settling in to speak about the most recent developments at BCT Toronto. Also in the room is Lai’s son Jonathan, who shares a seat against the wall with Lai’s Shitzu, Cookie.
Lai has been the owner of the Toronto BCT franchise “for three rollercoaster years,” she laughs. The business was acquired from the original owner who started up the Toronto franchise in the mid-80s. It’s been a rollercoaster for Lai, because in three years she has been transforming the business from its traditional single-colour business card focus to a more modern customer-friendly trade shop with a broader offering. The Business Cards Tomorrow organization, now simply called BCT, Inc., is headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and was founded in 1975. Today there are over 80 locations across North America. BCT corporation positions itself as the largest wholesaler of thermographed (raised) and flat offset commercial stationery products in North America, providing trade service to commercial printers, mailing centers, office supply houses, form distributors, print brokers, ad agencies and other retailers. BCT Toronto, one of six Canadian establishments, covers territory running north to Newmarket (50 km) and east to Oshawa (60 km). Originally from Malaysia, Lai moved to Toronto in March of 1990, and after working for seven years in corporate administrative roles she finally took a leap and entered the retail copyshop/print business.
“I’ve always been very business minded,” she says. Before leaving the tropical climate of SouthEast Asia she had worked in corporate sales at the Hyatt Hotel, and going back even further, she recalls one of her earliest business transactions, at the age of six, was selling popsicles to neighbours. Her family was one of the few in her area to have a freezer, and from early on Lai understood how to make the most of available technology to generate income. As the owner of BCT Toronto, Lai continues to look for opportunities to elevate the small 12-person printing operation. The company came with three thermographic equipped A.B. Dick duplicator lines. Most four-colour work was sent outside. “After the first year, we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t continue to outsource anymore,” says Jonathan, who brings previous prepress experience to the operation. The first step was laying the groundwork while also making the most out of limited space. The company lunchroom was sacrificed to accommodate a Fujifilm Dart T-9000 computer-to-plate device. As part of the company’s environmental philosophy, the CtP system uses the process-free Fuji Pro-T plates. The platesetter preceeded the installation of a used four-colour 20 x 26-inch Komori press. Making the press fit required reworking the inventory system, stacking their supplies vertically.
(BCT Toronto’s Emily Lai (top), Patrick Ng (right) and Jonathan Chung with the Komori press)
Lai notes that she’s operating outside the BCT norm—Toronto is the only franchise she’s aware of with a press this format size—but the move was logical. “The demand was there, and we wanted to bring more quality control in-house and control our turnaround time. “What we offer is consistency and quality,” says Lai, adding, “Our delivery time is very important.” Once the production end of the business was running smoothly she immediately began investigating taking the shop online. “There was no Web presence at all for the business when we bought the franchise,” say Lai. She started the planning process in January 2008. BCT corporate has an online ordering solution, www.orderprinting.com, but Lai felt she needed to have her own system in place. “We were trying to come up with a reliable method of communication with our clients,” she says. The company has many long-standing customer relationships relying on inefficient ways of communicating, even e-mail wasn’t commonplace—many days were consumed with phone calls and faxing—sending quotes, artwork and revisions back and forth. Although Lai knew what she needed, more technical expertise was enlisted to provide direction. “You need to have someone to drive the project,” says Lai, who hired an outside consultant familiar with the business model and who shared her vision. After shopping around for different software solutions the company opted to go with websitesforprinters.com, and then customized the features themselves to fit their business processes. “It’s sort of like an online office,” suggests Jonathan. The site covers the most basic template offerings, but it is comprehensive including different paper stock and ink selections with instantly-adjusted pricing available while the client browses. The site went live in July 2008 and began offering incentives to encourage their clients to get on board. “The older generation of customers has been harder to convert,” admits Lai. “We are a trade company,” she reinforces, so anyone logging onto the online ordering section of the company’s site requires a password—a simple sign-up process that must be approved by Lai herself. The online store makes the ordering process convenient for their broker customers, enabling them to interact with BCT anytime, and it allows repeat customers to check inventory of any stock items the company keeps on hand. With customers able to source quotes online (for all but the very complex jobs), it’s greatly reduced the number of daily phone calls, and the fax machine is also being used a lot less. Jonathan estimates a drop of 50% in the amount of fax paper being used. Because the company has delivery trucks on the road three days a week, the drivers would routinely pick up artwork (digital files on disk) from customers, creating delays in getting jobs to the shop. “We never have to pick up files anymore from our online customers who now submit over the website. Now our drivers are only dropping off finished orders,” says Lai. The overall set up of the site and integration with the business, although time consuming, was relatively affordable, notes Lai, adding she now pays about $300 for monthly maintenance. “It was a big commitment, but I think it’s worked out really well.” She reveals that the company has been able to sign up a lot of new dealers simply because of the Web presence. Since going online she can identify a definite increase in business. “We’re meeting our goals,” she smiles. Bringing in a four-colour press and taking the business online, Lai’s commitment to moving the company forward has been fast and with purpose. “You have to have a vision of where the future is in order to lose the fear of taking a chance,” she reasons. CP
(Originally published in the January/February 2009 issue of Canadian Printer)