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 Hands-on business owner takes family business to new level

 

 As a trainee farmer Peter Frost learned that the best fertiliser is the farmer’s footprints in the field. It proved true not only in the first part of his career as a farm manager in South Africa, but also as an business owner rebuilding his family printing business in Lusaka, Zambia.

“My background in agriculture made me an operational person,” says Peter. If the Lusaka-based Associated Printers’ 2000 square metre workshop and 4000 square metre document storage facilities were fields, Peter’s footprints would be seen all over it as he runs the day-to-day operations of the 92-employee business.

A hands-on approach to management and the ability to make things work with the minimum of resources is what is needed to grow a business in an emerging market like Zambia, says Peter.

The story of Associated Printers follows closely the birth and growth of the modern Zambian economy. Peter’s grandfather established a farm near Lusaka in 1907, and his son, Peter’s father, stepped out of agriculture and started out in printing in 1964 when land ownership became uncertain in the build-up to the independence of Zambia.

Through the amalgamation of many small printing firms, Peter’s father built Associated Printers into a thriving 300-worker company headquartered in Zambia’s booming copper belt.

But with independence came large-scale nationalisation of the mines and a steady decline of the economy.

By the mid-nineties Associated Printers had been reduced to “a few crumbs of its former self”. Peter’s father fell ill and could no longer cope, and Peter’s sister Priscilla, a journalist, decided to return to Zambia to rescue the business. At the time, Peter himself was preoccupied with a fruit-export and packaging business in Mpumalanga, South Africa, in which he had a minority shareholding. He was also in the process of completing an MBA at the University of Cape Town.

Without any business training, Priscilla did “an amazing job” to save the business from a looming demise, says Peter. Not only did she manage to stabilise Associated Printers and continued to “hold the fort”, but she also established a macadamia nut operation on the family’s home farm.

Five years into it, however, she no longer had the appetite to grow the business further, and asked Peter to take it over.

From a business perspective the choice was easy, says Peter. The Zambian was doing better, and the copper price, although fluctuating, had recovered and was driving growth in the country. Despite big increases in competition compared to his father’s days, lots of opportunities were opening up for Associated Printers. Peter was ready to progress from being a minority shareholder into being fully in charge of his own business.

For Peter it was a homecoming, but it was rather more difficult for his wife, a South African chartered accountant, and their three young children to adapt to a new country.

The family moved in 2000, and Peter immediately set about modernising Associated Printers. Using some capital from the sale of properties belonging to the family, new printing machines were installed, and a signage division was started.

An important survival strategy for a small business in an emerging economy is to develop several income streams, says Peter, who spotted a shortage in Zambia of document storage facilities.

Five years into taking over the business, he built a 4000 square metre document storage facility 20km outside of Lusaka.

More recently, Associated Printers has become ready for bigger growth spurts in its moves away from traditional printing to digital services and signage, and Peter looked towards the local financial industry for growth finance. This brought him into contact with Business Partners International, who in 2017 agreed to finance more machines to further automate the company’s printing processes, as well as scanners and shelving to grow the document storage unit.

Although Associated Printers have had bank loans in the past, Business Partners International’s offer was more suited to the needs of a growing small business, says Peter. They offer a competitive interest rate, and I managed to negotiate a moratorium on repayments for the first six months to allow the new machines to start generating income.

One of the difficulties of building a high-tech business in a land-locked, emerging economy is the scarcity of support systems. That is why the back-up support offered by the suppliers of printing machines is just as important as the quality of the machine itself, says Peter.

The company has managed to build up a close relationship with agents in South Africa who source not only quality machines, but ensure adequate backup support and after-sales service.

Their machines may be imported from all over the world, but Peter is proud that they have been able to build up a fully Zambian team of printers and technical staff.

Currently, the Zambian economy is under pressure from debt repayments, making liquidity a big problem in the country. The practical effect of this difficulty for businesses such as Associated Printers is a struggle to get clients to pay on time. Huge amounts on energy is spent on debt collection, says Peter.

But despite the difficulties, there is no shortage of opportunities in the economy and entrepreneurial energy in Associated Printers. The company’s next move is into developing sites for billboards, and its first mall-based print shop is opening in the middle of this year.

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