Elie Raphael of Arab Printing Press talks to Shilpa Jasani about the challenges facing the printing industry in Lebanon, while dreaming of expanding his business into other Middle Eastern and African countries.
One of the most memorable moments in my career is when APP won an order to print textbooks for the Ministry of Education in Iraq for $11 million," says Stanford-educated chairman and general manager of Arab Printing Press, Elie Raphael.
Armed with a bachelors degree in industrial engineering from the University of Cincinnati and a masters degree, also in Industrial Engineering from Stanford University, USA, Raphael explains his career path, "My father Joe Raphael started the Arab Printing Press in 1968, graduating from the paper distribution business which he established in Lebanon in 1964. I joined the family business in 1995. The industrial engineering background helped me a lot in my career in the printing industry as its objective is to efficiently manage the flow of materials, production, people and make the right investments. APP was established with 3 staff members and now employs 130. Initially, we operated out of 400 sqm facility, while now our shop floor covers an area of 5,500 sqm."
Through their branch offices in West Africa and North Africa and Lebanon headquarters, Arab Printing Press services clients in Lebanon, Arab nations, Europe and Africa, exporting school books to Iraq and magazines to the Gulf countries. About 60% of the printshop's business is for the export markets.
"Lebanon was traditionally the printing hub in the Middle East.  It still has a value-add advantage as far as quality of printing and binding, especially for hard cover books goes.  Lebanon is also well known for its efficiency in delivering jobs on time, and that too at competitive prices.  Having said that, the regional printing industry is facing challenges, especially with the e-books industry contributing to reduced demand for printed books.Furthermore, the worldwide recession has affected the demand for advertising which directly impacts the demand for printing products."
In December 2011, APP won the 'Golden Merit Award' from Tatweej Academy for Excellence & Quality award in association with the Arab Organization for Administrative development.  "The success of our company resides in the export strategy that we have implemented.  We export books to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The most memorable moment in my career was when APP won an order to print textbooks for the Ministry of Education in Iraq for $11 million."
In 2007, APP acquired ISO 9001 certification, and also won the distinction of becoming the first printing press in Lebanon to receive the FSC certification.
Dwelling on the changes he has seen, sports enthusiast Raphael emphasizes, "The industry has moved from CTF to CTP, the color management softwares, the new digital printing machines.  The internet helps us execute jobs faster and with more efficiency, as far as contacting clients, making quotations, receiving files to print and such others is concerned.  Also, with the increases in the number of presses in the region, the printing industry is facing difficulties and a situation of excess supply over demand has been created. The current market is very difficult and it will be a challenge for printers to survive the recession in the region, with dwindling local demand. Without exports, printing companies will not survive. We, too, faced difficulties when our active shareholders who were running the company left, in 1998 to start a competing business.  However, hard work and perseverance helped us fend off the challenge."
With the financial slowdown contributing to increased length of credit being offered by printshops, Raphael adds, "The credit period is getting longer due to the economic recession and that is impacting all businesses. This is very harmful as it affects cash-flow and increases bank interests expenses."
On the contentious issue of retaining employee loyalty, Raphael opines, "All APP employees are Lebanese. It is of course a challenge to retain them but we offer them a career plan besides employee benefits such as social security, transportation, schooling, overtime, and bonuses which helps reducing staff turnover."
Dreaming of having several production facilities beyond the boundaries of Lebanon, in Middle East and Africa within 5 years, Raphael concludes by cautioning other printshops, "Look for new markets, diversify your products and services, and minimize cost."