There was a time when a visitor would go to Ipex ready to snap up the latest piece of kit. The deal would be done on the stand and exhibitor and printer would go back to their respective offices confident that raising the finance for the deal would be a formality.

However, times have changed. Loans for big investments are harder to come by; the banks, stung by the Credit Crunch, are much more reluctanct to lend money. Printers too are more circumspect in their attitude to big spends. The steady stream of print companies going into administration has left the survivors cautious and unwilling to make large investments until there is some evidence of a sustained upturn.

While printers may be unwilling or unable to invest in new kit, the fact is that there is a lot of equipment on offer that can help make their businesses more efficient and better able to operate profitably in this tougher climate. And finance is still available, but it requires a fair degree of planning - and timing is crucial.

At the start of this year, some industry voices were suggesting that Ipex had come along at just the right time: the economy was turning around, albeit slowly, and the banks expected to have their houses in order by May and be in a position to boost lending to something like pre-recession levels - everyone assumed access to finance would be easier.

Three months into the year and those predictions are starting to look a little optimistic.

Back to reality

"I wouldn't say it's easier [to borrow]," says David Bunker, director at Close Asset Finance. "There are three principle reasons for this. Firstly, the money markets, while slightly more relaxed, are still very cold, if not frozen in places. This restricts banks' operations and many are placing asset finance very low down on their priority list. Secondly, as a result of the shrinking market and the Credit Crunch, the capital base of printers has weakened - the ability to show a strong covenant to obtain new money has deteriorated. Finally, trade credit terms are becoming very tight, which may restrict a company's growth through investment.

"You also have to bear in mind that there aren't many lenders who find print attractive. We have seen many of our competitors pull out or restrict their lending," he adds.

Marcus Clifford, director at BPIF McInnes Corporate, reports a similar situation. He notes that it's trickier to raise money for investments and that the "days of easy access to finance are gone". Specialist print sector asset finance companies have disappeared or merged, while the loan interest rates are higher.

"What has changed over the past 18 months is the great need to keep lenders informed and the requirement for greater transparency," he says. "Banks or lending institutions will remain risk-averse so the case for lending will be scrutinised to a greater extent. This is not a bad thing as it really makes a business question the benefit of investment and the business model they are attempting to create."

Bunker adds: "With many of the banks reducing credit lines and making more restrictions on working capital, most of the finance deals needed for Ipex will have to be structured. A strong business proposition and a demonstration that the debt can be serviced are a must. Deposits, collateral security and personal guarantees are all likely to be on your banker's wishlist to secure an investment."

As a consequence of the faltering economy, a more 'back to basics' approach is required for printers that need to finance their next purchase, says Clifford. Making a snap decision, based on what you've spotted at Ipex, is a thing of the past; going on a spending spree at the exhibition should be carefully thought through, checked and re-checked. Paul Holohan, chief executive at Richmond Capital Partners urges printers not to be dazzled by what's on offer at Ipex - 'Caution' is the watchword.

"If you are going with an open mind and are attracted by something that interests you, do not, I repeat, do not, order then and there," he says. "Wait, evaluate, consider your options and produce a financial model or business plan. Then, and only then, consider taking the purchasing step."

Ducks in a row

For those with a clear idea of what they want, it's worth getting the finance in place as soon as possible. Bunker advises prospective buyers to discuss their requirements with lenders as soon as possible (many of Close Asset Finance's customers have been discussing their Ipex wishlist for some time). BPIF McInnes Corporate's Clifford concurs.

"Conversations with lenders should have taken place and be part of a proper decision-making process," he says. "Lenders do not make quick decisions and will take their time and require greater amounts of information, as well as wanting more onerous guarantees where they can. Investment decision plans of such a large capital outlay need careful preparation and need to be validated more thoroughly as the marketplace is subject to greater shift and variation."

But while Richmond's Holohan agrees it's worth getting finance in place before the show, his advice is to "check this against suppliers' finance packages as special deals may be available at the exhibition - they could be better".

"They may offer inducements such as a six-month payment moratorium. But look at the small print with finance offers as things are not always what they seem," he adds.

It's worth bearing in mind that if you do have your heart set on an expensive machine, and you're sure that it fits into your business plan, then there is likely to be a substantial lead time between order and supply. On this basis alone, it's impossible for a lender to underwrite any deal.

"We would normally expect to give our customers an indication of approval and then work with the customer to construct a deal over the months prior to delivery," explains Close Asset's Bunker.

While Ipex is likely to offer the latest technology, Holohan urges visitors to remember that every purchasing decision needs to be part of a strategic plan for growth. "Capital purchases should be compared against other options, such as acquiring a company with the required facilities as this could cost no more than buying a piece of equipment," he says.

"Re-modelling your business with another party also needs to be considered as assets can be picked-up, or business models revised, to incorproate a lower cost/higher revenue model," adds BPIF McInnes Corporate's Clifford. "This should not be discounted when making an investment."

Holohan also warns that the attractiveness of any investment needs to be tempered with the fact that it will depreciate in value. "Residual values of printing equipment are now much lower than they were a few years ago when they could be sold for more than book level."

Ipex will be jam-packed with ideas, systems and equipment that will make any visitor's mind boggle. It's tempting to buy there and then but while a piece of kit may make your business money in the long term, you need to make sure you have the finance in place to pay for it in the short term.