The Future is Soft – Interview with Mike Rottenborn

2021-03-18T17:30:25+01:0018/02/2021|COMPANY NEWS|

Mike Rottenborn is the CEO of Global Graphics PLC who is a leading developer of integrated software and hardware solutions for graphics and industrial inkjet printing. Customers include press manufacturers such as HP, Canon, Durst, Roland, Hymmen, and hundreds of packaging printers, trade shops, and converters worldwide.

Global Graphics PLC is headquartered in Cambridge UK. Its subsidiary companies are printing software developers Global Graphics Software; the industrial printhead driver solutions specialists, Meteor Inkjet; prepress workflow developers Xitron and enterprise software developer HYBRID Software.

Tell us your back story?
I am from Virginia originally. I started off by studying Electrical Engineering and later studied Computer Science in Philadelphia while working for DuPont. My earliest assignments were with Crosfield and Chelgraph, so I spent a lot of time in Cheltenham and Hemel Hempstead in the UK.

The business in Cheltenham was based on the Jaws RIP (now a part of Global Graphics) and was sold by DuPont to a small company called PCC which was a packaging software company. Shortly thereafter, I moved from DuPont to PCC myself, so from the beginning of my career, I saw the value of having a RIP coupled to workflow software in the printing world.

In 1998, PCC was bought by a Belgian company called Artwork Systems which was chaired by Guido Van der Schueren, who is still my boss today and the Chairman of our company. The reason he bought PCC is that Artwork Systems had Vector technology and PCC had RIP and Raster technology. The resulting technology from these two companies merging is still being used by many customers today.

Just before Esko acquired Artwork Systems in 2007, I founded a business called Hybrid Integration, which later became Hybrid Software. The vision of Hybrid at the time was to link web-to-print, workflow and MIS. We had a standard called JDF which was hard to implement – more of a standard for software developers if you will. So we built a product that was ‘plug and play’ and which still embraced JDF. The first MIS interface we developed was for Radius which later became part of EFI. This linked workflow, and it was our vision to connect ERP and MIS with JDF. This was the integration part of Hybrid which led to its success.

Then in 2010, we wanted to grow the business into Europe. At this point, Guido joined Hybrid’s board and he later left Esko. Fast forward to November 2019 when I was tapped to replace Gary Fry as CEO of Global Graphics!

Software technology seems to be emerging higher in profile and importance from the cloud of COVID. Are people coming to better understand the advantages of software and has COVID accelerated this?
Yes, I think that COVID has and market-wise, I think it is growing especially in labels and packaging. It has exploited the move of packaging to digital from gravure/flexo and in my opinion, the growth in digital printing won’t return to analog, even the longer run work after the crisis finally settles. Software technology has also enabled people to get more from the machinery that they already have. It was hard to get a new press installed in 2020 so people had to work with what they had. The pandemic did shut the world down for a couple of weeks in the middle of March 2020 and as a result, people were keen to learn how they could improve efficiency by automating as much as possible.

Guido likes to say that software will rule the world! He thinks it will become the most important element of production. I also like what Benny Landa said when he said “all that can be digital will be digital.” I agree with both of these statements.

For me, I saw it coming when I was a board-level hardware engineer and in my first project, I was working on a big interface board to move data to a Creo thermal CTP device. I saw that everything that I was doing with discrete components in a hardware form would eventually be done in software and microprocessors.

It seems you are a software evangelist – what is your mission with the business?
Yes, I am! It’s all about the people and merging disciplines – a standalone software integrator business as Hybrid was, in the beginning, is hard to scale in isolation, so it’s great to have them as part of the Global Graphics group.

Good software integrated into a business will streamline processes. Usually, it is a way to reduce and remove human error and this is an instant gain. In some cases, you can call it a digital consumable. But on its own, it becomes obsolete quickly so it requires a lot of investment to keep it at the forefront. I think you can see we have pulled all the pieces together to drive a digital device. Even Meteor is a software company. Sure, they do manufacture drive electronics – but this would not work without the software which makes the hardware business work really well.

So, it seems that your strategy is to grow the business through acquisition, tell us more…
Well in line with our mission we want to be able to provide a complete software solution to any company that wants to build and manufacture for or with print technology. So, yes by acquiring we can accelerate this process by both selling assets that do not quite fit this mission and acquiring those that do. Last year, we sold URW to Monotype for this reason, amid the pandemic and also acquired Hybrid so we have succeeded in moving ahead regardless of the crisis.

Xitron is also part of the group now. This business was, on the surface, a business acquisition as we were buying our biggest distribution partner – but their technology is also very good and they have a great DFE focused on Memjet and the HP Fi 1000 print head. They address the print heads that Meteor does not. So we ended up getting far more than we thought we would with Xitron.

So do all of the acquisitions complement each other?
They do, but the Hybrid acquisition, in particular, is a game-changer. Primarily, they sell to end-users. They are a Harlequin licensee so they take a Harlequin RIP and then sell this onto end-users with higher margins. The Hybrid sales force is three times the size of the sales force of Global Graphics Group even including Xitron and Meteor. They have people in every major market speaking local languages. Of course, we had some OEM business in labels and packaging already and have some key partners including HP, Mark Andy and Durst. This packaging market has continued to be very busy. I think you have seen an acceleration of corrugated packaging due to home delivery packaging growing so massively.?’

Why is M&A in software seemingly more active versus machinery, ink and other elements of the print technology supply chain?
I think as businesses, they scale up faster and there is a lower level of investment required v OEMs. There is also a lot of interest in finding the next ‘unicorn’. The multiples are more defined and the business proposition can be very appealing for investors. For example, Hybrid has a far higher recurring revenue than GGS – recurring revenue is very appealing to the market that values this much more highly.

Even before I joined, I had visited HP Indigo with Gary and Guido and visited Japan as we worked together as partners with a shared Chairman (Guido).

Are you in acquisitive mode? Well, all I can say is that we are always looking for the right opportunity,

Where do you get your leadership inspiration from?
As far as leadership goes, it is a leader’s job to empower the team to do their job and not to take credit for what they do. I listen more than I talk because there is so much to learn and there are so many brilliant people in the business. They inspire me.

As far as my leadership style goes, I get inspiration from Guido. I was part of the first acquisition at PCC in 1996. An acquisition can instil fear in both sides – I had just joined PCC from Dupont – so getting bought by a Belgian company was not something I was familiar with. So I watched and learned how Guido had a very soft touch in integrating PCC – he wanted the new businesses to keep their culture and identity and he was respectful of people. So as a result in the Global Graphics group all the businesses have different cultures. Leadership skills I believe are learned and not inherent. I also really like the principle of level 5 leadership – laid out by Jim Collins in From Good to Great – he talks of the top-level companies are led by people in a style opposite to what we perhaps would expect of a leader. They are far more humble and people-focused. They care more for their team than they do for themselves while they are happy to employ people who are better than themselves.

Of course, the leader has to set the vision but what I feel is equally important is to set and respect the culture. This was especially important at the time of the pandemic. We worried a lot about our people. During this time our technical team were solving some challenging technical problems with Harlequin Version 13 and RIPping of images that were 2 metres wide and 6 metres long for ceramic tile production. This is now possible with Harlequin and Meteor I am pleased to say! To solve these problems technical experts are deep into their corner of the code as they are doing things very few people in the world can do. So now, due to COVID, they are working at home for the year and you can easily lose the human connection if you do not have a welcoming culture that reaches out to employees. We were luckier than most and diverse enough so that when some graphic arts OEMs declined, the ceramics business was very good. So this helped us as well. Also, our business in Tokyo is very strong. Harlequin is the RIP of choice in Japan which has also proved to be very positive.

What is your view on the future of print and the role of software within it?
I am very bullish. I think some companies moved away from print too soon and stopped innovating.

What I think is key is the role of enterprise software. When printing is done well it is a manufacturing process. Of course, it can be a craft but it is hard to make money that way – so to be profitable, having software embedded strategically in manufacturing is very important. It makes you smarter and able to focus on the bigger picture.

In your view is inkjet key to the future?
Yes, it is, and we are still learning things with inkjet too. For example, we have a customer in Turkey printing onto adhesive tubes and they are called Jetron, and this is one of our BETA sites for the joint development for a new product we are developing called our SmartDFE. This was developed by Global Graphics Software, Xitron, Meteor and Hybrid who had created the front end workflow. This is a new product focused on labels and packaging and is launching at the virtual drupa in a couple of months. We also have Miyakoshi in Japan and they are also using it for their family of printing devices. The SmartDFE is a result of internal collaboration between those in the group.

So Meteor and Harlequin collaboration opened up a huge advantage for the business?
Meteor opens up a new part of the market that has not traditionally been RIP-based.

The big OEM companies that build a printing device do not want to be software experts – they want to sell systems, not the software part – they want to sell a module that is easier to build into a press. I think the first-generation OEMs for printing presses had to build their own DFEs – to achieve rated press speeds, for example – and as we have seen in computer to plate, the hardware is decoupling from the software and DFEs, so you can see many vendors going that way because it enables products to get to market quicker.

Is there a technological convergence enabled by software? Do you see this?
Yes, we want to make technology simpler, empowering printers and making production more efficient.

I think that people need to change their thinking with software so that workflow encompasses plant-wide production, not just individual printing devices.

The next generation – what is the most efficient way of doing this?
Workflow software exists to connect systems and processes and make production simpler. I think the expression “Industry 4.0” is overused – but it is smart manufacturing and requires a software strategy that has in the past been far too tactical. Implementing workflow from the top-down is a way of improving productivity hugely in most print operations.

Mike is participating at the FuturePrint Leaders Summit in the M&A Panel hosted by Ken Stack from Proximus. Click here to register! 

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