EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist: Colin Culiton, TPI Group
Print and marketing services firm that strives to do things differently
Colin Culliton, TPI Group: “We have always been internally funded and have retained any profits in the business to try and grow it.”
Colin’s first taste of being an entrepreneur was in junior school where he ran a small bookies with a friend gathering small bets on upcoming horseraces between his peers. He only stopped when listening to the racing results became a daily chore causing his mother to wonder why he was so stressed.
Just six years after completing the Leaving Cert, in 1990, Colin established The Printed Image. The company has grown from a small print firm then to today’s five company strong group that supplies some of Ireland’s largest business organisations with a range of marketing materials.
What prompted you to start-up in business?
I noticed the printing industry had only average service levels, a lack of transparency on price, and that most print companies were quite poor in marketing themselves. I felt a marketing focused solutions provider which delivered value and outstanding customer service would stand out. We joined a crowded market but did things differently right from the beginning. It worked and we grew from there.
What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Managing to hold a talented team of 120 professionals during and after the recession. When we set out in 1990, the objective was to create a world class business and I believe we have achieved that. Combined, the team has hundreds of years of experience. That matters.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
At the height of the downturn, our sales dropped by almost 30 per cent in one year. Our best customer stopped spending altogether and everyone in TPI was concerned for the future of the company. We restructured by cutting costs and, thankfully even at the worst times we managed to make a slight profit. The next year we grew by 15 per cent and that put us firmly back on track but it was a worrying time that I remember well.
What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
Best: My mother once told me that everyone can handle success reasonably well but the hard times are when you find out what type of character you really are. I believe that passionately.
Worst: From a successful businessman 20 years my senior who said you know you have made it when you don’t take a phone call from your best customer. Luckily I ignored that advice and any customer small or large who wants to contact me has direct access to me, hopefully within minutes, but always within hours. We will never change that policy.
Describe your growth funding path:
We have always been internally funded and have retained any profits in the business to try and grow it. We also have a loan facility that we are currently not using but that is there for large acquisitions and rapid growth. We have plenty in our pipeline and might put it to use soon.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?
Letting somebody go.
What was your biggest business mistake?
Concentrating on the home market almost exclusively during the good times. We could and should be bigger than we are.
What “Red Tape” hampers growth most?
There seems to be a lot of form filling and fact finding on behalf of financial institutions and other companies that you deal with in the day to day running of the business. If you could eliminate that time and spend it on looking for opportunities, our businesses would grow much quicker.
What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
They think that one product is going to make a business. In order to survive, you need to offer a range of products that companies require. For instance if a company is looking for bathroom services and you only offer toilet roll, you are no use to them.