Custodian finds a winning formula in the branding and printing world
Establishing trust and meeting customers' needs has led to success for Bernard Lyons and Ciaran Reilly
In order to be successful, companies and organisations of all sizes have come to understand the important role that marketing plays in promoting both their organisation and the products and services they provide.
For some, marketing traditionally meant placing adverts in local papers or trade publications - but it has grown to become a complex science, that includes everything from design and branding to printing, packaging and online. In a rapidly changing and highly competitive environment, getting your message out has never been more important. But it's also become an expensive investment - and one that needs to be delivered as cost-effectively as possible.
With this in mind, I met up this week with Custodian, a Dublin-based company. Set up in 1992 by Bernard Lyons, and now located on Leeson Street, the business has grown to become one of Ireland's leading agencies in the area of print media production and associated digital services. Today, the company employs 36 staff and this year will see its annual turnover hit €18m.
I ask if there is a significance in the name.
"Absolutely, yes," responds Bernard enthusiastically. "I chose it because I wanted to let our clients know that we would always be custodians or protectors of their brand."
Custodian's office is full of examples of work that Bernard and his colleagues have carried out for their clients over the years. These include everything from posters and brochures to an array of point-of-sale material and annual reports. Among the many recognisable brands on display I see Irish Distillers, AIB Group, Laya Healthcare, One Direct and 123.ie as well as Eircom and Meteor. And there's even a number of educational and semi-state customers - from Trinity College, to An Post and the Irish Aviation Authority
We are quickly joined by Bernard's business partner, Ciaran Reilly, and another well-known face - that of legendary Dublin footballer Alan Brogan, who last year become the company's commercial director.
So what exactly does Custodian do?
"We are essentially a print management company that specialises in the procurement and delivery of high-value printed marketing and operational materials for our clients," explains Bernard.
Working with both Irish businesses and global brands, the company offers a unique and fully integrated solution that manages everything from initial designs right through to procurement of printing, logistics and delivery of finished goods to customers or their individual stores or locations. From large billboards and outdoor advertising materials, to packaging and small promotional fliers and direct mail materials, they seem to provide an endless list of product options to their clients.
"Digital has also become a large part of what we do," interjects Ciaran enthusiastically. "We now have our own dedicated graphic design department with 15 full-time designers, where we plan out everything from high-quality website designs and banners to mobile advertising for our clients as well as providing large public digital display screens with customised content," he adds.
"And a key part of our success to date has been our ability to achieve considerable savings for our clients. We have also developed a sophisticated and highly transparent reporting system that highlights exactly how these savings have been achieved," insists Bernard.
With over 30 years in the print and marketing sector, Bernard Lyons was somewhat a reluctant entrepreneur.
Having grown up in Crumlin, Dublin, he later attended the National College of Art & Design, where he qualified in graphic design. For the next 10 years, he worked in a variety of advertising agencies, gaining extensive experience in both print and design. However in 1992 - right in the middle of a significant downturn in the economy - he was made redundant.
"It was a really tough time," remembers Bernard. "Although I tried hard to find another job, I just couldn't find one. And things were made even more challenging because I was married and we had a new baby on the way," he adds.
In the end he decided that if he couldn't find a job for himself, then he would create one. And create one, he did.
With his background in print and design, he felt that there was an opening in the market for a professional print management company that could offer independent advice to marketing and procurement professionals, especially in medium and large companies.
"At the time, project management simply didn't exist - at least not in the print sector. So I felt that that would be a good area to focus on," explains Bernard.
He remembers that his first customer was Telecom Eireann who, at the time, were in the middle of rebranding to become Eircom. For Bernard, the period was one where he was both scared and excited in equal measure.
However, he really enjoyed the challenge. His natural outgoing personality helped him establish and maintain good relations with customers and became a central trait to his success over the years.
From the very beginning, Bernard was careful to grow the business slowly - so he was in the very enviable position of not having to borrow money or rely on overdraft facilities. Instead, his steady approach meant he was able to fund the company's growth from its own turnover and retained earnings.
"But it wouldn't be true to say that we didn't have our own fair share of knocks and disappointments," admits Bernard. "In the early days, we lost some contracts and failed to win others. But these setbacks became opportunities to learn and helped shape us into continuously focusing on how we could add even greater value to our clients," he insists.
In 2000, Ciaran Reilly joined the business. From Firhouse in Dublin, he had studied Print Management in the Dublin Institute of Technology.
"It was here that I first met Bernard. He had approached the college to enquire about who were the best students from the previous year, as he was looking to expand the business," explains Ciaran. "Once I joined, Bernard really gave me a chance to find my own way in the business.
"Unlike some other owner managers, who find it challenging to let go of control, Bernard was all about nurturing new talent," he adds.
In 2008, Ciaran became a director and shareholder of the company.
"Ciaran brought a lot of energy and fresh ideas to the business - so I was happy to release some equity to keep him on board," admits Bernard.
That same year, they were delighted when they won a substantial contract with Unilever, one of the world's largest health and wellness companies. With over 400 brands in their portfolio this was an exciting opportunity.
However, their excitement was short-lived. Six months later, they lost the business as a result of a decision by the company to centralise its marketing spend on a pan-European basis. The result was that they lost out to a larger European competitor.
"We realised that this was a trend that was likely to continue among other multinational businesses," explains Ciaran. "And that's when we decided to shift our focus more towards servicing indigenous Irish businesses," he adds.
"At the same time too, we decided to invest heavily in technology in order to remain competitive," explains Bernard.
"The results were extremely positive and we are now taking on a greater number of projects and process these faster than before," he adds.
While the downturn in the economy impacted negatively on many Irish businesses, Custodian has actually seen its turnover increase threefold since 2006.
"Ironically, we get exponential growth during recessionary times," explains Bernard. "This is largely due to the fact that clients begin to look more closely at their budgets and what they are spending on print and marketing and try to pro-actively find ways of reducing their costs while not impacting on quality or services levels. And that's where we excel," he adds.
The pair are keen to stress how important their staff have been in helping create the friendly and quality centred nature of their approach. They explain that neither of them have job titles on their business cards.
"When a new recruit joins and they meet me for the first time, they will often ask what I do in the business," explains Ciaran.
"I just give them my card and explain that I do the very same as they are expected to - that is, looking after our customers. So they are often surprised later when they realise that I am one of the owners," he adds with a laugh.
I ask Bernard if there was one word that sums up his attitude to the business, what would that word be?
"For me that word would be trust," he responds without a moment's hesitation. "I want us to always make sure that we continuously build trust- based relationships with all our clients.
"And I think we are succeeding in this endeavour because we have a very high client retention rate - and in fact, many of our clients have been with us for over 20 years," he adds proudly.
Like many entrepreneurs, Bernard Lyons started his business out of necessity. Over the intervening years he has built a hugely successful business based on the key principles of trust and customer service. He has continued to expand the company's capability and to invest in new systems and new technologies that will ensure better outcomes and greater savings for his clients.
Quick to realise the need for a strong team, he has worked to develop a culture that supports staff engagement and was willing to release equity in his business when he found someone like Ciaran Reilly, who he realised could help him expand the business even further.
Together they have managed to create a dynamic business that embraces the changing needs of business, the printing industry and technology.
Had he not lost his job back in 1998, perhaps his company, Custodian may never have been created. Maybe too, there really is some truth to the old saying that every cloud has a silver lining.
This one definitely has.
For further information: Custodian, 33 Lower Leeson St, Dublin 2. Online: www. custodian-consultancy.ie
Sunday Indo Business