VIEW ARTICLE FROM: INSIDE EDUCATION
WHEN Keith Michael started operating a small printing company in a garage in Sophiatown 20 years ago, little did he know that it would one day turn into one of the top printing companies in the South Africa with a net asset value of R400 million, and just over 300 staff complement.
Michael’s company, Lebone Litho Printers, is now preparing for the next phase of its growth with a move to its R100 million offices and fully integrating digital printing with its traditional printing business, which remains strong, despite the decline in demand for printing, and has just negotiated the COVID-19 storm with a sustained increase in revenue.
An activist by his own right, Michael, who was jailed for taking part in the anti-apartheid struggle, founded the company in 2000.
He grew up in Westbury, a historically coloured township outside of Johannesburg.
The area is crime-ridden and dominated by gangs, drugs and violence.
Michael notes the importance of a stable family home to counter the negative effects of such an environment.
“I always say that you are not the environment you come from,” he says.
His company offers a full spectrum of printing services for newspapers and magazines, coffee-table books and textbooks, flyers pamphlets, promotional materials and highly specialized digital printing
Michael is bullish about the future of printing.
“The future of printing is robust. We are focused on niche printing and complement it with app development and digital platforms”.
The Johannesburg-based businessman says over the past five years he has seen the print industry decline, owing to factors such as decline in newspaper sales and migration to digital products
This decline has been accelerated by COVID-19 as Michael confirms that they have witnessed a few companies close shop, especially foreign-owned companies who simply used COVID-19 as an opportunity to hasten their exit from South Africa.
Lebone Litho imports most of its printing equipment from Germany and has local agents from companies such as Heidelberg.
Technicians perform diagnostics and the company undertakes anticipated maintenance.
The machinery ranges between R1-R30 million and the business, which is debt free, maintains an offshore account to manage the exchange rate risk.
The company is, like all businesses, navigating the fallout from COVID-19.
Ever hard working, Michael is not allowing the negative effects of the pandemic to pull him down.
Instead, he is turning the negative into positives.
“COVID-19 has been a blessing in disguise,” says Michael, and this is not just optimism of an entrepreneur.
Michael says the company saw a revenue increase during the pandemic.
From its new offices in Selby South, Johannesburg, where they have been based for over the past few years, Michael and his management team research possibilities offered by digital printing and take the market share of the companies that have closed.
COVID-19 has also enabled the company to purchase relatively new equipment at a lower price.
Most importantly, Michael says COVID-19 offers the printing industry an opportunity to adapt to eco-friendly ways of printing and minimise waste and lower its emissions.
The company has a subsidiary, Lebone Media, which develops digital applications for integration into their traditional printing business.
Some of the application being developed include digitising school textbook with built online assessment, which can be accessed remotely by a teacher to monitor a learner’s progress and turning school workbooks into gaming applications to make learning more enjoyable.
The company is also developing and testing services such as digital archiving, which can allow for paper-based storage facility accumulated over decades to be converted to electronic storage.
Michael studied for a B Comm through Unisa, and an MBA degree through the Milpark Business School.
After working for bosses for a few years, he decided to start his business.
He did this through acquiring a second bond on his house and grew the business over the past two decades.
The company currently prints 65 million workbooks for the Department of Basic Education and delivers these to 24 000 schools, twice a year.
The contract is delivered through a consortium led by Lebone and comprising Norvis and DSV, one of the world’s largest logistics companies.
The company then runs and prints for exam facilities for the Free State and Gauteng provincial education departments as well as the North West University.
The company also runs a Learner-Teacher support centre for printing textbooks.
Three years ago, Lebone Media acquired a label printing company now called, Lebone Paarl Labels, which supplies labels to the beverage industry.
In total, the company runs seven sites and employs 312 people directly and a further 500 through its suppliers.
The employee profile of the printing industry is that of a highly experienced printer technician who has a vast amount of experience but entered the industry with low levels of education.
Lebone Litho prides itself in up-skilling its workers through novel testing and on the job training with modules of up to six weeks, offered by their international equipment suppliers.
The company also sells the waste it generates, worth about R2 million a year, and the money is used towards training of staff and their families through bursaries for children and skills development programmes.
Giving is at the heart of the company ethos, thanks to Michael’s Christian values.
The company regularly donates to NGOs in communities where it operates.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the company has donated an estimate of R3 million to NGOs and churches, in food items..
Michael also runs Azalia Holdings, a venture capital that invests in other companies.
He is motivated by seeing South Africa succeed.
“If the country collapses, my company collapses,” he says of the need for business people to get involved in helping develop the country “the country’s success is my success.”