You get to know your partners pretty well when doing business with them for a long time, and naturally they also become familiar with you. In a perfect world this is great platform for mutual growth- and many partnerships have emerged and thrived through just such a formula. But there is magic ingredient here that is absolutely crucial: trust.
Frederic Deschamps, Key Account Director for Metsä Board, and Angus Clarke, European Material Category Manager for Communisis, know full well the true value of a working partnership.
"From the perspective of Communisis, there is real added value in a partnership that is built on mutual trust and appreciation. We have that with Metsä," says Clarke.
Deschamps agrees: "We have a long-standing relationship that has only strengthened over the years. This has benefited both parties and continues to do so."
The partnership started to take shape in 2003 when the two companies formulated a new model for very close collaboration. This began on 1 January 2004, with Metsä Board (then known as M-Real) delivering 23,000 tonnes of paper to the British media production company in that year. Everything turned out well, and by 2007 this annual volume had grown to 38,000 tonnes.
"It was a rather dramatic change in volume and a dramatic increase in trust and understanding," Clarke reminisces.
Metsä Board had an ace in the hole for winning its customer's trust. On concluding the partnership agreement, Metsä Board sent in its technical customer service specialists to help Communisis with production. The technical customer service team successfully enhanced quality by reducing web breaks and increasing running speeds.
"The involvement and skill of these specialists was critical for the entire concept," Angus Clarke says, adding that they visited the Communisis print sites almost weekly at the beginning of the cooperation.
Here come the troubleshooters
This laid the groundwork for a policy that effectively gave the Metsä Board technical staff an "access on demand" pass to the print operations of Communisis, with an unrestricted troubleshooting licence enabling them to enhance the process of Metsä paper concerns as they saw fit.
"Even nowadays our Technical Customer Service Manager visits every month," Deschamps reports.
As collaboration continued developing, it became evident that it was prudent not only to serve your own interests, but also those of your partner. Gradually both companies came to understand one another's business models, strengths and vulnerabilities.
"Increasingly it became a question of what's driving our businesses," Clarke says.
Down the line
According to Clarke, Metsä Board was also able to assess the needs of Communisis customers, looking all the way down the chain to the end user.
"We were also able to give Metsä Board our views on market trends," he adds, which led in turn to the emergence of new paper grades.
"The retail and financial markets are changing how they communicate with their customers, and Communisis is in the middle of that dynamic," Clarke says, pointing out that both companies need good intelligence on innovations as they happen, in order to keep both players ahead of the curve.
"Understanding the nuances of each market is demanding and requires a good strategy," Clarke points out. For example Communisis has benefited from the great fibre value that Metsä Board products bring to the process, and it continues to do so:
"That fibre value that ends up in the waste stream is of higher quality than many fibre sources, and valuable to the recycled paper maker," Clarke says, illustrating how added value can become the "gift that keeps on giving."
Tough times, tough market
Clarke nevertheless acknowledges that many industry players apply a much tougher strategy, with suppliers kept on their toes at all times and contracts going through the shredder on regular basis.
"The business in Europe is a lot more adversarial on the whole," Clarke says. Suppliers are treated "tactically," meaning that short contracts are common and trust is at a premium. Metsä Board and Communisis have shown that there is, indeed, an alternative route.
Frederic Deschamps, Key Account Director for Metsä Board and Angus Clarke, European Material Category Manager for Communisis say that their companies have been working together for a decade.
"By understanding one another and working together we have achieved significant savings and have been able to improve our processes," Deschamps says.
A viable pricing policy is a major factor in the equation. While long-term price stability is the top priority for some Communisis customers, others are keen to seize opportunities as they emerge. After working together for a decade, these two companies can now see eye-to-eye on price issues rather well.
Two steps up, one step down
Partnerships can occasionally bring about interesting circumstances. For example Communisis knows full well that profitable margins are important to Metsä Board, and this translates into full truckloads in the delivery department. So what do you do when you can't fill the trucks with an order from Communisis alone? The answer to this came in the form of "blending", whereby deliveries can also include paper for companies not belonging to Communisis.
Doesn't this then mean that Communisis is assisting its competition? Clarke insists that supporting one's partner must take precedence in such situations. If Metsä Board takes a hit, then it won't be long before Communisis feels the sting as well.
Clarke and Deschamps agree that a good partner is a patient one that can always see the big picture. But why aren't there more partnerships like the one between Metsä and Communisis? Deschamps points out that they only work through a combination of special circumstances and special people.
"Everyone in this industry aims for partnerships, but they don't come easily. It takes at least five years to nurture the kind of trust that is needed, and that's hard to achieve," he says.
Life in paper
With 32 years of experience in the industry, Angus Clarke knows paper inside out. His accumulated expertise covers such areas as waste paper, pulp and virgin fibre, and this has enabled him to gain a broader perspective on the supplier issue. Balancing the needs of both partners is the key:
"Metsä Board has mills that they must keep running, while we have a need for paper. One important area is logistics. Metsä Board fills ships with a decent volume and distribution has been very good," he says. High volume also minimises the carbon footprint per tonne," he says.
Frederic Deschamps adds that a dynamic mind set- one that is shared by both parties in this case- has helped tremendously:
"Metsä is always looking for ways to improve, and to serve the customer more effectively," he says, pointing out that it never really hurts if you're a good listener, too.
Still a believer
While Communisis is currently purchasing both coated and uncoated paper, there have certainly been ups and downs for both grades. Volumes of coated paper have dropped significantly, while uncoated paper has seen a major increase lately. This means that Communisis currently purchases 80,000 tonnes annually, of which about 50,000 tonnes is uncoated.
But isn't Communisis a fully-fledged communications powerhouse with multi-channel reach and a definite interest in all things digital? The death of paper has been forecast for years, but how is the patient doing these days?
Clarke responds by saying that paper is not going anywhere. Not for a long time.
"It is true, however, that Communisis has invested heavily in digital media, which now supports customer communications," he says.
"Paper still has an important role to play in transactional communications, for example. What has changed, though, is the way communications are constructed, what information is included, and how relevant it is made for the end customer."
Stick with a winner
The digital market continues to grow, but paper has found its niche and is playing an important role in the marketing mix. For example highly targeted, content-specific direct mail provides an effective, visual element in a marketing campaign. Use of paper is also seen as an important vehicle in critical communications. "Many people still want something physical that they can hold and read," Clarke says.
"But it's the all-important customer preference and response that will determine the communication channels of the future. Paper is still an important medium for us and for our customers."
PRODUCING ADDED VALUE REQUIRES THAT YOU DO YOUR HOMEWORK - AND THEN YOU DO THE WORK (AND DO IT WELL).
FREDERIC DESCHAMPS AND ANGUS CLARKE TELL YOU HOW.
1 LAY THE FOUNDATION PROPERLY.
FAMILIARISE YOURSELF WITH THE CUSTOMER AND HIS BUSINESS MODEL. LEARN HOW HE MAKES HIS MONEY, SO THAT YOU CAN HELP HIM MAKE MORE.
2 OPEN YOUR DOORS.
WHEN BOTH PARTIES HAVE VISIBILITY AND ACCESS TO EACH OTHER'S PROCESSES, EVERYBODY WILL STAY ON THE SAME PAGE THAT MUCH MORE EASILY.
3 COMMUNICATE CONSTANTLY.
DO YOU HAVE AN IDEA THAT COULD HELP OUT THE CUSTOMER, BUT ARE AFRAID TO OPEN YOUR MOUTH? SPIT IT OUT, OR YOU'RE IN THE WRONG BUSINESS.
4 OPTIMISE THE BIG PICTURE.
SOMETIMES WE GET CAUGHT UP IN CHASING AFTER SHORT-TERM, TACTICAL QUICK WINS. PERMANENT ADDED VALUE IS A STRATEGIC TOOL.
5 DEAL WITH ADVERSITY.
OCCASIONALLY, THE BEST PARTNERS HAVE A HARD TIME AGREEING ON SOMETHING. WHEN FACING BRISK WINDS, TRY TO TAKE IT AS A LEARNING OPPORTUNITY.