Expert advice - PC Retail

Expert advice

In-store machines that refill ink cartridges have been rising up the list of priorities as green attitudes become more prevalent among businesses and consumers. <>Andrew Wooden</b> talks to Ian McCue, MD and proprietor of Cartridge Expert...
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When, where and by whom was Cartridge Expert started?
I'm the sole owner of McCUE, of which Cartridge Expert is an operating division. McCUE was set up in 1991 and Cartridge Expert was set up in 2004. We're located in Hedge End near Southampton.

Was the company very different at the start?
It certainly has evolved. One driver for change has been the technology of the retail process we're involved with. Refilling, to the uninitiated, seems to be a fairly simple thing to do – just get a syringe and some coloured inks and put it back into the cartridge. But what most people don't understand is that there's a fairly sophisticated process within the cartridge itself.

And the machines that we've developed can very accurately position the ink within the cartridges to ensure the proper ink jet action takes place when it is re-used. It's a completely different technology to the machines we initially produced.

How many staff do you currently employ?
We've just got ten people, as most of our manufacturing is subcontracted.

What is your main product focus?

We make machines for use in the retail environment, for refilling while the customer waits. We're basically confined to the United Kingdom and near Europe – such as France, Belgium, Holland, and Italy. There is a substantial global market but we have yet to get into that, including the USA.

What would you say your main strengths as a firm are?
What differentiates you from your competitors? It comes back to the technology – we use a completely unique method of ink delivery, which is fully patented. Therefore, when we sell the machines to a shop, that business is then tied to us so they have to buy the cassettes of refill ink, which fit into the machine and fit the cartridge type exactly. Ongoing cassette sales are a key feature of the technique that we've adopted. That's a patented process. All the others that do in-store refilling have to use bulking, with the consequence of handling and potential spillage.

What were your main achievements in 2008?
We established a stronger foothold in Europe. We found the right kind of distribution partners – that's key to the whole thing. In Italy you've got a fairly limited market for knowledgeable distributors in this sector. It's the same with France and elsewhere. If you can identify the right kind of trading partner who has got access to the target market, then it's much easier to achieve success.

What European countries have you moved in to so far?

Outside the UK: France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Ireland. We've moved there during the last two years. Italy, for example, was last year.

Any plans for growth?
What we're doing right now is talking with some prospective partners to expand dramatically through the EU, and the partner also has a base in the United States, so we will be looking to expand there too, which represents quite a massive expansion. It will involve having product manufactured in the US and ink supplies being created over there. It's a technology transfer as well as a new market opportunity. The new plant won't have to be all that specialised but it will be dedicated.

I personally have 40 years of experience developing businesses in the United States, and I spend almost half the year of every year on business activities over there anyway. So it's natural for us.

By how much with this move into America be expanding your business?
I suppose you could say our move into North America, which includes Canada and Mexico, represents half of the world's opportunity, and Europe represents a third, as far as we're concerned. So America will be big if we get it right.

What would you say your company ethos is?

Quality. Products that work, that are fit for their purpose, and that the customer gets good value for money. In other words, he should be able to get payback well within the year for his capital outlay.

What do you think the biggest technological leap forward will be in your sector over the next few years?

Where inkjet technology is concerned, the current technology is well established. The OEMs like Lexmark, HP, Dell, those sorts of companies have a vested interest to drive the market forward, because they're really in the business of selling ink and they have put relatively low cost printers into that market. So it's well established and it's not going to change very much anyway.

Behind that there are other technologies, both with the imaging itself and with the cartridges. Some cartridges can be refilled only once, and Lexmark, for example, produce a cartridge that self-destructs. They're not very attractive to the market place; there are green issues with that sort of product.

So while I think there will always be some threat from new technologies and new ideas, the traditional printer market is pretty well established, certainly for the next ten years.

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