Kirkbymoorside is hardly the place you would associate with radical technology. The sleepy little town, nestling on the edge of the North York Moors, is best known for having tea shops and bed and breakfasts aimed fairly and squarely at those of more advanced years.
‘Twas ever thus, it seems. Slow Train, one of the best known songs by 1960s comedy duo Flanders and Swann, is a lament about the destruction of Britain’s railway network under the management of Dr Beeching.
It includes a long list of the towns around the country that, Michael Flanders thought, would soon be cut off as a result. Kirkbymoorside features in the song, along with Midsomer Norton and St Erth and St Ives.
And the song had a point – nearby Pickering has only kept its railway connections thanks to a tourist steam railway. And yet, nestling just on the edge of the first roundabout you come to as you drive into Kirkbymoorside from York is a company that really is at the forefront of new technology.
You might not even guess as much once you are on Ryedale Group’s site – a collection of warehouse and factory buildings, some of which date back to the Second World War. If you look carefully at the roofs of some of these it’s said you can still see the bullet holes left by German fighter planes.
Because of the Slingsby aviation company being located nearby, Kirkbymoorside was surprisingly frequently visited by the Luftwaffe in the 1940s, and to a fighter pilot anywarehouse building looks as if it might be significant.
But come in through the front door and you quickly understand that this is a company firmly looking to the future, even in an industry – printing – that may not always have been quite so happy to abandon the past. The first clue is the tree of plastic cards that makes an interesting conversation piece as you wait in reception. Although the company is 58 years old, it’s never really been involved too much in the mucky old world of newspaper printing – the sector which has been so hammered in the recent past. For at least the past 40 years the company, which currently turns over £8m a year, has been involved in the niche business of printing on plastic.
That was what founder George Buffoni, a first generation Italian immigrant, opted to specialise in when he was first demobbed from the army at the end of the Second World War and chose to move to North Yorkshire because he heard there might be work there. Manufacturing plastic phone cards is one side of the business – those are the cards you can see in reception.
Head of marketing James Buffoni – George’s grandson – says that while this might appear to be a stagnant, if not declining market in the UK, there are plenty of countries around the world, especially developing countries, where phone card issuing is a serious business. Ryedale has a round-the-clock service producing these and sending them out to operators all around the world, who frank them themselves to put the value on.
The company uses monocore technology, which means the cards can be produced in one go without any costly laminating.
But the main part of the plastic printing business developed in the early 1990s, when Ryedale started working with Hortipak, a company managing director John Buffoni – James’s father – was persuaded to take over early the following decade by a new group of non-executive directors he had recruited.
Hortipak is now probably the market leader in supplying plastic plant tags to the horticulture industry, and to the major supermarkets and B&Q. The chances are that the last time you went to buy any shrub from your local garden centre, the tag you held up to check the plant’s name was manufactured by Hortipak. But even successful companies (and one sign of success with Ryedale is the fact that it currently enjoys an 100% credit rating from its bank) cannot afford to sit on their laurels.
Printing plastic plant tags may be more sophisticated than you think – the ink has to withstand the effects of brilliant sunshine and, of course, copious watering long enough for the garden enthusiast still to be able to read it six months later.
But there could always be a company in China willing to undercut you – if it can cope with the horticulture industry’s demanding turnaround times.
James Buffoni, who, aged 30, has just completed an MBA in executive management at Newcastle University with distinction, certainly knows that – which is why he was very keen to pursue an idea first put forward in discussions with local trade organisation Print Yorkshire two years ago, that the company should invest time and resources in developing printed electronics.
“The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) reckons the printed electronics market will be worth US$200bn worldwide by 2020,” he says.
But what exactly is printed electronics? Well, if you think of a circuit board or a silicon chip with its strips of metal running between points like a maze, then printed electronics is like that, only using the ink itself as a conductive material to move the current.
Working with the University of Leeds, and with grant money coming from both Yorkshire Forward and the Government’s Technology Strategy Board, Ryedale has already developed an electronic “nose” that Buffoni claims could accurately distinguish between different brands of whisky.
“That means such a device could have huge potential in the anti-counterfeiting industry,” he says. “Whisky brands would be easily able to prove if someone was passing off something as their product which wasn’t.” But the implications go further than that still. Printed paper, even with conductive ink, is obviously considerably lighter even than the tiny silicon chip.
Buffoni says this means such technology could reduce the cost of manufacturing testing equipment so much that the NHS, for example, could start producing disposable sensors that could detect sexually transmitted diseases, even certain types of cancer, just from a patient’sbreath. “The technology is already there,” says James Buffoni.
“We are just working on commercialising it.” There are also other exciting avenues printed electronics is currently taking the company into as well, but, because of intellectual property issues, Buffoni doesn’t want to talk about them yet. But he does want to talk about another venture, based around the new phenomenon that is augmented reality.
This time the technology behind the project is not that new – barcodes have, after all, been with us for well over 30 years, but they have become much more sophisticated, and smaller, and now modern-day digital watermarks are almost imperceptible.
Buffoni shows me a picture and asks me if I can tell where the watermark is. The answer is that the picture itself is the watermark. Coming from a printing background, he thinks this is a particularly useful step, because in the past, ugly square barcodes have often had a habit of disrupting an otherwise perfect page layout.
With the introduction of smartphones, such digital watermarking can be taken a stage further. With the aid of a simple app that anyone can download, smartphones can be made to read the watermark and open up a relevant webpage automatically.
To take advantage of this technology, Ryedale has already been working with digital marketing consultancy Digital Space to produce a range of websites for Ryedale’s client the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), all of which have been specially adapted to work on a smartphone’s smaller screens.
The gardeners just has to waft their enabled smartphone over the plant tag that Ryedale produces for the RHS and the smartphone will instantly download information about where the plant should be positioned, how often it should be watered, how it should be fed, and so on.
It can also direct users to more information about the RHS itself.
Much moreinformation, in short, than you would ever find on just one tiny plastic tag.
Buffoni is particularly excited about this technology because he says it turns the traditional story about print losing out to digital media on its head.
“Here is print that is being used in a way that complements digital media,” he says. “It doesn’t fight against it.” It is certainly difficult to think of how you could get such easy access to information in such a situation using digital products only. With an eagerness like that, however, it is not surprising to hear that Buffoni already sits on a number of regional and national committees at the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF), the national trade body. But how does a relatively small company like Ryedale – one that still has on its site a facility to take orders from customers who just happen to drop in – manage to find time and resources to take on such ambitious projects? Buffoni says it is mainly down to the company reinvesting its profits, and the cyclical nature of the main horticultural industry it sells to. As anyone who works in the industry will tell you, there are madly busy periods in March, and then again, slightly less mad, in early autumn. This cyclical nature is part of the reason why Ryedale’s staff headcount can vary across the year from 80 to 110.
But that extra 30 is largely made up of casual staff, and the company is aware that it needs to treat its hard core of permanent staff well.
“Being based in Kirkbymoorside, an hour from York, we are keenly aware of our limited labour pool,” he says. So every year in the quieter periods over the summer the company gets together to talk about what new areas it should invest in – and everyone in the company is involved. “Each year we allocate to invest between £50,000 and £60,000 in these speculative opportunities,” says Buffoni.
These discussions have already produced remarkable results. Some years ago a discussion about how to improve the production of plastic cards led to the company setting up a knowledge transfer partnership through which it managed to introduce robotics into the process. “That upped the number of cards we could produce on a daily basis from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands using fewer staff,” says Buffoni.
“That machinery is now eight years old but it is still a world leader in plastic card production.” There are no limits to what can be discussed, even when it comes to how to run the business itself. In the past two years the company has managed to shave £1m in costs, without losing any staff, largely through staff suggestions. It certainly sounds a promising place to work. But Ryedale is, of course, a family business.
Buffoni says he has been working at the company pretty much since he came back from a round-the-world trip after finishing university. He did have to prove himself, he insists – he had key performance indicators to make and was judged on his progress. But it is clear that he is being lined up for succession, as would be usual in any family company.
And it is often claimed that there lies the fundamental problem with family companies; they will never attract the most competent, ambitious employees because those potential employees realise they will never get the top job, unless perhaps they marry in.
Does Buffoni agree? Here, he does something that no other family employee of a family business to whom I have asked this question has ever done.
“Why don’t we go and ask some of the staff themselves?” he says. And we do. It turns out that the first member of staff we come across, who runs the IT department, left a job at Morgan Stanley to come and work here, partly, he says, because there were more opportunities at Ryedale to prove himself.
If that isn’t endorsement of a forward-looking company, I don’t know what is.