Pioneering digital print
Jonathan Mihy went where no one’s ever gone before. And it has paid off. By starting MR Cartonnage Numérique, an agile and fast-moving digital printing company just outside Paris, he has become the go-to guy for all French luxury brands.
Timing is everything.
Jonathan Mihy might have had that saying in the back of his mind when he stepped into his manager’s office on a sunny September Monday to give his notice. The timing was just right. For quite some time the entire printing industry had been talking about the fact that the next sure step was to move into digital printing. Now he, a young and energetic father of three from Montélimar, had set out to become the first purely digital player. He already had a vast network of clients just waiting for him to get started.
As the doors slid open to the bank, the clerks had just received news that the major financial services firm Lehman Brothers had gone bankrupt. Lending half a million to someone who had a notion that “digital printing is the future” was not on top of any banker’s to-do list.
Timing is indeed everything.
“I arrived at the bank and told them I wanted to start a new kind of printing company and they said ‘No way. Impossible!’ In total I had nine refusals from nine different banks.”
Jonathan Mihy is sitting in an office at the Iggesund Paperboard mill in Sweden. He’s all dressed in green outerwear, just back from an excursion to the forest together with one of his many clients. While sipping a cup of black coffee, he explains how it took him some six months to find a bank willing to lend him the money he needed. Today, seven years later, MR Cartonnage Numérique has 35 employees and a turnover of 3.5 million euro. Mihy smiles as he recalls his struggles to get started.
“I started to think about cancelling the project and going back to my old job. One of the last bankers I met was a woman at BNP Paribas. Her father was the head of a hot foil stamping service in a printing company so she asked him about the project. He thought it sounded great: ‘I can’t do it, suppliers can’t do it, but the customers sure want it,’ he told her.”
Those words from the banker’s father sealed the deal and MR Cartonnage Numérique was born in early 2009. Mihy bought an HP Indigo 5500, one laminating machine, one silk screen machine, one hot foil stamping machine, one embossing machine, one die-cutting machine and one plotter plus the associated software. The first client was Diptyque, make of the famous candles.
How did you manage to get them on board?
“It was very easy for me. The challenge is not to find customers, it’s how to best answer their needs. I knew all of them from my past. The easiest thing to do is to convince customers because we have the magic word: ‘digital’. People listen because you are talking about something new.”
Has there been a particular moment since 2009 when you realised that you were on the right track, that MR Cartonnage would make it big?
“If you had to find one moment when I was sure there was a real need for our services, it was a Monday evening around 4 pm sometime in late 2009. One of my biggest customers asked us to deliver 100 boxes in five or six different sizes for one of their employees to take with her to Asia the very next morning. Of course I had to say yes. We worked all night and delivered on time. We charged a lot but they were okay with that. To luxury brands, price is much less important than quality, image and creativity. You have to be there at the right time, at the right moment, with the right answer and the right solution. If you can do this, price is not an issue. The value of my company is basically this mindset. Today it’s still the same – we are the only ones who can do these things.”
Why, do you think no one else is entering digital printing?
“They are not thinking in the right way. They are just comparing offset and digital. If you do this, offset has many more advantages. The machines are well known, everybody knows how to use it, how to sell it and how to take advantage of it. When you talk about digital print you are still talking about the future. There are also too many difficulties. Packaging doesn’t just involve printing. Packaging involves printing and converting plus developing a box. So there are three areas: conception, printing and converting. You need to know all three. Secondly, the size of the market is very small. It’s hard to invest money into such a small market. You also have to be a little bit crazy. In France the mindset in digital print is not very mature.”
Jonathan Mihy grew up in the south of France. From an early age he knew he wanted to do something of his own, to run a company of some kind, to be a pioneer in some kind of business.
“I am not from an entrepreneurial family but I always knew I wanted to build something of my own. I loved to compete in sports and I was always captain of the team. I didn’t know where to go – the only thing I knew was that I wanted constant progress.”
And now here he is at the age of 36, running a business that is growing rapidly and whose services are sought after by some of the most demanding brands on the planet.
“In France we have the biggest brands in luxury, cosmetics and perfumes. Now, with the new HP 30000 machine, we are also moving toward spirits. We work very fast in high quality and small volumes. I discuss with the customers what they want and then rapidly find a solution for them.”
How does this fast-paced business work in practice?
“The first area of our business is doing mock-ups. This totals some 70 per cent of our business. We do trials and prototypes and mock-ups with all the right printing and finishing and gluing. We also deliver very quickly for a meeting with the designers and normally also the CEO of the customer to make sure that everything is okay and line with their strategy.”
This must mean you have a close relationship with your clients?
“If you’re a general global supplier you’re in contact with buyers. We’re in direct contact with marketing. This makes is a bit unique, the fact that we get to meet with many different departments.”
Do you have your own marketing or sales department?
“We do. It consists of six people. The average order is merely 2,000 euro. It’s very small. It’s nothing.”
You need a lot of orders.
Where do you find your staff?
“From nowhere. It’s very difficult to find the right people. Most of our employees are trained in house. The average age at our company is 29. We take a lot of staff in when they are about 22 and train them. For digital printing it’s a very bad idea to employ people from conventional printing. We’re facing problems that no one else in the printing world is facing.”
“We have the magic word: ‘digital’. People listen because you are talking about something new.”
What has been the biggest challenge – coping with the new machines?
“No, understanding the machines has been easy. When you know something very well, like driving a car, you know exactly how to drive it. You are confident with everything you do. After four to five months with a new machine you know everything there is to know about it.”
But there must have been other challenges?
“Implementing new procedures and finding new employees who are able to understand our world is a constant challenge. From the outside it might look as if we are regular printers but from the inside we are no ordinary printers. We’re not really a competitor to anybody; what we’re offering is something else. It’s clear to everyone who knows the market. To stay in this position is a challenge in itself. To stay there and also keep on growing is in fact the major challenge. Where do we go when we grow?”
I’m sure you have a vision.
So where will MR Cartonnage be in 2020?
“We will be entirely digital. No tools for hot foil stamping, no tools for varnishing, no tools for die-cutting. Maybe we will have a direct link to our customers’ IT systems. When they want their boxes they just have to click and then the paperboard is ready and the machine just prints, die-cuts and delivers. Thanks to digital printing, the supply chain will be direct with no steps or waste of time. My strategy is to organise everything so that customers can find really nice folding boxes in a very short time with almost no problems. At the same time my goal is to continue to grow, to find new employees, and of course to respect the environment and to try to stay in or close to Paris because that’s where our customers will be.”
TEXT: JOHAN LINDBERG PHOTO: RAPHAEL GIANELLI-MERIANO