Founding Director of ATC Groupe and FESPA’s next President – due to take office in October – Christophe Aussenac talks to us about his vision of printing, past, present and future.
When did you first hold a squeegee?
I have learnt a new word: squeegee! In France, we call it a raclette, like the cheese. I handled my first squeegee when I was 25 years old and starting my own business. In the morning I visited customers, and in the afternoon I was in my workshop making what they had ordered.
But my first job was as a salesman at an advertising company. There I met a screen printer and I realised I loved it – it was technical, it was creative and it had a bit of advertising involved. I asked him if he needed a salesman for his company. He did, so I stayed a couple of years with his company and then I went on to form my own.
Christophe shows off his first vinyl applicator
When did you realise that you’d found a job that would become a life-long passion?
Very early on. I started my business because of that passion and I knew at the beginning that it would be my life’s work.
Christophe with screen printing innovator Michel Caza
Which occasions have made you feel most privileged?
Being an entrepreneur means being totally free. I don’t have a boss, I can do what I want – although of course the bank is always making demands. We aim to be successful, but we can do what we want, when we want – for me, that is the sign of a successful life.
If you were starting your business now, could you be successful again or has the printing world become too specialised?
There are just so many possibilities with the internet, web-to-print and all the other communication opportunities today. A young person in this business today can be much more successful than me – if they take advantage of these opportunities. It is just a question of motivation.
What is the value of your experience as a printer belonging to FESPA?
The most important part of FESPA membership is the opportunity to meet people and to learn from the experiences of other members and other countries. I’m also the President of the FESPA France Association and to convince future members I have said, open your mind – with FESPA you can go worldwide. This is not just for business reasons but you can learn from other people, see what’s happening in other countries and meet people. In that respect, FESPA is unique.
As a world-class printer within FESPA’s community, do you feel that the federation is still as relevant as it was before the internet disrupted business networking?
The internet has changed the way that we communicate but nothing will replace meetings between people, and it won’t change our FESPA family. We use this term ‘FESPA family’ a lot, but it is so true. We operate in competitive markets where we need to protect intellectual property. However, there are many opportunities to compare notes and form partnerships and alliances that give us a competitive advantage.
What is the future in the post-COVID landscape for large format digital printing in the production of advertising, car wrapping and decorative signage?
Events made up about 50% of our business before COVID, so during lockdown we were incredibly quiet – so quiet we were worried about the situation – but we understood we would have to come up with a way to manage the future and reinvent the future of our company.
We took some important decisions: new communication within the company and new system management. We retained our industrial business and car wrapping business, which both stayed stable, and our production of interior decoration products even went up a little because people on lockdown had time to focus on things like their homes. For me, the most important thing was retaining our human relationships with staff.
Why have you remained so loyal to EFI printers? What do they allow your business to offer?
We’ve stayed with EFI because they have always worked very closely with us. They promise us new, innovative materials every two years. Their products really offer us what we want: speed, quality and a reasonable price.
ATC office in Rillieux-la-Pape, outside Lyon
We bought our first EFI VUTEk machine in 2000 and since then we have bought around 14 printing machines from EFI. When one of our machines becomes too old, EFI always offers a very good financial proposal to replace it. If you’re spending hundreds of thousands of euros updating printing machines ever three or four years, you need a very good partner to do it with.
Where do you see the benefits in combining processes such as screen and digital within the industry?
For screen printers 15 years ago, it was very difficult to accept new digital technology because it seemed so impossible to understand and so different to what we had. A lot of screen printers said it wouldn’t work, it wasn’t possible, digital was not for them because they were stronger doing it the traditional way. A lot of them didn’t invest in digital because at the time it wasn’t evident it would be the way of the future – digital printing was slow and the quality was not so good. But to be forward-thinking, we need to understand and embrace innovation.
How has your company maintained its core values while becoming more eco-friendly?
We’ve been working towards sustainability for 15 years. I used to say back then that I didn’t know if people even knew how to spell the word sustainability because it was such a rare concept.
One day I was sitting in my car listening to the radio about sustainability and ecology. I realised at that point that I was in a very relevant business because we print very large format products on PVC banners, with solvent ink, for short-term use. At that point, we were not looking to the future. I wanted to know how we could reimagine the future of our company with sustainability at its core. I informed my suppliers and partners that it was my objective to move towards a green solution. Many of them said they had the same goals.
So I organised some green breakfasts with the name ‘Eco Attitude’, where 40 companies could come together to speak about the issue. Back then, we didn’t have any books or resources about sustainability – it was very difficult to know what to do at the beginning. We developed a commitment to sustainability back then, even if it disrupted the business. We were aware that it might cause a significant disruption and a major realignment for our company that would require investment to experience the long-term benefits.
The challenge for any company is to go green with products but to remain competitive on price. This can be achieved, although you have to accept there will be some increased risk as you adapt to a new paradigm.
Cars wrapped by ATC on the Tour de France in 2017
You can recover value by selling your waste – it doesn’t bring in much money, but it does make a contribution. Your production area is more organised and the people more engaged. You eliminate use of hazardous solvent ink and replace with UV ink or greener alternatives. When you talk about new production machinery, of course you need to have quality and speed and better ink, but also you have to think about the worker on the machine and the ergonomic factors they face. You end up thinking about the people who work for you, not only about your green goals or the waste you generate. So sustainability is also a very socially responsible project.
Do you feel that environmental responsibility is a prerequisite for any company trading or a luxury to be enforced by the government?
For me, we have no choice when it comes to sustainability. If we want to be part of the future, we have to improve our environmental impact. There is no choice. It’s not only for strategic business reasons, but also for the planet and our children.
It’s very fashionable to ‘greenwash’ now. Customers often ask printers to print something – a banner perhaps – ‘PVC free’. Then they can wash their hands and say, “Well, we’re green.” But that’s not enough. We have to print on PVC material, but to a high quality, with good ink, and then dispose of our waste correctly. It’s important to think about it all because sometimes it can actually be better to print on PVC material with good printing than on non-PVC material with bad printing.
What pearls of wisdom would you offer to the younger members of our community looking to establish their future in print?
Always challenge yourself. Try to be different because there is a lot of competition. Serve the customer. And have confidence in yourself.
by FESPA Staff