4U2C Print: When preparation meets opportunity at The GAPP Awards

Having no prior experience in printing, Nick van Veen left Europe in 2010 with a Master’s degree in law and plans set in place to be a tax consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers in South Africa. He is now the proud owner of 4U2C Print, a successful large format and signage company that was one of the winners at The GAPP Awards 2022.

Nick van Veen arrived in April 2010, two months prior to the commencement of his contract with PwC in South Africa. His then father-in-law owned a printing company that had a contract with Edcon, which meant that he did a lot of branding for Jet Stores and CNA. Having extra time on his hands, Nick travelled with an installer to apply decals to shopfront windows across Gauteng as well as in other provinces.

‘I got to a point where I started to ask myself if I wanted to return to doing office work or if I enjoyed what I had been doing more,’ he reminisced. ‘From there, I started to work for my then father-in-law doing branding work. This oftentimes meant that I travelled as far as Namibia, Mozambique and Botswana but I got to see most of South Africa – more so than most South Africans themselves. It gave me a better quality of life than sitting behind my desk in an office every day. From there, I continued to grow into print while building up a growing list of contacts.’

As is usually the case, life happened and it resulted in Nick getting divorced. At the same time, Edcon had issues of its own to contend with, which made the business environment challenging for his ex-father-in-law. This string of events steered Nick in the direction of starting a company of his own. It initially consisted of him working from a single garage with one large format printer and a cutting table. A few weeks later, he was able to employ an admin lady and a bit further down the line, someone to assist him with the application of decals.

‘Now, six years later, we have approximately ten employees comprising of an in-house graphic designer, two sales people who spend a lot of time on the road and the remainder are responsible for the printing, fabrication of signage and nationwide installations, which we fulfil for marketing businesses as well as blue chip companies,’ he added.

‘When I think about how it all began with me dipping my toes in the water, which led to me starting up a company in a garage with a single large format printer and how I ran jobs valued at approximately R500 to R 1000; to today, where we do work – like a recent job – that consisted of a 20 metres long by 2.4 metres high sign, which consisted of various lightboxes and 3D channel letters – it’s crazy! But it’s my passion. I love what I do: I love doing the projects that we do and I love having my staff around me.’

Nick says that he is not afraid of investing in his staff and to ensure that he always has the necessary amount of hands required for all aspects of a signage order. While a lot of operations shy away from this approach – due to the monthly cost factor that easily eats into a company’s budget, Nick has staff assigned to specific roles such as installations, which can range from six to ten people, depending on the job. He feels that this approach has given the business a competitive advantage, while also being able to assist other printing companies with installation work.

The operation currently has its own large format print department for office and shop signage as well as a digital department for school textbook printing. The latter is a recent add-on due to 4U2C Print it having the staff required to meet the increasing demand for this service.

Nick explained, ‘We started as a signage company doing our own print and installations, and after building up a reputation for ourselves, other operations started to tap into our services. To a large degree, this is how we transitioned into printing textbooks: other companies didn’t want to have a night shift or to operate 24 hours a day, and with us having the staff that are willing to work after hours, it was very easy for us to put shifts in place and thus assist other printers with this need.’

He added, ‘Our decision to diversify was a no-brainer; it stood to help us brave the December and January months because of them normally being quiet for us. We pride ourselves on having a ‘What can we do and how can we help make other businesses’ lives easier?’ attitude as opposed to one of, ‘What should we do?’’

Nick says that 4U2C Print is very strong in its ability to deliver on service while offering a guarantee on the finished product. With everything being done in-house, he believes that it is only right that the company accepts responsibility for the job in its entirety. ‘If a customer has a problem and they call us, we don’t try to point a finger at somebody else. We take full responsibility for the issue and we will resolve it because what matters is not who’s to blame but how we can solve the problem.’

Another key differentiator is the company’s quick turnaround times, which is grounded in the belief that regardless of how small the client may be, they can so easily become a major customer in the future. ‘Being in control of the work from start to finish and having the kind of staff complement that we do helps us to keep timelines to a minimum. I believe that the way that we do something, why we are doing it in that way and the manner in which it is done sets us apart, in that it determines the quality of the products that we produce. We don’t just run a job and then send it out; we really take the time to ensure that what we produce is 100 percent correct and if not, to fix it straight away so as to eliminate the need for our customer to ask us to.’

The quality of the substrate that the operation works with is of the utmost importance to Nick. He feels that knowing that the team is utilising superior product has given him a lot less sleepless nights – because in signage, defective material can only show its face 6-10 months after it has been installed.

‘If a product works, I will stick to it for the rest of my life because it gives me peace of mind,’ he explained. ‘Oftentimes suppliers will try to persuade me to try something different especially when there is a potential cost saving but I am unwilling to do so because with it comes the risk of me finding out that there are problems down the line. I also like the fact that it allows me to give my clients the guarantee that there won’t be any comebacks. I do believe that the quality of your materials can make or break your business, so for me the quality of our workmanship goes hand-in-hand with the products that we use – and we don’t compromise on either.’

This approach explains how, as a first time entrant, 4U2C Print won a Silver Award in the Large Format –Non-conventional Substrates category at The GAPP Awards 2022. ‘It was amazing to be a winner at the Awards,’ Nick raved. ‘It was something I had never considered because I always saw ourselves to be a small company, so I never thought that it was a competition that I could enter, let alone hope to win. Simply entering was quite a big step and an accomplishment in itself.’

He continued, ‘To be present and experience the gala event, to meet people in the industry and to build a network was already a prize for me. For us to then win an Award was the cherry on top, which was completely unexpected.’ He says that winning a Silver opened up something in his mind that made him realise that the company may not be as small as he thought it was. ‘I realised that I shouldn’t impose limitations on myself by telling myself that the company is small; that I should try other things and step out of my comfort zone more often.’

Attending The GAPP Awards 2022 black-tie event led to Nick walking away with more than just a trophy. ‘I met someone at my table who built up a billion-Rand packaging business and sold it three years ago, who has become my mentor. We meet every couple of weeks to every couple of months subject to our availability and thanks to our time together, I have implemented changes in the business that have enabled it to grow quite rapidly. Over and above this, I am not afraid to say that we are twenty times more professional than we were one and a half years ago, when the 2022 edition The GAPP Awards took place.’

He continued, ‘I think this whole experience is a great example of how we are at risk of missing out on opportunities in this world. All too often, one can be narrow-minded and not give others the time of day to show what they do or what they can offer and in return, to consider what can be done or changed, which can stifle opportunities before they have even emerged. You never know what the other person has to offer nor the value that it can bring into your business unless you are willing to give that person a bit of your time.’

Nick says that being a winner at The GAPP Awards has changed the business. ‘I now have a mentor who built up a massive company, which is something that wouldn’t have been possible without the Awards. It’s all about grabbing the opportunities that come along and The GAPP Awards, for me, was an opportunity that I was able to grab – and it has proven to be an opportunity that has taken my business further.’

He continued, ‘I think at times winners at the Awards are large established companies that strive for the recognition or prestige of being a winner. In my instance, I realise that I needed to win in order for me to excel; to be the recipient of such a prestigious accolade has provided me with the reassurance that giving it my all is worthwhile, so the prize wasn’t so much an acknowledgement of how great we are but an encouragement for me to open myself up and just go for it.’

When asked to give parting advice for readers considering entering the 2024 edition of the Awards, he had this to say: ‘Do it!  Just do it. It changed my life and it changed my company in a very big way. Don’t feel that you’re too small or that you’re not good enough because you never know who or what your competition may be, so that “little syndrome” of, ‘My company is not big enough and I’ll just do what I am good at,’ step away from it and just enter.’