Simon Ward: From print to profits the digital way

Having made millions from the digital imaging revolution, all that Simon Ward needed was a little inspired thinking to set up Inspired Thinking Group (ITG) - streamlining workflow systems for some of the UK's largest retailers.

When digital photography came along, Simon Ward, 43, realised it was a game changer for printers. His business, Greystone, designed printed advertisements and commercial material for clients such as pubs and shops.

By 1999, after only two years in business, it was generating annual sales of £2.2m. "We grew fast because we worked hard, but we weren't offering anything that you wouldn't find at our competitors."

So, Ward was tempted by an offer from a contact. "I was friends with the head of a local printer and he told me he wanted someone to set up a new digital business." He was mainly focused on traditional lithographic printing, but Ward promised he could make the digital business work.

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They agreed to set up a joint venture. Ward would pay £30,000 for a stake in the firm, while the printer, SP Group, would provide £500,000 of working capital. The new offshoot, SP Digital, began looking for clients among large retailers, such as Asda, who were using commercial printers to produce posters, signs and brochures.

"The advantage of digital is that you can make custom designs and produce smaller volumes, whereas the costs of litho printing mean that you have to churn out thousands of copies to make it economical." Ward could offer specially designed posters suited for a given location at a low cost.

The retailers loved it. After the first year, SP Digital made £1m profit, making it the most profitable part of the whole group. Knowing the owners were ready to retire, Ward and his business partner decided to launch a buyout with venture capital backing.

By 2000, Ward and his partner had control of the whole group, which now boasted sales of £15m. "I decided to move our focus away from being printers, which was becoming commoditised, and repositioned us as a retail services company."

Unlike competitors, who bargained on price, Ward told retailers which types of posters would boost sales and get customers to spend more time moving around a store. Being able to offer both litho and digital inhouse-printing techniques helped."I could offer large-scale prints for nationwide campaigns or one-off posters for individual stores."

By 2004, SP Group's sales had hit £42m and the firm had caught the attention of Europe's largest commercial printer, St Ives. Ward and his partner sold up for £38m. He stayed on as a director until 2009 when he set up his latest venture, Inspired Thinking Group (ITG).

Ward used some of the proceeds of the SP Group sale to commission a software program that retailers can use to store, share and track marketing materials. He then bought another company in the field to beef up ITG's offering. It can now offer a wide range of workflow management systems.

"It's all about efficiency. These programmes allow large retailers to monitor their marketing and make sure their budgets are being used effectively." It's a rapidly growing market place and ITG has already won contracts with KFC, the Royal Mail and Asda. Last year, sales hit £24.5m*.

* This figure differs from that in the print edition of MoneyWeek, which was givenas £12.9m.

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.