While Aitken Spence began as an agency house in the mid 19th century, the group’s successful expansion in the 20th century had its foundation in printing.
It all began in Galle where Clark Spence & Company, engaged in shipping, diversified in 1955 into printing, mainly for producing its own stationery. However, as other companies placed orders, expansion became necessary. In 1962 the printing plant was moved from Galle to Colombo and the company became a division of the Aitken Spence group.
It was a far-sighted venture that brought the group unexpected profits through being able to print for local companies during the years of restricted imports. The 1970s also brought in a change in printing methods, from letterpress to offset and the introduction of colour press. Disaster struck at the peak of its success when the entire printing department burnt down in 1977. However, recovery was rapid and profits from printing helped the Aitken Spence group to fund further diversification, this time building the group’s first hotel, Neptune at Beruwela.
In 1982 the printing division moved again, from Vauxhall Street (now the group’s headquarters) to Bloemendhal Road, Colombo 13. The Managing Director of Aitken Spence Printing, as the brand is now known, Indrajit Abeywardene, and the Assistant Vice President, Buwaneka Wijedasa, as well as the secretary, Savitri Silva, are among those who have been with the company since then. At present there are 68 workers and 64 executives, who are highly skilled machinery operators and qualified technicians. The printing plant functions 24 hours a day.
In the 1990s, the success of Aitken Spence Printing – and the introduction of new techniques – spawned many competitors, described by the Assistant General manager – Marketing, Janaka Kotelawala, as “me too companies.” These newcomers were able to start with the latest equipment, leapfrogging over the conventional methods used by Aitken Spence Printing. It was a period of intense competition making it necessary to introduce new machines and techniques as the company saw its market share erode.
Sustained by its core values of dependable reliability – of meeting deadlines and delivering a good quality product – and by judicious investment in the latest equipment, the company has returned to the forefront of printing in Sri Lanka. It is now recognized, not just in Sri Lanka but also in important export markets, as “a reliable total print solution provider,” says Kotelawala.
The production of printed packaging materials represents about 80 percent of the company’s order book, according to Indrajit Abeywardene, much of it for the garment industry. A joint package-printing venture was set up with a British company with the name Wilkin Spence in 2000 and a room at the plant is dedicated to showcasing its products. The company prints for major High Street brand names like Marks & Spencer, British Home Stores, Tesco and DBA Europe. In his office Buwaneka Wijedasa proudly displays other printing products, ranging from beautifully created hotel menus to lavishly bound coffee table books in full colour.
The company introduced the concept of printed, illustrated and bound Annual Reports for companies in the 1980s and continues to be the printer of choice for prestigious products. It produces several magazines for different publishing companies in Sri Lanka, as well as paperback books for publishers in the UK and USA. While sometimes the printer is acknowledged by its different brand names of ACE Exports or Ace Printing & Packaging, some publishers make no mention of the printing being done in Sri Lanka.
“We expect to expand into more periodicals and book printing,” says Abeywardene. “We have introduced a complete pre-press facility and Desk Top Publishing so we can work directly with clients. However, our mainstay will continue to be good quality printed packaging.”
While Abeywardene and his colleagues are aware of the difficulties because of the current economic downturn, the declining value of the rupee, and competitive pricing, they are confident that Aitken Spence Printing will maintain its position as the market leader.
“Where we are far ahead of the competition,” Abeywardene says, “is in quality. We have a highly skilled technical team and attract the best talent in the industry, enabling us to exceed international standards. Our flexibility, product, service and on time delivery, and the warm relationship we have with our clients, cannot be matched.”
2009 – Ace Magazine Issue I