Sunday, February 22, 2009

RiKON The Next Generation

It sounds a bit like an old Star Trek episode but really this is my life. With all of the instability in the world what could happen that would bring all the stars into alignment, fix the global economy and solve world hunger? How about Ricoh making a play for the largest independent distributor of office products and solutions maybe? Ok maybe not… So you think that you had it all figured out huh, Konica Minolta buys Danka, Xerox buys Global. And maybe since IKON was almost a billion dollars of Canon's yearly equipment revenue that they would forsake the path that they followed with Global Imaging and Danka; well you were wrong! I can remember it like it was yesterday, "No Canon will never cut IKON off, that is ludicrous." Much to IKON's and Ricoh's dismay, Canon did pull the plug and sent Ricoh (the father of a brand new baby) reeling looking for a new horse to ride for the high end color and black and white portion of IKON's production portfolio (a 25% share of IKON's revenue). Watching this unravel (from the inside) was enough to send you to the doctor looking for a well deserved prescription of Xanex. Well thank goodness for Ricoh's Kodak relationship now we can all rest easy right?

In a playing field that is less than well defined it is funny where new bed partners come from. Just picking up Kodak sounds good but is not that easy to implement especially over night. Kodak is a very high end and expensive digital press not just in up front acquisition costs but also in day to day operating costs not to mention that it requires a much more skilled operator to run and make repairs. IKON with all of its production experience isn't going to jump in and start doing service on the NexPRESS and service is where it is at in the business model of the office equipment world. So now what? Hmm, well maybe the new Hitachi technology that they have buried into their new flagship product the Ricoh Pro C900 (Digital Press, Production Copier – What do I call it?) will be enough to stave off the bitter reveling of Canon. Either way just putting the Kodak label on portfolio brochures is not going to stop the bleeding. Especially when you have cut a main artery like in the case of IKON and Canon. IKON sold about 60% Canon products in a very well defined market place where over the last years IKON went around buying up successful dealerships that were primarily Canon in nature.

So now the acquisition is over and we approach the first milestone. What is that you say? Well since you asked it is the beginning of Ricoh's new fiscal year of course. Here comes 2009 fast and furious. So what is in store for IKON in this broad new world of opportunity? Will they remain ran as an independent subsidiary? Will they get quickly absorbed into the belly of the beast? With the changing of the guard from a political standpoint and the evolution of our economy it is anyone's guess. As companies draw lines in the sand and build alliances with other competitors either by acquisition or by contract we start to see the battle grounds becoming more defined. Now that the great expansion is over and we see the number of competitors collapse into a 3 or 4 player race; we now are starting to see the mystery unfold.

The new mission of RiKON is to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations. In my humble opinion this new world of RiKON is very well positioned for the midterm play. Why midterm you ask? Because RiKON is a large organization and they really cannot move and adapt that quick. I watched the launch of the Canon imagePRESS both from the outside (small Canon dealer that was first to market with the imagePRESS in the country's 7th largest print market and from the inside as a newly head hunted acquisition of IKON to their newly formed commercial print initiative (which was 6 months late to market) and watched IKON take quite a bit of time ramping the program up to the monster that it became. Between defining the goals of the organization and the tools to hand out along with push back from local operations and management it was amazing that the program lifted off at all. IKON has a way of taking strong salespeople and administrating them to death. I wonder daily how I ever find time for sales activities in the midst of my spreadsheets and conference calls. But they do have the momentum of figuring out how they want to position their "go to market strategy" though which still makes them very dangerous; much like a wounded water buffalo one must be ready to pull the trigger or get out of the way.

The imagePRESS's successor the Pro C900 is a Hitachi engine (obtained from the Ricoh purchase of Hitachi Printing Systems) with a Ricoh wrapper (fast plastic B2C look and feel). It has obvious Ricoh influences though, odd finishing configurations and odd substrate limitations that are very familiar with typical B2C products. Without time to finish the development Ricoh opted not to use a polymer toner but to use the old fashioned fuser oil process and the slow down the engines speed capability to build it to a price point. This fusing process is the one that we have over the years come to know and love. For the old timers this should bring back fond memories, as many have come to love the glossy, greasy get out your shammy cloth and buff the proof look. Outside of that, the engine has a very good color gamut (very similar to the imagePRESS) and has 8 bit color depth at the 600X600 dpi setting. (Unlike Canon's "multi bit" technology) The engine has remarkable front to back registration and clearly shows that Ricoh is "on to something." A very strong competitor to the Xerox Docucolor series it will challenge and even beat the imagePRESS where its few obvious weaknesses are not the main consideration. Upon a more detailed look the Hitachi influence is pretty obvious. The registration system is something that closer resembles something off of an offset press not a copier, and the systems that monitor quality are obvious improvements "not Ricoh." From beefed up rollers and mechanisims inside the outer wrapper is purely cosmetic. With expanded controller options in the near future and the ability to incorporate all of Ricoh's finishing options this will be a horse to ride in an economy where people want more for less and sellable is good enough.

With Ricoh moving into the production arena full steam, backing this movement not just with the acquisition but in a total refresh of IKON demo floors, infrastructure, finances and personnel. With strong incentives to stay and see the changes through RiKON is positioned themselves to make strong moves on Canon and Xerox as the new product takes hold in the market place. Also for those elite customers that need NexPRESS or Digimaster they will have that to choose from as well as the IBM infoprint roll to roll systems that at the moment is a joint venture soon to be another wholly owned subsidiary of Ricoh are also on the menu. Now with their PPBG (Ricoh production print business group) and IKON (a real production print equipment and solutions distribution system) Ricoh for the first time has some products to sell and a way to market and support them on a global basis.

How long will this take? My guess after watching the launch of the imagePRESS and seeing the state of the C900 today I am thinking that things will be in place to move forward for a strong play by Q3 or Q4 of Ricoh's 2009 fiscal. Also watch for a faster and a slower C900 along with firmware coming shortly to integrate all options on their mid volume line to fit the C900. This will give the C900 a dominant opportunity in the in plant and crd space given its specs and price point.

Where will it all fit in commercial print? We will have to see how everyone perceives the C900. With open houses going on around the country, and very critical trials being pursued as we speak; some of the country's largest buyers of digital printing equipment are trying this new Hitachi technology out. Once they make their decision we will have a clear idea of how well we are going to fare this round. Ricoh with enough stamina and finances to get through several boxing rounds gives me the impression that they will get to see the fulfillment of their new objective. "Become a player in the print for pay and high volume market." With Konica Minolta running tight on Ricoh's heels and niche players poised to be gobbled up by someone for example like Oce it is still anyone's race. And what if Xerox decides to drop this AP platform that is just an extension of worn out technology the race could renew yet again. Although pay close attention though as IKON restructures it may take the focus off of those that understand the production world (those that sold and serviced the Canon's) and replace them with new inexperienced followers of the Ricoh line (mfp, fax and b2c color devices) as part of a realignment that might make sense to someone that has been staring at spreadsheets too long.

It is hard to say how long Ricoh will allow the rogue IKON to continue selling multi brands and non focus products but it clear that nothing drastic is going to change in the short term. Everyone is still trying to convince themselves that it is "business as usual." And in an economic and political time like this makes this whole discussion even more interesting. Canon is still dizzy from trying to figure out how they are going to replace 400 locations and how much they are willing to drain out of their large cash reserves to "buy back" customers that chose Canon products and specifically picked IKON as their service provider; they have a tough row to hoe. If one looks at other mergers to glimmer a bit of history one remembers that Global did not lose the farm but instead grew their market share and did quite well after the Xerox acquisition. RiKON could very well come out stronger than ever. Unlike the Danka purchase by Konica Minolta. (I would guess that the will quickly change to as they have no need for the extra dead weight and reputation that Danka has earned over the years.)

I was there for the Minolta and Konica merger and survived it (2 President's Club Trips and 1 Circle of Excellence Trip) so I know how step children are treated. They are managed to success or simply managed out. With mostly the "Minolta Management Style" left they are a very shrewd and focused group led by a Konica visionary (Jun H.) they will drive hard till they reach their business objective which is to become a "Tier 1 Player." Konica Minolta will press on till they move over one of the Gartner's "4 leaders" or knock one out of the game completely. That was their new mantra as I left to chase the Canon imagePRESS product which now has done a vanishing act from my portfolio.

Gartner has Konica Minolta as a challenger and that they truly are. With a very different "to market approach" they are not part of the "leaders" group of thinking (Canon/Xerox/Ricoh/HP). They are very much out of the box and are non traditionalists that could become a wild card in this program; they are not to be taken lightly. With their 90 ppm engine to be out soon the playing ground will level once again and they will be competing from a position of strength stepping up from their current production platform which has done very well in office, in plant and print for pay markets (both commercial print and franchise print).

As I look at my options which are still considerable (enough to keep me with a headache all the time) I am not sure that I see a clear leader to "jump" to. I suspect that as I look at the different organizations that no one has a truly superior program to the one that IKON has put together and the one that RiKON has adopted. What I have seen is a clear indication from Japan that they intend to move into this brave new world that their direct group was unable to accomplish. Now with IKON in hand they can boldly go where they have never gone before.

So what does the future look like?

Muddy and troubled for everyone in this industry. But for those that are brave enough to stick out this new world of RiKON they will be quick to learn the new vision; we are on a 5 year mission to travel out to distant zip codes, and to seek out new customers, and to boldly sell what no one has sold before. We tip our hats to you Mr. C900 may your silicone oil flow through our veins and your "green" pulverized toner sustain us, and your plethora of finishing options take us to the promised land.


Just another personal opinion from Pirate "Big Iron" Mike…

(May the rate factor be with you and your credit analyst be "on vacation")

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