How UK-based Bluetree Group has navigated the COVID-19 crisis

Founded in 1989, Bluetree Group has grown from humble beginnings to the UK’s largest online printing business. With expansion plans for a new office space well underway, 2020 was set to be a breakthrough year for the Yorkshire-based company.

But as the COVID–19 pandemic reached the UK, all plans went out the window. What was supposed to be a new office turned out a prime location for producing surgical masks. We touched base with Darren Hurst, Group Procurement Manager for Bluetree Group, to talk paper, pandemic and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).

So, Darren, it’s been quite the year. How are you holding up?

“It’s been quite the roller coaster, for sure. But now, it seems like we’ve passed the worst of it. We’re still working from home whenever we can, and business has bounced back – not quite to where it was at the start of the year, but we’re definitely in much better shape than we were a couple of months back.”

As a result of the pandemic, you’ve undergone some pretty significant changes in your business model. Could you describe these changes?

“We acquired a second building in 2019. The plan was to expand our print operations into this new unit and to establish a huge new office space for the company.

Then, as the pandemic hit the UK and all the quarantine and social distancing measures were put in place, our business dropped to about 20 % of normal revenue. It’s still pretty difficult to comprehend the scale of disruption that took place. So – come March – our expansion plans went out the window.

After a while, as business began picking up again, we had the opportunity to start manufacturing surgical masks and – instead of expanding our print operations – decided to repurpose the second building to a medical site. So, for the past three months, we’ve been setting things up on the PPE side and we’re now starting to ramp up production there.”

Do you see surgical masks as a long-term addition to your product portfolio?

“Absolutely. It takes a while to get manufacturing up and running – especially as the raw materials for PPE are in such short supply globally – so surgical masks are definitely not a quick fix. We’re hoping for real payoffs in the next six to eight months.

Meanwhile, print has been climbing back up, and we’re now back at around 70 % of where we were at the start of the year. We make a lot of promotional material, the demand for which bounces back pretty quickly after a crisis.“

Has the pandemic permanently changed the way you do business?

“Without COVID, we would never have started producing surgical masks. So, in that sense, yes – it definitely has. The goal is to make surgical masks, and potentially other PPE, into a significant long-term revenue stream for the future.

I also think working from home will be more common, even once the pandemic is done and dealt with. This, in turn, expands our scope for hiring talent. We have a lot of opportunities, especially in web development, where increased remote working allows us to tap into talent pools we could not have reached before.”

What role does Lumi play in your product portfolio?

“We use different weights of Lumi – both LumiArt and LumiSilk - for multiple end uses, including flyers, leaflets, menus and booklets. They’re very versatile papers. In terms of volume, LumiSilk has been our biggest paper for a number of years.”

What differentiates Lumi from its competitors?

“Quality-wise, Lumi is right up there with the best of them – the colour reproduction, the finish and the consistency are all top notch. The paper also runs really well. We rarely run into any problems with Lumi.

In our business, we have to work with the best materials, so – in that sense – quality is a given. It really is the service that puts Lumi and Stora Enso above the rest. We’ve had a wonderful relationship with Stora Enso for years, and their support has been key in allowing us to grow as fast as we have. I hope we’ll be able to continue our partnership in one way or another – even in a post-Lumi world.”

Bluetree Group's Darren Hurst

Darren Hurst

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