Ink making ends: How DIC Australia managed not to make news

That it's been "the best-kept secret without actually being a secret" is a measure of how well DIC Australia's closure of news ink production in the country has been managed.

Customers in ANZ - and some in Asia - have progressively been moved to imported product over the past year, and while chief operating officer Richard Kemp admits they have lost a customer or two in the process, some new ones have been gained as well. He claims 95 per cent of the ANZ publication market, and says sales have fallen "ten to 20 per cent per annum, year-on-year for the past three years". The mass of customer print centres closures in 2020's pandemic year came on top of a news industry which was already under duress.

GXpress understands that black news ink manufacture stopped at the company's plant in Sydney's Auburn in June, with colours stopping shortly afterwards. Kemp says ink for the more stable packaging print market is still being made in Australia.

With the changeover buffered by stocks held in Sydney, newspaper customers have been introduced to DIC product which is currently coming from Spain, one of "multiple" group manufacturing plants around the world, which include India, the UK and North America.

Media giant News Corp Australia signed a new contract with DIC in 2019, shortly after Kemp arrived from UK subsidiary Sun Chemical to pave the way for managing director Ian Johns' retirement at the end of 2018.

DIC Australia - with sales of about $100 million - is part of a global giant, under the US$9 billion DIC Corporation, which is quoted on the Tokyo stock exchange. Kemp says the "platform technology" means inks are made globally in the same way for customers in Oceania, Asia and Europe.

A review addressing the decline in the news ink market led to production being focussed on "key manufacturing locations where we could optimise production and drive economies of scale," he says.

The changes in Australia have brought a reduction in staff numbers estimated at 15 per cent, with technical manager Steve Packham among those who have taken the opportunity to retire. Signing off in a note to GXpress, he wrote, "It's been a fantastic 35 years, eight months and 30 days, but who's counting? I thank all for the many years in an exciting industry."

• News ink has a mixed relationship with its dwindling public - before your eyes but hopefully not on your hands - and an important place in history.

The end of news ink manufacture in Australia may be a moment at which to acknowledge that.

Locally the name of Coates and Wimble come to mind, the latter absorbed and closed by then Swiss owner SICPA in the 1980s and its historic collection of presses and equipment partly relocated to a museum in Armidale, NSW.

Coates - now present as DIC Australia - continues, with local news ink manufacture a casualty last year of the COVID-19 pandemic and a dwindling newspaper market.

Its origins date to the UK, where Coates Brothers was formed in Clapham in 1877 by printer and stationer Henry Coates, and to France, where Lorilleux - which started about the same time - had been bought by oil company Total which sold it in 2000 to Sun Chemical, already a wholly-owned subsidiary of DIC.

From his start-up with £300 (about $540), and annual revenue of £2327, growth into new markets saw the manufacture of offset inks in Calcutta in 1937 to supply wartime map printing, and a subsidiary in South Africa in 1938.

Coates New Zealand was founded in 1948, Coates Australia in 1949, and their names changed to DIC Graphics in 2004. DIC already owned sheetfed ink specialist DIC Colortron and trading company DIC International, and all the subsidiaries were brought together in 2007 as DIC Australia and DIC New Zealand, headquartered in Sydney, and with "service factories" in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The original buildings in the Melbourne suburb of Moorabbin and Auburn, NSW - where a tragic fatal accident took place in 2017 - are still used.

In recent years DIC Australia had been known for its involvement and support with customers in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the Apple Daily editions had been regular winners of Australia's technical quality competitions.

Peter Coleman

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