Sunday, November 23, 2008

Is Quebecor back from the dead?

Is Quebecor World ready for a "return to greatness," as Printing Impressions suggests in the glowing cover story of its latest issue?

At first blush, it's hard to see an exciting future for a company that has already lost $1 billion this year after going Chapter 11. After all, the giant printing company acknowledged in a financial filing recently that it faced "challenging market conditions, resulting in price erosion and decreased volume in most of the Company's markets."

But dig a little deeper and you will find some signs of strength. Most of the $1 billion loss was a writedown of the albatross that almost brought QW to ruin, the European division that it sold in June. QW World has not used much of its debtor-in-possession financing since filing for Chapter 11 in January and experienced positive cash flow, though barely, in the third quarter.

An apparent blessing of the Chapter 11 filing, at least so far, is that counterparties canceled all currency-hedging contracts with QW, which has Canadian plants that produce items for the U.S. market. The U.S. dollar has gained more than 20% on the Canadian dollar since then.

Another blessing came from the U.S. Postal Service last year when it overhauled rates for Periodicals and Standard flats mail in ways that enhanced the incentives for co-mailing. Only R.R. Donnelley and Quad/Graphics are in the same league as Quebecor when it comes to large co-mail and dropship pools for mailed flats, and in this case size does matter.

Of the three, Quebecor's efforts have been more focused on the small mailers (with circulation of, say, less than 100,000) that have flocked to co-mailing in the past year or so and that gain such huge postal savings when participating in QW's large co-mail pools.

I was at an industry function recently where several executives talked of there being only three printers -- QW, RRD, and Quad. Certainly there are others, some of them sizeable companies with stronger credit histories than QW. But without rotogravure presses (rumored to be more profitable than offset), huge co-mail pools, and extensive dropship networks, it's hard to see how they can compete with the Big Three for most medium- and large-circulation publications.

Printing Impressions quotes company executives as saying the new QW is more streamlined and has fewer silos, doing innovative things like using available magazine press capacity (which no doubt there is a lot of these days) "to meet peak four-color educational textbook demand." And QW has definitely been more aggressive in recent months about reaching out to customers and potential customers -- for example, sponsoring and participating in webinars held by Folio: and Multichannel Merchant.

The big question is whether QW is now strong enough to ride out the turbulence of a severe recession and lean enough to thrive as many customers permanently reduce or even eliminate their demand for printing.

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