5 May 2020

Bucking the trends in business - Plaspress

| Suzanne Kiraly
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Photo: Supplied.

Enamoured with his accent, I met Andy Tattam several years ago, when I was looking for a highly specialised business (in Sydney at the time, as I didn’t believe I could find anyone here in Canberra), and came across his little shop in Holt, purely by accident. I have been working with him ever since, and in the intervening years, Andy has expanded the business to include extra offerings. (At the time, I was interested in creating a plastic welded PVC product to house the new card games I had created.)

Expanding the business also meant moving the business from a retail environment to working from home. A move that is not uncommon nowadays because of rising rents and freedom from ‘retail hours’ time constraints to the business owner.

Today, the website boasts:

  • Screen, PAD, Foil and Digital Wide and Small format printing;
  • CD, DVD and USB supply replication, printing and packaging;
  • Conference and promotional products;
  • Welded PVC products.

Andy’s is an immigrant success story and we should be pleased that he chose Canberra in which to settle down and raise his family.

Born in the UK, his father and mother had emigrated to Rhodesia in 1952. His father, an ex-commando, had related wartime experiences with ANZAC troops and how he loved their irreverence for the Officer class and authority in general. After the war, he had planned to stow away on a ship to Australia with the help of someone in the ship’s Galley, but the individual had apparently got drunk the night before and missed the boat. His stories must have sown the seeds for another life destination.

In 1978, after a protracted 12-year conflict involving constant military commitments, Rhodesia was set to become Zimbabwe. Not having much confidence in the future, Andy and his young family decided a move was essential. Meeting two Aussie itinerants at a gym in Harare, ‘Bluey’, a wickedly good-looking bloke with flowing locks who had to be hidden from the women, and his pugnacious mate the ‘wombat’, (signifying Aussies’ predilection for nicknames – and you couldn’t get more Aussie than those names!), rekindled thoughts of Australia and a world away from independent Africa and its woes.

So the Tattams decided to take their allocated $1000 in assets, move to South Africa as a stepping stone, and started another print business to accumulate some funds to get them here. He reminisces about how he flew his wife and child to Johannesburg and drove from the then Salisbury to Fort Victoria, after which he had to drive in an armed convoy as the hold on that part of the country was a little tenuous at the time. They divided the vehicles into two parts: cars and caravans. He had a car with a sailing boat on top and towing a beach buggy containing the family’s worldly goods. He was slower than the cars but quicker than the caravans and consequently ended up alone between the two with weapons out of both windows, just in case.

His brother and sister-in-law had emigrated to Australia in the early 80s and offered to sponsor the family from South Africa, so he took the plunge, arriving in Canberra with his wife and three children in early 1987, although once again shackled by asset transfer restrictions of the then internationally sanctioned South African government. First, he worked as a handyman, and then he secured a position with Verbatim Australia as their Canberra operative. After many successful and enjoyable years in the Corporate environment, he realised that self-employment was probably the only path to once again try to create some sort of family wealth and independence. The entrepreneurial spirit provoked him to try the printing business once more, so he started Plaspress from his garage in 1997.

Twenty-one years later, the business is still running. The print industry paradigm, however, has changed radically over recent years. To survive, they have had to move from commercial premises, downsized staff and equipment and embrace digital technology to once again operate from custom-built facilities, but at home. His wife also has an online E-business supplying precious metal clays and ancillaries for the manufacture of jewellery – www.metalclay.com.au – another very highly specialised industry, also running from the family home.

“Life is good, he tells me.

Reminiscing about business in Canberra over the years, he remembers the large contracts from government departments that enabled the fledgling enterprise to succeed and survive.

Asked about the ‘tough times’ being in business, he says that it is all relative. In the 70s and 80s, Rhodesia and South Africa experienced numerous conflicts rendering them uncompromisingly harsh environments. He remembers being amazed that one could adapt and become immune to living in those conditions amidst the heightened levels of violence around them.

The concept of a social net or any form of state benefit in Africa is unknown. New to South Africa in 1978, they experienced for the first time having very little food or money, no relatives to assist and at the same time, the relief of being able to travel on a dirt road without the ever-present threat of landmines.

Arriving in Australia was truly a ‘hallelujah’ moment.

“I realised we had come to a place where the state works for the people, not the other way around, and that you cannot put a price on peace of mind. There is a generosity of spirit in Australians entrenched in the vernacular of the ‘fair go’, and I wish I had come here as a much younger man. I realised what my father must have seen all those years ago. Happily, I was able to bring him out here once. I took him to a Canberra Pub with peanut shells on the floor and a dead possum in the rafters and he never stopped talking about it,” Andy tells me.

As for the wins, Andy refers to some of the huge jobs he managed to win with government departments.

Nowadays, however, he is niched up – he makes badges for schools, services the sports market with difficult shapes (an art form), and he has tooled up over the years, with one of the first wide-format printers in Canberra and lots of engineering machines to do all that he needs to do.

And although he says, ‘there is never going to be enough money to break out the deckchairs’, he and his wife make a decent living, given that they came to this country with very little.

But of course, it’s not always about the money either.

“I live in the best city in the best country in the world. My children are imbued with Australian values, that same sense of fair play and an absence of prejudice. I’ve had a lot of fun, met a lot of people and made lifelong friends along the way,” he added.

I’m convinced that he’s one of our imported and much treasured and talented success stories in our business community in Canberra. You can check in with Andy at www.tattam.com.au and if you do, let me know if you love his accent as much as I do!

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