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Commex Concepts - A lesson in how to grow a thriving and diversified business.
By Alison Whyte

Within twelve months of launching his new poster business, Michael Alcorn was recruiting his first employee. That was in the late 1980s and today the business has grown beyond recognition, from offering a single service to offering multiple display and signage services and a hardworking team of eight.  It has been a staged growth with selective expansion into new areas followed by a period of consolidation.  Commex Concepts now operates in four key areas: Design and Print, Signage and Display, Framing and Engraving, and Architectural.

Michael Alcorn began by importing posters and then laminating and block-mounting them on timber.  His background as an auto-electrician and service-station owner meant he had both the hands-on experience with machinery and a knowledge that he wanted to have his own business.  His only equipment was a vacuum press and his workshop tools.

CommexBuilding Jetrix workshop1
The Commex  premises at Bowen Hills The Jetrix printer The workshop

Over the next fifteen years the business grew as clients started asking for additional services such as picture-framing. In the early 1990s, Michael turned his hand to learning the tricks of the picture-framing trade and installed more equipment, and towards the end of the 1990s when clients began asking for point of sale materials, the business moved into manufacturing.

Cut out transparent perspex light features for Carina Leagues Club
Custom designed and manufactured POS display for Kitten Damour, Brisbane
Limited edition printed aluminium wall feature for Avdkart
Backlit foyer murals for Mariners Peninsula, Townsville
Cut out aluminium feature wall panels for a private residence in New Farm
Reverse printed glass wall feature panel for a local hotel’s premium room

Michael’s son Aaron is now General Manager of Commex. He remembers starting out by helping with the framing on weekends and in school holidays.  ‘I didn’t really think of joining the business while I was at school,’ says Aaron, ‘but when I left school it seemed like a logical progression.’ In 1999 he began his framing apprenticeship in earnest and from there moved into each of the other production areas until he was familiar with all aspects of the business.

By 2004 the company was outsourcing a lot of print for their existing client base, particularly in the architectural field, so the decision was made to purchase a flat-bed Océ printer. ‘Flat-bed technology was new,’ says Aaron ‘and it was exciting to be able to print directly onto so many different materials. Our competitors hadn’t got the experience we had in cutting rigid substrates like timber and glass, so we found we could offer clients an appealing comprehensive package of services.’
Today, Michael and Aaron share the business development responsibilities while their team of six (two in manufacturing, two in print and design, and two support/admin staff) keep the production side fully operational.

Commex Concepts occupies a 600 sqm commercial property in Bowen Hills close to the centre of Brisbane. ‘We brought the building in 1990 and it still serves us well,’ says Aaron. ‘However, we are utilising every bit of space at the moment and if we purchase any more equipment we will probably have to move further out of Brisbane to larger premises.’ The building is exceptionally clean and well organised and Aaron hopes it will see the company through for the next 3-4 years. ‘Fortunately we’re very organised people,’ comments Aaron.

Current equipment includes a Zund I-Cut (for cardboard and thin plastics ); a Gravograph LS900 laser engraver for acrylic and glass; a Multicam router with extra large machining bed to cut out timber and metal substrates up to 40-55 mm thick and up to 3600 x 1800 mm in size; a Gunnar mat cutter for framing mounts; a table saw, drop saw and drill press; a Jetrix 3015 flat-bed printer; a Seiko V64S low solvent printer; an Epson 9800 inkjet printer; large format 1100 mm Océ scanner; Hilton 1300 mm heat-laminating machine; and a plethora of computers, both Mac and PC.

Aaron is optimistic about the opportunities for Commex. ‘We have such a wide range of products and services,’ he says, ‘that we’re only limited by the capacity of the sales team.’ He goes on to say they have recently widened their focus from selling solutions to specific client problems to taking a range of products out to prospective clients such as architects, and showing them ideas they can incorporate into the solutions they are offering their clients.

‘We’re also branching out into retail by using satellite websites,’ adds Aaron.  He explains that their ability to print imagery directly onto glass using the flat-bed printer means they can produce highly attractive custom glass splashbacks for which there is a rapidly growing market.

By working with other suppliers, Commex has also been able to develop additional solutions, such as aluminium feature walls, fences and gates.  Using the router to cut aluminium and other manufacturers for construction of fencing and gates, they offer architects the ability to deliver striking solutions for their clients.

‘We’re excited about expanding our customer reach through joint marketing ventures,’ says Aaron.  ‘For example we are working with one of Brisbane’s leading nurseries. We’re about to install a sample board of aluminium cut-outs at Nova Nursery which has a huge number of visitors each weekend, so for the first time we will have face-to-face retail exposure.’

The principle challenge for Commex is maintaining a steady level of growth, but Aaron also cites retaining and training staff as another issue. Currently all training is done in-house. ‘Generally new recruits have basic skills in one area of our business such as signage, and we can then expose them to different materials and expand their expertise.’ Aaron continues, ‘Picture framing is a little different and essentially that becomes an apprenticeship.’ Multi-tasking is important in a small business and according to Aaron, they have brought their website SEO (search engine optimisation) in-house and as a consequence have invested in training their receptionist to manage their various websites for maximum coverage.

Networking through the Professional Picture Framers Association of Australia, the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the BNI Breakfast Creek Wharf Chapter gives Mike and Aaron access to like-minded business people across a range of businesses, which they find extremely helpful with a diverse business such as Commex.

As Aaron sees it, diversity is the key to differentiating their business and their decision to control the size of the business and maintain the family base means it is very simple for customers and suppliers to deal with Commex.
The next step for Commex would be to add another type of manufacturing process to their stable of offerings. But according to Aaron, he and his father are happy to consolidate their growth with their current structure before taking that step.

Commex Concepts