David Fry

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Oxford University Press is by some measures the largest academic publisher in the world. Group logistics director David Fry says OUP is a department of the university but is run as a commercial business with the university exerting a light business touch. It provides a multi-million pound contribution that Oxford can use in areas from capital investment to student bursaries.

Despite the name, OUP isn’t a press. Printing has long been outsourced. Rather OUP’s activities centre around attracting and commissioning authors, pre-publication activity from editing to marketing, contracting for printing, binding and other manufacturing services – and of course distribution and fulfillment on a global basis.

A curious feature of academic publishing is that it isn’t price-sensitive in the usual sense. Texts have to be brought in at appropriate price bands but the real competition is for authors and adoption – that is, getting the text onto departments’ required or recommended reading lists. The academic adopter will have a mind to the affordability of a text for undergraduates, post-graduates, libraries etc, but the real key is fulfillment.

The distribution net is complex although Fry has simplified it greatly. ‘We have a distribution centre in Corby in the English Midlands with a big call centre. This stores and distributes books directly to the UK and Europe, but also to representatives in 75 countries of which 20 are our own warehouse operations and the rest are agencies. The ones we own also do their own publishing.’

Publishing is becoming much more demand-responsive, says Fry. Digital print on demand is becoming important especially for big ticket specialist texts. This has put pressure on litho printers to reduce their economic batch quantities, ‘especially in mono – we can order by the hundred, where it used to be by the thousand’.

Colour work still benefits from print runs in the hundreds of thousands but this tends to be school texts and books that have steady demand patterns over a long life, says Fry.

‘Book production is an odd process. There’s a massive machine in the middle and a Victorian focus on making this bigger, better and faster. But it’s only a small part of the process. There are stacks of raw material – stacks of material waiting for the bindery.’

Fry says there has been a big change of emphasis towards the processes around the machine rather than the machine itself.

‘We’ve been inspired by other manufacturing industries and concepts like the Toyota Production System and Single Minute Die Exchange. Like other industries we’ve had to tackle eight week lead times that contain process times measured in hours.

‘But I believe we can apply this thinking throughout supply chains, distribution centres, even offices. The lead time on acquiring the document set for a letter of credit is a good example. We can sharpen up, reduce waste, cut lead time – actually little of this has anything to do with the performance of a Heidelberg press. But of course you have the frustration of the modern office. It’s difficult to apply process management techniques when all your processes are supplied by Microsoft.’

The best efficiency measurement tool in the supply chain is lead time. To get short lead times you have to have slick processes. Fry achieved this at a previous company manufacturing high-tech electronic components, initially with a central DC that was supplying 20 satellites around Europe. But as UPS developed its European network direct delivery and faster DC processing reached the point whereby the 20 satellite warehouses could be eradicated.

‘I moved into publishing at a time when the DC was barely shipping product. We had a big problem and a bad reputation,’ says Fry. ‘There was no culture of process management, of TQM. So we kept it simple. We did some basic housekeeping, followed by six or seven years of continuous improvement. Last year we had about 100 teams applying themselves to processes. Now we need to broaden out. We are adopting the EFQM model, we are involved with the government’s “Vision in print” initiative and we are getting results.’

  • Fry graduated in Mathematicsand Business Studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.
  • He started his career with Chloride, initially in manufacturing and then in the automotive parts distribution business. He then moved to a manufacturing role with Colgate Palmolive and then to Raychem where he spent 20 years as the company transformed from a technology-led to a commodity business. At Raychem he became vice-president, European Operations, with manufacturing and supply chain responsibilities.
  • He joined Oxford University Press as UK operations director ‘to rescue it from an IT disaster’ with a brief that extended over IT, printshop, logistics and many other functions. He then became group logistics director, responsible for logistics operations worldwide.
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