Developments and Problems at Sun, 1950s to 1980s

by Fred Frost

Late 1950s to 1960s

On joining the company in 1958 one sensed a feeling of optimism arising from its recent growth and success. The relatively recent completion of the Process block [the long, flat-roofed building that can be seen in Timeline photos for 1957 and 1960 – Ed.], and plans for a further extension for Composition, Letterpress, and Solvent Recovery increased the general feeling of security. A great deal of the company’s success and its lead in the gravure market had been on the back of technical innovation initiated and encouraged by the Greenhill family, who remained prominent in the company. Confidence in the benefits of new technology was borne out by the establishment of a physics lab, in addition to other existing labs supporting ink manufacture and plating departments. A small pilot lab was also in existence for testing photographic and cylinder-making processes. While the latter was manned from specialised trade backgrounds (H. Weedon and E. Cummings) the others were staffed with degree-level personnel (F. Goode, E. Plaut, J. Riley and of course Dr G. Fuchs and G. Cohen). These labs and their personnel (except the ink lab) formed the core of a much larger technical department that developed into the 1970s. A sophisticated mechanical engineering department under D. Berry also provided maintenance and refinements to the presses and folders.

Management science was also emerging in this era in the form of method-and-work study. Operational Research was established under Kenneth Harman to optimise new production methods in many areas, including cylinder production and handling. Francis Hedge provided drawing skills for specialised equipment and layouts, while Roy Evans and Bill Page, in particular, had specialist skills in time-and-motion study. In hindsight, the clandestine manner in which this department had to operate may have been instrumental in polarising trades union attitudes towards the company’s quest for increased efficiency. Using Operational Research, Sun initiated incentive schemes that required some degree of work measurement to quantify bonus levels that were based on performance. While relatively simple to implement in machine-based production processes, it was also desirable to assess the many manual and craft-based operations in Bindery, Composition, and Process. Predictably, various unions resisted the observation and timing of their members’ operations. As a result, units of performance often had to be developed from submitted time sheets, where available. Otherwise, units of work from a department were discreetly counted and evaluated against the number of man-hours used, to give a basis for performance. In hindsight again, while the concept of work measurement was an essential component in developing a degree of capacity planning and forecasting, the unions learned to adapt the incentive schemes to their own advantage. Also, any innovation, investment in plant, or improvement in technique became a negotiable issue with an expectation of improved wages or reduced hours.

While production volumes, sales, and profits were at their peak in the early 1960s, management attitudes towards such union pressures were relatively easy-going, if only to deter labour movement to Odhams in North Watford. In reality, the system of reward became one of payment before results instead of by results. During negotiations, each union would focus on its own members’ interests, to the exclusion of others. It was natural to exaggerate benefits, knowing the company would be unable to reduce an award after agreeing to it, or consider reductions in labour without threat of serious industrial action. It was against this background that Sun Printers, with some 3,600 employees at its peak in 1962, tried to remain solvent in a print market that was already turning away from high-volume gravure products and highly-priced, high-quality sheet-fed letterpress. It is a credit to those involved with managing the company through the ensuing years that it survived as long as it did. The way in which the union representatives became involved – even recognised – as the company’s communication system with its employees did the company no favours at all. It allowed the unions to utilise what is now known as ‘spin’ to maintain the notion of ‘them and us,’ while often clouding reality. Management’s preoccupation thus became one of change/innovate/negotiate, while often unaware that this effort would be insufficient to secure the company’s future.

1960s to 1970s

It was during the mid-Sixties that Sun Printers became disconnected from its own family leadership. It joined Purnells (1966) to become part of the newly formed British Printing Corporation (BPC). For a short while another family connection from Purnells (Hugh Lavington) took up the reins at Sun. After this, a procession of different managing directors with little or no experience of the gravure industry arrived on the scene. Arguably, printing experience may not have been necessary had they been highly qualified in crisis management. One of the most interesting early experimenters was Michael Feilden. His experience came from the Northampton boot and shoe industry and like some of his early predecessors he had a reputation for innovation and promoting efficiency. Unlike his predecessors, however, he brought along his advisor, Paul Jackson, who openly declared his intentions and worked closely with managers to understand the business and provide different solutions to their problems. While being quite creative, his term of office was too short-lived to yield significant results.

Although flat-bed sheet-fed letterpress had run successfully for many years alongside the gravure operation, its existence was now being threatened by the growth and quality of offset-litho printing. Sun’s letterpress department supported many employees in the composing and comprehensive binding facilities. Bob Wilkinson, who managed the printing department, was an enthusiatic innovator and tried anything new that might retard the decline of letterpress. Supported by Norman Keeble and Ken Dowdall, he introduced K&B Rotafolio 4-colour rotary sheet-fed presses in an effort to raise productivity and reduce costs. Unfortunately, the specialised curved plates required for these presses were both expensive and difficult to use. Ultimately, the project failed. There was an acute awareness at the time that letterpress printing was coming to an end. If enthusiasm for the survival of letterpress had been all that was needed, the department would never have succumbed. Sun – and BPC – now faced a dilemma: whether to move into offset or deal with work-force reduction consequent on the closure of letterpress. Within the group there were other companies with capacity in offset. The issue was debated and in 1969 the decision taken against developing litho printing at Sun. Protracted union negotiations took place that resulted in some reduction in labour, and a significant number of affected workers were absorbed elsewhere in the factory. A small number of letterpress machines (including recently purchased Dawson Payne Elliots) were moved to a site in the main factory warehouse area. The composing room with its associated hot metal equipment and Rinco proofing (still essential for gravure editorial text), was moved into the now-vacant Sun Engraving premises just up Whippendell Road.

Web offset was also beginning to have an effect on the gravure print market. Although both the print runs and the colour pages for the long-term main contract for Woman’s Own were slowly declining, the Sunday Times Colour Magazine and TV Times (first contract) provided substantial support, with print runs exceeding one million. However, existing and emerging magazines with print runs often lower than half a million were being snapped up elsewhere at more competitive web offset prices. Publishers were also beginning to project their magazines at defined age groups, special interests, and so on. The market for wide-appeal, massive-circulation magazines (the kind best suited to gravure) was in decline. New work was desperately needed.


For many years Sun had looked after its valued long-term customers through Dennis Wells, a highly respected figure in the company. Now, in order to sustain or increase gravure printing volume, an active sales department was set up by Roy Smith, one of Sun’s more notable managing directors of the era. About 1970, he recruited Michael Knowles as sales director to find new gravure work for Sun. Under the pressure from web offset, pricing for Sun was often extremely tight. Marginal costing and ‘making a contribution’ became the buzzwords of the day. Lucrative mail order work in the spring and autumn was balanced with less-profitable holiday brochures, gun catalogues from the United States, and risqué monthly publications such as Men Only and Club International. In principle, if the new work could run 4 x 4 colour, full-out on wide webs, the gravure product could compete reasonably well with web offset at press runs as low as half a million copies. However, in-house repro costs could soar uncontrollably with overtime, to the point where any ‘contribution’ was seriously eroded. Ken Sands, Process management, joined the sales team along with Alan Nockles (son of Bert) and Joop Kramers (European sales), in an effort to fill the plant with work. Bob Lawrence, Process manager, also became heavily involved. He travelled widely to collect new clients’ origination and processing details during the peak season. Back at Sun he was then faced with managing the progress of this work through the Process departments while trying to keep costs to a minimum. Although company production planning (under Gerald Mowbray and later Cliff Line) was a well-tuned operation, Process overtime and the way in which it was negotiated with NGA/SLADE frequently compromised schedules, and in particular, cost. Quality was often affected because the best people could not always be used. “Busy fools” was an expression often heard in management circles. In some Process departments earnings were extremely high, and employee morale was artificially buoyed because of this. By 1970, BPC was under pressure from the banks not to risk major industrial conflict that might bring the Corporation down. Sun Printers represented a considerable part of this risk, and so senior management had to walk a tightrope to keep the operation alive. As a result of obtaining more-complex and higher-quality short-term contracts, the demand for outwork and customer-supplied colour separations increased. NGA/SLADE insisted on overtime levels at or above 25% of the basic weekly wage in the repro sections before customer-supplied positives or outwork would be accepted. Our competitors in Europe routinely used specialised companies to produce the required colour separations for quality gravure results. This made possible predictable quality at predictable costs with a reliable delivery. In spite of educational visits abroad to show the repro sections how our competitors were dealing with the situation, the unions refused to yield up their high overtime earnings. Personnel director Donald Martin lived through these ‘years of discontent’, wage freezes, and ACAS [Arbitration and Conciliation Advisory Service] before leaving to find a more peaceful way of life.

Clive Bradly came in as managing director in 1973, with a formidable reputation from the paper industry. Another new arrival was Bob Phillis, as personnel manager/director, later as managing director, who became an inspiration to many managers at Sun. Bradley and Phillis began to lay the foundations of change that survived until the Maxwell era. Bob Phillis took over from Clive Bradley as managing director in 1977, having set up initiatives to challenge the power of the unions and improve management confidence, using consultants with experience hard-won during the British Leyland crisis earlier in the decade. Bob Phillis left, as a relatively young man, upon the arrival of Maxwell, and went on to greater things in the TV and media industry.

In the pressroom, long-term-contract customers were demanding sectionalised products that needed collating capabilities that could mix gravure sections and litho sections, glossy covers and inserts. To facilitate this change, pressroom director Brian Reynolds became responsible for a heavy investment in Muller Martini stacking (as ‘logs off the fly’) and off-line collating equipment. This was in the context of falling gravure page content in long-term-contract magazines. Frequently, Woman’s Own and Sunday Times would require sections smaller than 56 pages, allowing them to be run off two-set (i.e., two copies per press revolution) in half the scheduled time, often leaving presses idle for long periods.

In the late Seventies, one of the largest gravure printing contracts, TV Times, which Sun had earlier lost to Bemrose (Liverpool), came up for renewal. Sun Printers saw some degree of salvation in this contract, fought hard for it, and won it. TV Times was a complex production with regional variations involving weekly print runs in the order of 3 million copies. Brian Reynolds again organised significant investment in two new 13-unit Cerruti presses. Maxwell arrived on the scene just in time to launch the job with his usual flamboyance. Unfortunately the advertising and associated editorial colour content didn’t materialise as anticipated, and the job declined to a shadow of Sun’s expectations. After about two years, the gravure component of TV Times often contained so few pages that it could be run off four-set. More wasted assets! In addition to under-utilised presses, the offline collating facilities increased overhead costs and reduced overall cost effectiveness. In this way, Sun’s printing operations were being driven by market forces. The result was increasingly complex demands on an already high-cost work force, within a building that was now becoming physically too large.

1980s: The Maxwell Era

When Robert Maxwell made his dawn raid on BPC in 1980, the group was already in debt to Nat West for more than £17 million. Having convinced the bank that he was the man for the job of rationalising BPC, Maxwell lost no time in making his presence felt through closures, threatened closures, and survival plans. At Sun Printers there were memorable meetings at which the whole workforce was assembled in the factory area. Unbelievably, he was cheered at one event when he declared all personnel over 65 would be retired immediately and that a small sum of cash would be invested in a Sundowners club for their benefit (at this time there was no agreed retirement age and some employees with little or no pension could otherwise have chosen to continue working).

Roy Hodgson, a highly regarded industrial relations expert in the printing industry, followed Bob Phillis as Sun’s managing director. Much of his time with Maxwell was spent advising on conflicts with other companies as well as those within Sun. An “unauthorised obscene” overtime cost incurred in the Process department caused the departure of Mike Jose, the financial director, who was replaced by Reg Mogg. Much favoured by Maxwell, Mogg nevertheless wisely avoided close involvement and soon left the organisation. In 1982 Peter Lavington (ex-Purnells ?) briefly became managing director, then Paul Crowe in 1984, and finally, John Hart in 1985. It was John Hart who became the final anchorman for Sun Printers. He was the only ‘permanent’ managing director under Maxwell who was able to command some respect for his forthright attitude at a time when others showed little independence. He was instrumental in making sure everyone in the company knew where it was going as a business. For the first time, he established direct credible reporting to both management and unions. He also gave priority to management’s ear – a first within living memory!

With the Company under severe pressure from Maxwell to reduce its labour force through voluntary or forced severance, the need for company stability imposed a heavy load on its personnel directors. Initially this was the responsibility of Alan Pankhurst, appointed earlier by Bob Phillis. Shortly afterwards, David Staton (always ‘Bill Stanton’ to Maxwell), a Sun ex-NGA/Comps FOC, was promoted to the personnel post by Roy Hodgson. His experience of union attitudes at Sun was essential to keeping the operation on the rails. Ian Fraser also joined the company as sales director, frequently acting as managing director when Roy Hodgson was away. With Gerald Mowbray as production director in the early 1980s, Production was reorganised to become Press (which now included Despatch and Warehouse) under Brian Reynolds, and Pre-press under Ray Cox. Clive Brooks (ex-Odhams) became engineering director. Technical experts drawn from Production Management were appointed to support these departments: Mike Batchelor (Pressroom), John Clarke (Composition), and Fred Frost (Process). Under Maxwell’s axe it was important to preserve the skeletal components of Sun Printers and avoid serious damage to the company’s moving parts while it was being rebuilt with injections of cash and adrenaline.

Two significant Maxwell initiatives affected Sun in the early 1980s – changing methods in pre-press, and the closure of Odhams.

In pre-press, hot metal was being replaced by phototypesetting. A Ferranti C S 7 system was operational at Sun, with Maxwell pressing to complete the transition from hot metal in order to achieve reductions in labour. By then, Crosfield Electronics was actively developing computerised page makeup systems for colour graphics. During 1982 Maxwell agreed to a substantial investment in this field at Clarke & Sherwell’s redundant gravure site in Northampton. This project was developed under the direction of Gerald Mowbray, supported by Bob Lawrence, both experienced former Sun management people. In addition to the ‘film free’ page make-up operation, Maxwell agreed to a joint pilot project with Crosfields to develop laser-controlled cylinder engraving. This was undertaken at Sun Printer’s site, and in spite of significant union issues at the time, the project was manned by NGA/SLADE personnel working with a Crosfield development team. If the vision had turned into reality it would have been possible to produce colour pages at Clarke & Sherwell, transport the data to Watford using portable 300 MB disk packs, and make cylinders at Watford, thereby circumventing ongoing problems with traditional repro techniques. Although the capital cost to achieve this objective would have been very high, the principles had been well thought out and were ahead of their time. Unfortunately, the plastic material used for the laser-engraved cylinder surface failed to stand up to the wear and tear of the presses, and the laser-engraving project was ultimately terminated in 1986/87.

In 1983 Maxwell had agreed with Reed International to purchase Odhams’ North Watford plant – probably with the intent of selling the whole site for development. Odhams had experienced similar industrial problems to Sun’s, but that firm’s sudden closure under Maxwell meant a bleak choice for all its employees: either immediate redundancy or moving to Sun. For Sun, it meant additional work from Odhams. Many Odhams employees took immediate redundancy, but a considerable number moved to Sun, bringing their very favourable redundancy terms with them. Although valiant efforts were made to smooth the transition of work and employees to Sun, the superior redundancy terms retained by the Odhams people were to remain an issue with the remaining Sun employees. Following the closure of Odhams, a further Maxwell pre-press site was developed at the North Watford plant, but this considerable investment was lost when NGA/SLADE, perceiving their probable demise at Sun, refused to co-operate in manning the facility. In hindsight, this stance may have given Maxwell an excuse to scuttle the project. By this time he would probably have been planning the redevelopment of the North Watford site for the Mirror newspaper printing operation, which eventually materialised early in 1988. The lead time to manufacture and install the 12 MAN newspaper presses that were involved in that project would seem to support this argument.

Most of Odhams’ machinery went into storage and was subsequently put up for sale, with the notable exception of a 13-unit Albert press. This had only recently been installed at North Watford, and was now transferred to Sun to run alongside the existing 10-unit Albert ‘mail order’ press. Odhams’ Helioklischograph cylinder-engraving machines went into storage because Sun’s laser-engraving project was still under way. Production cylinders, meanwhile, continued to be made by traditional methods, though these were refined by modern technological developments such as Auto-film (a replacement for ‘carbon tissue’) and a much-improved registration system that had been developed by Sun employee Dave Cave in earlier years. Scanned litho separations replaced continuous-tone positives, eliminating the need for most of the Retouching and Studio personnel. A relatively large Planning operation remained, but the Process repro department was now a much more compact operation under the management of Roger Gilbert. A great deal more colour control was achieved by pre-proofing on Cromalin prior to cylinder making.

During 1986, as it became clear that the laser-engraving of gravure cylinders would not be successful, Maxwell entrusted Ray Cox, the pre-press director, with specifying, purchasing, and installing new mechanical engraving equipment for cylinder making. The target was completion in 6 months. With few alternatives in the field at the time, the latest generation of Helioklischograph hardware and software was purchased from Hell in Germany. A new chrome-plating installation from K Walter complemented the investment.

It is important to recognise that one reason for our pursuing laser engraving at this point was to avoid the onerous procedures and the manning levels established at Odhams for the Helioklischograph. It was also our intent to establish completely new production procedures through the new technology, by using a predictable cylinder-making technique and letting customers see the Cromalin proofs only immediately before going to press. This would eliminate the conventional submission to the customer of a gravure proof, and the subsequent need for a team of engravers to revise the proofed cylinders. A week would be cut from the usual elapsed time to press, and there would be a concomitant saving in manpower.

The transport and handling of cylinders had long been a NATSOPA/SOGAT prerogative, and great efforts were also made to automate cylinder movement at this time. This project involved considerable input from Engineering manager Peter Draper, who, at short notice, found a company to build an automated crane to load the new equipment.

By the time Sun purchased its Helioklischographs, the world had moved on. Odhams’ manning and procedures were history and no longer had to be seen as a precedent. The Helioklischograph department at Sun was established with a small, dedicated team selected from traditional cylinder-making skills. A training programme put the team under considerable pressure and it was a credit to those involved, Gary Rippin, Mike Kerse, Robin Bush, Dave Wakefield and others, under the supervision of George Chamberlain, that so much was achieved in such a short time. The essence of Sun Printers was always its ability to rise to technical challenges. Even as gravure was coming to an end at Watford, some of Sun’s employees from more than thirty years earlier were still contributing to ‘making it happen’.

I felt personally very angry about the waste of effort when Maxwell closed the gravure operation and transferred the work to Purnells. I’m sure this feeling was shared by many others at the time who were actively engaged on projects and were totally fooled by Maxwell’s stated intention that Sun Printers should become his ‘flagship’. Having been told we would be ‘taught by the rocks if not steered by the rudder’ there was just a little irony in his nautical end.


Although I have made no mention here of Sun’s gravitation to offset, this transition demonstrated once again that, in essence, the firm’s survival was still possible, given the ability of its labour force to adapt and to meet new challenges. Sun’s employees were printers with the skills needed to put images of any quality on any paper by any method. Had this fact been properly recognised, there could have been less market-driven thrashing about and perhaps much longer survival.

It now appears that gravure is reviving, with two new plants under development in the North. Having lost the baggage of its past, the process will surely reassert itself as a competitive printing option. If the huge printing cylinders can be kept busy with colour pages, gravure’s cost effectiveness, reliability, and quality must surpass web offset. Maybe someone has designed a product to suit the process!