One Customer’s Viewpoint
by Doug Richardson, Manufacturing Director, TVTimes, c. 1980-1985. The thinking and decision-making behind TVTimes becoming the first hybrid magazine to be produced by a combination of web offset and photogravure.
I was recruited by Independent Television Publications (owners of TVTimes) following the retirement of Ron Taggart in January 1980.
When I started at TVTimes the magazine was produced by Eric Bemrose Ltd in Liverpool, being printed entirely by photogravure, with approximately two years remaining of a seven year printing contract.
At that time the ABC figure for the magazine was approximately 3,800,000 copies per week, built from the 13 regional editions. Regional quantities ranged from 1,000,000 for the London region down to 35,000 for Border Television.
Looking to the future, the directors of TVTimes were extremely concerned over:
• Very long copy dates for advertisements (42 days prior to publication).
• The increasing level of inaccuracy of TV programme listings pages, where TV controllers would change programme transmission times after copy had been sent to the printer, and due to the extended manufacturing cycles that could not be changed.
• The increasing threat of deregulation for TV listings, negating the Radio Times and the TVTimes dual monopoly, which would give rise to a multitude of smaller, more flexible magazines which would also carry TV programme listings.
• The lack of flexibility and income-generation potential afforded by a single-site, single-section, finished-on-press process.
• The very fragile nature of the British photogravure industry which, following decades of poor management and militant trade union restrictive practices, was imploding on itself.
I was briefed by the then editor of TVTimes, Peter Jackson, to evaluate the feasibility of producing the TVTimes as what became known as a “hybrid product,” which would address most of the concerns raised above.
Peter's concept was:
• A sectionalized common magazine product with a variable pagination ranging from 64 pages to 112 pages produced by gravure, this element concentrating on less time-sensitive TV and personality features.
• 13 regional time-sensitive programme listings each of 32-page sections, to be produced by a group of web offset printers each of whom would be located within the heart of the regions they were printing for, thus minimising distribution times, etc.
• A regional 4-page cover printed on high-gloss coated paper, which would provide a “quality image shop window” and could also exploit regional editorial and sales opportunities.
It was felt that the combination of benefits afforded by this package would maximize circulation and optimize advertising income.
It would also provide a manufacturing plan that would allow the TVTimes to repel any new competition coming into the market as a result of deregulation and, in addition, leave the magazine less exposed to the disruption which historically had so often been caused by printing strikes/restrictive practices.
The “Jackson Plan” was creative and sensible, and, had it been suggested some twenty years later, would have required very little research and soul searching.
It was, however, 1980 and we should remember the shape and fitness-for-purpose of the printing industry in Britain at that time.
The market consisted of:
• Sun Printers and Purnells, both riddled with militant extremists within their work force, and owned by the near-bankrupt British Printing Corporation, headed by Peter Robinson.
• Eric Bemrose, the incumbent supplier, owned by News International, whose UK chief Bruce Mathews had made it very clear that no further significant investment would be made at their gravure plant in Liverpool.
• Odhams Ltd, owned by IPC, who had already stated that their manufacturing policy was to close or sell their manufacturing plants and rely on buying in printing capacity. It was also the case that the record of industrial disruption at Odhams was even worse than that of the companies listed above.
At this time, Varnicoat had not invested in gravure, and Watmoughs were still recovering from the loss of their major mail-order catalogue customer.
Significant large-volume magazine colour-printing capacity was almost non existent in this market:
• HunterPrint, owned and headed by Michael Hunter, were the only exciting and expanding web offset printer with new printing equipment and exciting investment plans at their plants in Peterlee, Radlett, and Corby.
• Chromoworks, in Nottingham, headed by Alan Moss, and Pettys of Leeds, headed by George Gath, both owned by Peter Robinson's BPC, had been starved of any real investment for well over a decade.
• Carlisle Web Offset, owned by Michael Lewis of the Oxley Group, was at this time a “bit player” and in serious financial difficulties.
• Severn Valley Press in South Wales, owned by the St Ives Group, had limited old presses but at the time a very strong and able management team headed by Bob Gavron.
• Varnicoat in Pershore, owned by Brian McHardy, was well equipped and geographically well positioned, but in my opinion did not have a robust management structure and at the time had no real understanding of the complexities and pressures surrounding the manufacture of high-volume, time-critical magazines.
• Ben Johnson, in York, had recently been sold to RR Donnelly and, headed by John Capstick and supported by a major injection of capital, were emerging from a period of stagnation and were clearly going to become a major force.
• Jarrolds of Norwich, headed by Peter Jarrold, a well-respected colour printer, was focused far more on shorter-run quality magazines and mail-order printing. It is interesting to note that at this time Jarrolds was not interested in securing a regional share in what was to become a seven-year contract with contractual index-linked annual increases.
There were other web printers around but they were not serious players.
In addition to the lack of 4-colour machine capacity, there was a need for significant investment in all of the binderies.
Oh! I almost forgot! There was also the small problem of finding an uncoated paper that would allow the web offset process to produce 4-colour printing to an acceptable quality level.
At the time there were only two paper mills developing such a paper: Saugbrug in Norway and Kirkneimi in Finland, the latter calling their grade WSOP, which later became the generic name for heat-set web offset paper.
As can be seen, to seriously consider placing the future of the largest and most lucrative of magazine contracts into the fragile hands of the English web offset industry made for an act of intense faith – some would say bravery and vision, others, folly.
By the middle of 1980 Bob Phillis (now Sir Robert Phillis) had become my new managing director at TVTimes and the person with ultimate responsibility for making the decisions regarding our future manufacturing plans.
Working very closely, we eventually selected our team of suppliers. It must be said that not every supplier chosen had our total confidence; we were both, however, committed to bringing a new sense of understanding, trust, and mutual fair play to the relationship between supplier and customer.
To this end, seven-year contracts were negotiated and prepared, ready for a signing ceremony to be held in London.
The team of suppliers being:
• Typesetting & pre press: M1 studios and Waterlows Dunstable (both companies owned by BPC)
• Common gravure section and the binding of the London and Southern regions: Sun Printers (owned by BPC)
• Regional covers: Ben Johnson (owned by RR Donnelly)
• Regional 32-page sections:
• London & Southern regions: printed by Chromoworks and bound by Sun Printers (owned by BPC)
• Yorkshire, Granada and Anglia: printed and bound by Pettys (owned by BPC)
• Central, Wales & West, and Westward: printed and bound by Severn Valley Press (owned by St Ives Group)
• Scottish, Grampian, Ulster, Border & Tyne Tees: Carlisle Web Offset (owned by Oxley)
I have detailed the ownership (specifically of the BPC companies) because of the effect of the dramatic Robert Maxwell dawn raid on the British Printing Corporation approximately 4 weeks before the signing ceremony was to take place.
Following Robert Maxwell’s successfully securing control of BPC, he rather arrogantly demanded a meeting with Bob Phillis and advised Bob it was his [Maxwell’s] view that the prices and terms of the BPC contracts were unacceptable and he required them to be adjusted significantly in his favour.
Bob responded by stating that his position was “all BPC Companies were treated no less favorably than any of the other selected suppliers,” and that he was not prepared to adjust anything within the already-agreed contracts. He emphasized that the signing ceremony would take place on the arranged date, and if the BPC companies were not in attendance, he would sign contracts with replacement suppliers.
Following this meeting, Bob's brief to me, which I duly arranged, was to select alternative suppliers to all the BPC companies, with alternative contracts ready to sign on the scheduled signing date. Maxwell, knowing his bluff had been well and truly called, proceeded to sign all the contracts unchanged.
The new “hybrid” manufacturing plan was launched some eighteen months after the signing ceremony, and the outcome was a revolutionary success. The manufacturing vision for the TVTimes, conceived by Peter Jackson, was now a reality. It delivered record profits and an unprecedented record of on-time deliveries.
My view of Sun Printers from a customer’s perspective was:
• Of all the suppliers within the new hybrid team Sun Printers were the company I was least confident about.
• Because of our lack of confidence in Sun Printers we moved the entire production team of TVTimes into offices within what had been the old hot-metal composing room at Sun. This was done so that we were physically able to monitor what was happening and where Sun Printers were, relative to time schedules.
• In practice, Sun's performance was never better that just acceptable, and during the first eighteen months was of a standard that a decision was taken by the board of TVTimes to terminate the contract. I conveyed this decision to Stewart Fraser, Sun’s commercial director, and a meeting involving the board of TVTimes, Robert Maxwell, Sun MD Hugh Lavington, and Stewart was arranged. Following this meeting Sun's performance improved and termination was not applied.
• After visiting any of the other suppliers within the “hybrid team” I was always left with a feeling of having totally committed suppliers, all extremely keen to achieve their very best for the TVTimes magazine. At Sun Printers my personal impression was one of a workforce that believed they were doing me a favour, “and think yourself lucky”!!
• As to whether the difficulties we experienced related to our dealings with Sun (or BPC) management, or whether union militancy and disruptions were the main irritant, senior management at Sun were unfortunately mere puppets for Robert Maxwell, with little or no autonomy or authority. Sun's middle management suffered from being stuck in the middle between ineffective senior management and a workforce that left a whole lot to be desired.
• Following the period of threatened cancellation, Maxwell purchased Odhams from IPC, which left us virtually no real alternative. It was also around this time that I moved from TVT to take up a senior main board role at HunterPrint, which by then was a successful PLC.
• Print quality levels at Sun were only ever adequate and this can best be seen by comparing the quality of You magazine as printed by Sun, and by Watmoughs when it moved there.
• As you will be aware, forty years or so ago there were over 3,000 people employed at Sun. Today there are none, probably because as a general statement the workforce was not committed to the ongoing success and future of the business. Far too many staff were only interested in maximising their respective incomes, abusing the sickness schemes, and pillaging the pension scheme.