Fulmer was my first job after university and very probably the best grounding I could have had for what was to come. I secured my post of Research Investigator after an interview with Norman Waterman (which I attended wearing odd socks and despite asking for a scotch with my lunch).
I joined Fulmer in October 1975 and resigned in the spring of 1980, my two activities of note having been working on the Fulmer Materials Optimizer with Norman and taking over the editorship when he left; and a project – in effect a literature search – on asbestos substitutes. The latter culminated in a small publication which augmented Fulmer’s more practical activities of analysing and identifying samples of suspect fibrous materials. Asbestos – Characteristics, Applications and Alternatives hit the market at the right time, and, though somewhat overpriced, sold around 700 copies.
In 1980, my offer of a job at Morgan-Grampian Publishers (M-G) came on the day that we moved into a new house in Slough’s Grasmere Avenue, so we put it on the market on the same day! M-G was based in Woolwich, which in pre-M25 days meant a house move; but also in those days, relocation expenses were paid, and we accordingly moved into our house in Blackheath in July 1980, where we have lived ever since.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and if only I had known at Fulmer what I subsequently learned about editing and publishing, the Optimizer as a publication would have benefitted enormously. And if the sales department at M-G had been let loose on selling the considerable skills of the Fulmer scientists, what a thriving business it would have been.
M-G was another wonderful company to work for and gave me an excellent grounding in publishing. In addition, I was given every summer Wednesday afternoon off to captain the company cricket team! My first role was as Associate Editor on a monthly title called Design Engineering, under the direction of a lovely man called Robbie Robinson, who was approaching retirement and was in relatively poor health. However, the new addition to his staff (me!) duly reduced his workload and stress levels and we worked together for around 5 years. He then semi-retired and I took over as Editor. In this role, I was responsible for hiring and training several trainee journalists, including Bill Goodwin, who became infamous for (rightly) refusing to divulge his sources; and Chris Rand, who became a prominent business partner of mine in later years.
In the early days, my copy had to be produced on a manual typewriter. Getting it into print involved a lengthy, cumbersome process involving many stages, with proofs travelling to and from Woolwich and our printer Buxton Press (Derbyshire). I was sent on typing and shorthand courses – a thorn among roses as all the other students were about 18 and female! Even though I could not match their speeds, typing is a skill for which I am eternally grateful, though I never really mastered T-line shorthand!
Towards the end of the eighties, computers were taking over, including Acorn’s wonderful BBC B and Alan Sugar’s (I assume no relation to Eddie) cumbersome Amstrad word processors. Early implementations of publishing and layout software emerged for desktop IBM PCs and Apple Macs. Circulations originally managed using record cards were moved onto computer databases. As more business functions were automated, I learned valuable computer programming skills.
Meanwhile, my Fulmer connections persisted: in the autumn of 1982, I presented a paper at the World Symposium on Asbestos in Montreal, Canada, a country which at the time still had a significant interest in asbestos mining and was not that keen on the concept of substitution! I also survived an interview on Canadian radio.
The trip also gave me the opportunity to meet my counterparts in New York, working for M-G’s sister title in the US. Two of the editors were of Irish origin, and one in particular had – shall we say – fairly entrenched views about Irish partition, a highly charged subject at the time. I subsequently made many business trips to the US and Europe, visiting many major industrial cities. I also continued to work on the Optimizer on a freelance basis, as the editorship passed to new hands, including Ursula Lenel and Les Wyatt.
M-G was a very successful company and was initially part of Express Newspapers. It was later spun off into an independent entity called Fleet Holdings. Although Fleet was a wonderful company to work for, having shed the shackles of a larger corporate, as a small profitable entity, it quickly attracted the attention of the sharks. After I left in 1992, it was broken up, with part being sold to a large US publishing house called Miller-Freeman, and part – including Design Engineering – to Centaur Publishing (of which more later). Morgan-Grampian House – a distinctive three-winged structure with eight floors in Woolwich – still stands and has somehow been converted into private flats! My only connection with it now is that the car park is our local bottle bank and recycling centre!
After 12 years at M-G, I left in 1992, perceiving that M-G had become something of a glass ceiling for editors, with virtually all senior management positions going to sales people. This produced a very effective sales operation, but which (in my view at least) was virtually devoid of any meaningful strategic thinking.
My next move was the only one I regret making, but which actually turned out to be the best thing I could have done. My role at the Design Council publishing division gave me the strategic and managerial responsibilities I craved, but the organisation turned out to be a madhouse. As a “Quango”, the publishing division had been allowed to operate at staggering losses. With most of the staff being on “old civil service” contracts, they were, if not dedicated to the downfall of the organisation, content if it should happen, to receive their generous redundancy pay-outs.
Regular personality clashes with my immediate boss and the Chief Executive meant that I was really unhappy at the Design Council and started to look around. After discussions with the late Bill Bowyer, I came close to joining ERA Technology. But I eventually decided against, because of the long journey to work round the M25 and not wanting to disrupt the kids from their education. Had I done so, it seems that I would ironically have been reacquainted with several of my former Fulmer colleagues.
I must have been working for the Design Council at the same time as my FHRG colleague Brian Knott. But although I was able to cut the publishing losses by around 50% in a year, it was too little too late, and the DTI wound down the organisation to a skeleton, managing outsourced services instead of being a service provider. As Brian’s activity was transferred to the Institute of Materials, the publications were auctioned off and I received a redundancy payment amounting to around six months’ pay – generous by today’s standards for a mere two years’ service. It was sufficient to take the bold plunge of setting up on my own, a leap I would not have had the courage to take, had I not been pushed.
Unlike Brian’s experience when made redundant by BNF, redundancy was the best thing that ever happened to me. Jo and I sat the two kids down on the bottom stairs and explained to them that “Daddy was going self-employed”. Livia interpreted this as code for “We are all heading for the poor house” and bawled her eyes out. But I had the security of knowing that I would be joining the editorial team of an up-and-coming publication called Industrial Technology (IT), edited at the time by that former trainee of mine from M-G, Chris Rand. Chris and I have now been firm friends since the mid-eighties and have worked together on many projects. It has helped that we attended the same school (though not concurrently) and support the same football team (the Tractor Boys). Along with Norman Waterman and Robbie Robinson, I rank Chris as the greatest influences on my career.
I left the Design Council on the Friday and started work for Chris on the following Monday. Everyone on Industrial Technology (IT) worked from home – and still does. Never one to miss a trick, Chris sent me a fax at 9am on Day One advising me “not to be late for work.” Thus began 26 continuous years of working from home. Alongside editing IT, I edited other titles in the electronics and printing industries.
It was a time of plenty. And then, the internet happened.
Chris (and to a lesser degree I) recognised that this represented a disruptive technology which could be both a threat and a huge opportunity for publishing – something which the large, inflexible publishing companies were totally oblivious to (that thing about a lack of strategic thinking). Together, we wrote a computer program ourselves to run an online publishing system; and in 1999 we launched Pro-Talk, the first online publishing offer for the engineering and manufacturing sectors. Perhaps to our surprise, it sold itself and attracted the interest of many of the advertisers from the print titles. A key advance was to hire a top salesman from the print magazine business, bravely funded at the time by a mortgage on the Blackheath house!
To our continuing amazement, the business blossomed into 13 titles, and we expanded from our dining rooms to a business employing 34 people. By 2006, it was turning over around £3.5 million per annum with low overheads. I was happy with this lifestyle, but our roles were becoming less hands-on and more man-management, which did not suit my partners.
In addition, like M-G earlier, we had attracted the interest of the larger publishing companies. Ultimately, after several enquiries, we hired Grant Thornton to advise us on our options. A Dutch auction and some protracted negotiations ensued, and we sold the business to the afore-mentioned Centaur Publishing for an initial consideration of £4 million, plus earnout.
As it turned out, we sold at the right time, because almost immediately, unforeseen changes to the way that Google worked affected the traffic which was coming to the sites. No-one saw this coming, but it affected the growth potential of the business. While Centaur will have recovered their investment, they did not get the returns which they had hoped for – and neither therefore did we. It was sad that the Pro-Talk business was eventually absorbed into other online businesses and ultimately vanished without trace. Centaur had already bought my first publication Design Engineering and subsequently closed that as well. The Engineer, its venerable sister publication, survives to this day, but this too was sold to another publishing house, where it appears to be doing well.
After the 2006 sale of our start-up business, we invested in property in the UK and Italy and I spent a few relatively quiet years travelling, enjoying family life, playing cricket and undertaking ad hoc assignments. With my sister-in-law and Italian husband, we bought a significant property in Italy with the intention of retiring to Tuscany. Our respective parents (of which we had five!) were also in their declining years and all needed care plans. Concurrently, I channelled my passion for cricket into building a junior cricket coaching business in the local Greenwich area.
Latterly, I have resumed an editing career, both in print and online, working for a small number of clients. In 2011, I was the launch editor of Controls, Drives and Automation (Western Business Publishing) and stayed for eight years. I am now working for its major competitor, DFA Media, on three titles (Drives and Controls, Smart Machines and Factories and Plant Works and Engineering). It is challenging and enjoyable and once again I seem to have fallen on my feet.
Notwithstanding the pandemic, the outlook is promising for technical writers and editors – through their websites, every manufacturing company is a publisher these days, but many, especially the smaller ones, lack the full spectrum of skills required to populate them. While the industry remains challenging and exciting, I have no wish to retire! And while I can still work, play cricket and run the coaching business, I plan to stay in the UK. After that, Italy beckons.