'Few markets can boast the UK's productivity': an interview with George Clarke

Jo Francis
Wednesday, July 4, 2012

From wannabe fighter pilot to battling for orders at a major press manufacturer, former Heidelberg UK managing director George Clarke reflects on his near-30-year career in print

When George Clarke handed over the reins of Heidelberg UK last year, he may not have expected to be standing in Hall 1 at Drupa, resplendent in Heidelberg tie and fielding enquiries from journalists, clients and prospective clients alike. But his was very much a phased-in retirement, with him spending the last year travelling the world, working on Heidelberg's go-to-market strategies. And the timing was such that this latter career role's ending coincided with Drupa - the perfect place to say goodbye. Before he did finally wave farewell, however, PrintWeek contributing editor Jo Francis  picked his brains on everything from wanting to be a fighter pilot to the future of printing in the UK.

Having a Drupa farewell was certainly good timing. How is retirement?

George Clarke It’s kind of strange. I’ve already had a year to get adjusted because leaving Heidelberg UK was the big one and I did that a year ago. You work with a lot of people for so long, it really is in your bloodstream – the people, the job, the company. You go through a mourning process, there’s no question about it. Whether you choose it or it’s forced upon you, you go through that process. And I chose it.

PW And how do you feel looking back now?
GC Wasn’t I lucky? I had a great period at Heidelberg. Of course, not everything was good in 27 years, but when you tot up the balance sheet, there were more good things than bad things. Way more. And not many people will have 27 years working for a company like Heidelberg. I count myself incredibly lucky. For future generations, to have such longevity will be unheard of. I feel for younger people.

PW What would you have done if you hadn’t been in printing?
GC I used to dream about being a fighter pilot. My father was a Spitfire pilot. I thought that was the most fantastic thing to have done and wanted to do the same. My dad said ‘no, the pension’s no good and you can only fly for a short time’. So that put me off it. Although, I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been worth it, to have lived to the absolute limit for a short time... It is a kind of unfulfilled thing.

PW So how did you get into this business?
GC My mother wanted me to be a lawyer, but I didn’t fancy that and my dad said ‘if I were you I’d be an accountant because it’s the quickest way to the top’. It proved to be good advice. I’m not a natural accountant because I’m not naturally careful and meticulous. I’ve always been in danger of doing the wrong thing quite dramatically. The best break I ever had was the one to go into sales. That was Wolfgang’s [Wolfgang Gorth, Clarke’s predecessor as Heidelberg UK chief] perception. That was the best moment.

PW What are your thoughts on the rate at which new technology in print is replacing the revenues and profits of the old?
GC The trouble is everybody wants to make it a simple argument. We heard the future was all digital printing, but actually digital printing is maybe even more under threat from the internet than other areas of print. I think the biggest factor that changed in my lifetime was moving away from the assumption that the growth in GDP would automatically result in an exponential increase in the printing industry. That link was broken in around 2000. That said, people are far too quick to talk about the demise of print. Obviously, we are going to see further erosion of some types of print, but there are other types of print that aren’t going to be eroded and have further growth potential.

PW Do you think a new industry is emerging where the good companies are leading the way?
GC In general, yes. Looking back and reflecting on things, the fact that it’s been a damn sight more difficult to raise money has been a positive thing for the industry. It has meant a faster adjustment in terms of capacity to the market. And a lot of very good names have been the ones investing, and a lot of the fly-by-nights have fallen by the wayside. It’s a great industry. Even with the troubles that it’s had, it’s full of interesting people.

PW What will you miss most about it?
GC The customers. I miss my colleagues of course, but what drives an organisation should be the customers. I can hear some of them saying ‘it’s a shame that wasn’t the case when you were in charge!’ Yes, we sometimes had fractious moments, but they were very good for me personally and the company. They kept us trying to improve our act. I do miss that. Customers are your adrenaline rush and it’s like a shot in the arm. Some of the happiest moments are when you’ve seen the story the whole way through, and you’re standing next to the machine and the customer is happy – maybe after some difficulties along the way. If your customer is happy and they’re prepared to say so, I love that. With one customer the best I could get out of him was ‘Okay’, but for him that was high praise. Honestly you can’t imagine how satisfying that was.

PW What do you think separates a good printing company from a bad one?
GC Really knowing what’s happening inside their own organisation. If you have a company where an operator isn’t really competent, and the owner doesn’t know that, then that’s pretty frightening isn’t it? When you go to a really well-run company there’s more than just a control system in place, all the staff are part of it and have bought into it. Management knows what’s going on, not because they’re snooping, but because there’s a culture of buying into the success of the organisation. If the shopfloor is separated from the management, you have no chance.

PW What are your thoughts about the future for the industry? You’ve been travelling around the world for the past year – what are your observations?
GC The industry is remarkably similar across the globe. The thing I have noticed is that not many markets can boast the same levels of productivity per press or per man as the UK. I think there’s a reason for that. Whether fortunately or unfortunately (and my sympathy is very much with the printers), in the UK, print managers drove the profit out of the industry very early on and that forced British printers to squeeze every ounce that they could out of the presses. I’ve been to other countries where they are doing trivial impression counts on machines that we would expect to get
60 million impressions on and they’re doing, say, 25 million. So there are some completely different approaches to productivity. From that point of view, British printers are pretty lean.

Sometimes they don’t spend enough time training or they’re not as structured as they could be. If they could take a slightly bigger picture in terms of maintaining and cleaning the machines and training their staff, they’d probably get even more out of their presses. Although I do understand that commercial pressures make it feel like they haven’t got time.

PW During your time at Heidelberg the company expanded into pre-press, digital, web and newspapers – and then retrenched. Do you think the glory days of Heidelberg are behind it in that respect?
GC There was an awful lot of hype back then. And Mehdorn [former Heidelberg chief executive Hartmut Mehdorn] was very adept at exploiting that. Having personally built up the digital NexPress organisation in the UK from zero to quite a substantial organisation, having to get rid of it was very difficult at the time. I must say, when you look back, we’d taken a wrong turn. The whole concept of high-volume digital is a contradiction. It would have been worse if we’d carried on with it. I found it traumatic at the time but it was a bit like cutting off a gangrenous limb. And web, I mean what’s the future for web printing? There’s more future in short-run magazines so our customers are probably quite nicely positioned. But big web presses? Thank goodness we’re out of it.

PW So you think it’s a good thing the company has gone back to its core know-how?
GC Some customers thought we’d lost focus when we expanded. Now, I believe this is the best product range we’ve had during my working life at Heidelberg. Maybe we were unstoppable kings with GTOs and MOs back in those days. But we never had strength as good as it is now. Are the glory days behind Heidelberg? I don’t see why. Heidelberg sits in a nice position. We’ve already seen that there were too many players in the market. At a certain scale, some organisations become effectively non-viable. You don’t end up with a service network at all – you just have a few people scattered about and that’s not the same thing. So from that point of view size and scale is an advantage to Heidelberg. I’d like to think Heidelberg can have glory days again, if it isn’t already having one today. You’re asking the wrong person. I’m obviously completely biased anyway. I know the effort we put into looking after our customers in the UK.

PW What’s your biggest regret, if you have one?
GC I wish I’d had longer as sales director. Altogether, I was very lucky and it was a very golden time when I first became sales director. We had a lot of fun. When you become managing director, you assume a bit more responsibility and it was probably less fun. Although, I tried to make sure we did have fun. Maybe I didn’t have enough time with my family and I’m trying to put that right now. You may laugh, but I said to my wife that as of the 1 May I’m going to be a nice man. The pressure of work sometimes came out in a grumpy, moody George at home.

PW I was going to ask you what kept you awake at night
GC Try sleeping if you have to walk into a facility and tell staff it’s being closed down the next morning. I still think about those decisions because they cut me up. You’re walking past people in the corridor and you know what’s coming tomorrow. I don’t miss that at all. And I don’t miss phone calls from angry customers where you’re holding the phone away from your ear waiting to find out what you’ve done wrong. I always understood why they did it, but at that stage you’re not in a position to help.

PW You must have had a few calls like that during the Speedmaster 74 crisis in 1995
GC That was a baptism of fire because I’d just taken over from Dennis Durham as sales director. The Speedmaster 74 was a great product, let down by relatively minor technical issues. But the press kept stopping and that’s not a minor problem if you’re a printer. The consequences of that, for us and for our customers, were pretty uncomfortable.

PW Ah yes, I remember the PrintWeek article explaining the faults and how they were being rectified very well indeed
GC That article went all around the world. And actually people read it and understood what was happening and what Heidelberg was doing to fix it. We spared no money in putting things right. Mehdorn stopped all R&D on B2 products and put the entire team onto identifying and solving the problems. It was a pivotal moment, and it proved that if you handle complaints properly you can recover the situation.

PW You’re only 58. Are you really going to retire?
GC I have been asked to do a little bit of work for Picon which I will carry on doing, which is a great pleasure. I’m not sure that counts as work. I’m also involved with my livery company, the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, just around the corner from Stationers.

PW The Cutlers? Not the Stationers? How come?
GC That’s my family background going back 200 years. I’m now on the Court and that involves regular commitments that will keep me busy.  I did sell Polar guillotines so I have had something to do with blades in my working life...

PW What was your proudest moment at Heidelberg?
GC It’s very difficult to say. There are lots of moments when you’re feeling very good about things. I’ve had a year to reflect, and in that period of introspection that follows your exit from a position, asking yourself whether you’re done a good job or not... the answer is there isn’t an answer to that.

PW You’re being very self-critical
GC I am. I wrestle with that. What I concluded was, if I did one thing right, I left a good team behind – some really great people. I was lucky to have been part of a team, and I think we were a powerful team and they’re still a powerful team. Powerful in the nice sense of the word.

PW What’s your favourite thing about being in Germany?
GC The first really cold Pils on the first sunny day when you can sit outside by the old bridge in Heidelberg. Heidelberg is a really beautiful town. It’s absolutely stunning.


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