Leigh Wilson bows out of industry after half century

Wilson: the industry has changed 100%
Wilson: the industry has changed 100%

Leigh Wilson, Intuprint technical sales manager and past MD of Midland Printers Supplies, will retire on 4 April after 52 years in the printing industry.

“I’ve enjoyed every second of it,” he told Printweek.

Joining the industry straight from school, he took up a job as an apprentice at a small lithographic printer in Wolverhampton.

“They were mostly letterpress, and they had a couple of these bloody awful Ryobi 3090s – a horrible little printing press, which almost prematurely ended my career in the industry, they were so temperamental,” Wilson remembered.

Thankfully, he moved on to an apprenticeship at a large printer in Birmingham, where he worked alongside two other apprentices on the press.

“We were helping to run Roland Ultras, which were fairly new back in the 70s – but they were built like tanks, and it took three of you to get a roller on.”

Wilson enjoyed his time exploring different types of printing and in the evenings, he was enrolled at Matthew Bolton Technical College, doing a five-year City and Guilds course, lithographic platemaking and printing.

“You started off making these awful plates, which were so far behind the technology I was using at work, it seemed I was going backwards.”

For five years he studied, doing eight hour days on the print floor before spending another three hours studying. For the final exam, students had to make plates and print 50 sheets of planned copy.

“You stripped your own negatives down, exposed everything onto a film, made your plates, and printed. 

“Luckily for me, my girlfriend at the time was studying to be a legal secretary, and had to learn how to type – so my notes were all beautifully typewritten!”

Wilson stayed another three years on the presses before getting “itchy feet”.

Thanks to this experience on the print floor, Wilson managed to find his way into the now defunct ink and lithoplate supplier Coates Inks – then a major player in the industry – as a junior salesperson.

“Now, 42 years later, I’m still here. To be honest, I’ve learned more about printing on this side of the fence than I ever would have if I had stayed in front of a press.

“It’s been fantastic – I’ve met some characters along the way, but it has been really good.”

At that time, there was an adage, Wilson said, that Coates trained, and others paid. He stayed with Coates six years.

“I had the finest training – and I was lucky to be right at the front end of UV [ink] growth in this country. Probably by ‘84, ‘85, down in the Northampton, Kettering, Corby area, we had virtually every single UV printer on our books – and that was back in the day when a kilo of UV varnish would cost you about £12!”

It was then that Coates decided to close its West Bromwich factory, and move to Nottingham. 

This was a lucky break for Wilson: “It sounds a bit fanciful, but I got a phone call from Michael Gibbon [of Gibbon Inks]. I didn’t know him at all, but he said he had heard that the factory had been made redundant, and wanted to put a factory in the West Midlands himself.”

Gathering up ex-Coates staff, Wilson was then put in charge of running Gibbon’s factory, and after four years was made regional sales director. Five years after that, Wilson was made redundant after Gibbon fell ill, and joined European Printing Inks, a small ink factory in the West Midlands.

“To cut a long story short, I ended up buying that little factory, called it Midland Printer Supplies, and ran that for about eight years – and then in 2008, we were hit by the banking crisis. Three very large customers turned turtle, and we could see our trade was decimated. A lot of printers in the area were folding.”

When Wilson got a call from David Coope, former managing director of Intuprint, he decided it was time.

“He called me up and asked how it was going – I said, ‘It’s pretty bloody tough, to be honest,’ and he asked me to come on board.

“Now, 15 years down the line with them, I’ve decided to call it a day.”

In those 52 years in the industry, Wilson has seen major changes take place – illustrated neatly by the changes seen in print’s trade shows.

Heidelberg, he remembered, would have the whole of Hall 1 at the NEC Birmingham to itself [at Ipex] – Roland had Hall 2, Komori had Hall 3: “Litho was booming back then, and we had some great times,” Wilson said.

“You had to be really fit to go for a whole exhibition down in Germany then, too – it was hard going – but it was just so much fun, all those years ago.

“But looking at the industry now, I see more litho printers decommissioning presses now, and putting in top-of-the-range digital, and I firmly believe Covid has brought digital on 10 years.

“Printing has completely changed, 100%. Unless you’re printing food packaging, or in another niche market like stamps or security, then – in my opinion – if you’re a B2 colour printer, with two five-colour presses and not much digital kit, you should be looking at getting rid of one of those machines, and putting something in that will earn you some money.”

Wilson will now take the opportunity to pursue his love of sailing.