Interview: 'It has always been about excitement'

It's fair to say that British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF) chief executive Kathy Woodward is passionate about print.

However, she’s just as passionate about the role of ‘people power’ and how it enabled her to blaze a trail in change management at The Daily Mirror, become one of the lynchpins of realising founder David Mitchell’s dream of creating the ‘Capita of print’ at Astron, and build a £100m-turnover telecoms business from scratch. So giving the ‘Fed’ and the industry at large a makeover should be a walk in the park by comparison.

Darryl Danielli You’ve had a fairly colourful career in print, how did you get in to the industry?
Kathy WoodwardHow far do you want to go back? I graduated with social sciences degree from Lancaster, did a postgraduate degree at Manchester and then joined ICL. So I was in high-tech when it was exciting. I did quite well there [becoming organisational development manager] and loved it, you’ve got to remember that at the time ICL was competing with IBM and ICL’s entire turnover was less than IBM’s R&D budget, but we were still producing products that could compete and a large part of that was around the people story.

How did you get your foot in the door at ICL?
To be honest, I got in because my dad was worldwide support director. He had about 5,000 engineers under him, so it was absolutely jobs for the kids. After I had been there a while though, out of the blue I got a call from a headhunter asking if I wanted to come and talk about a job that was one of the ‘major cultural change stories’. So I went along, it was for The Daily Mirror, so the British Newspaper Printing Corporation (BNPC), to manage their cultural change from Fleet Street to the new Mirror colour printing plants, where they were going to put in 21 Colorman presses.

Presumably you bit their hand off?
Not really. Tony Britton, Alan Rowe and someone from editorial interviewed me and I just thought they were bonkers. I had a great career at ICL and had a lovely life and just assumed I would never hear from them again. But then they called back and said ‘we want you – how much?’ I can’t remember if I tripled or quadrupled what I was on at the time, just thinking that would be a polite cheerio and they just said ‘yeah, that’s fine, when do you want to start’.

That must have been a pretty daunting introduction to print though?
Yes, but it’s when I absolutely fell in love with print. I remember standing on the deck at Watford when we had all 10 presses pumping out 700,000 copies per hour and I thought it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. For me it still it is. It’s the instantaneous creativity of the industry: one minute it’s white paper and ink in a bucket, and the next minute it’s fabulous product that is going to be in every home in the country. When people talk about the industry being down, I just can’t get it, because I can’t shake that image of Saturday night on the Wharf.

But how did you get into commercial print then?
If you remember, Maxwell sold off the British Printing Corporation [which ultimately became Polestar] and they asked me if I wanted to go over as development director. We hadn’t got a lot of money and we needed to create a company out of 50-plus businesses, so we had to do it on people power and involvement and that was the start of another great journey for me; where I learned about packaging, labels and commercial print. I had a whale of time and recruited Barry [Hibbert, now Polestar chief executive] into the industry while I was there.

He’d never seen a press, and hadn’t actually managed a lot of people at that stage either, but when he presented, he was dynamite. I came across a lot of exciting guys in those last few years at BPC and I was looking for a manager for Milton Keynes. The first person I offered it to was David Mitchell, he turned it down, and the second person was Barry.

Was that when you met Mitchell?
I met David earlier when he worked at St Ives and I was working on a project for the privatisation of Scottish Hydro for BPC. I really liked him; he had a drive and a passion. He’d wanted to set up his own business and he bought three small print companies, Orbital Press, Satellite Press and Kadocourt in 1996 – and he had this dream to make Astron print’s answer to ‘Capita’.

Did professional print management exist in the 1990s though?
It was the first move to take outsourced buying from a print brokerage to a total-lifecycle, value-added proposition. I believe it was the first time that anyone really looked at the total print supply chain and asked ‘what does the customer really need’.

Surely there were printers already offering these kinds of services?
In a way, although what we were doing back then was selling guaranteed savings to the customer. There were many printers making very healthy margins out of that activity and understandably they didn’t want to make the harsh decision to cut back those margins to get a bigger slice of the action. There was also the fact that we had to invest millions of pounds in the software system that sat at the front and gave the customer all of the analysis they could want and also integrate with their infrastructure. Not to mention our major investments in warehousing and distribution, so there was an awful lot of investment to take us beyond the basic print model.

So what you’re saying is that the industry at large wasn’t ready back then to take that leap of faith that companies like Astron did?
It was massively outside of most printers’ comfort zones. We were recruiting software engineers and grasping and taking a lot of things on faith, in that a lot of the people we were recruiting were out of our intellectual league as far as software design and development was concerned. In many ways it was the same challenges that print companies face today, with cross-media.

Do you think that there are lessons from the rise of print management that may be useful when it comes to printers embracing cross-media then?
Yes. What we were trying to do then was take systems innovation, alongside people innovation, alongside customer interface innovation. And it’s the same today. It’s about merging cultures and learning from each. It was a massive knowledge transfer.

So basically you practised the key management art of nicking other people’s ideas.
Absolutely. And what it enabled us to do was gain the ‘emotional commitment’ of our customers. That’s what we had throughout the business and that’s what made it work; if you can get your customers to buy in and really sell for you within their own organisations, then that’s when you know you’ve got a really powerful model.

Was it as simple as that, just understanding your customers’ businesses?
And getting that whole hierarchy of understanding them strategically, but also what the purchasing, marketing, logistics teams are trying to achieve and what their challenges are. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to over-gild it – we got it wrong sometimes.

You left Astron in 2002, three years before it was bought for $1bn by RR Donnelley. Where did you go?
I become chief executive of Fonebak, so I was out of the industry for five years. We started with nothing and then won the contracts to take back every mobile phone operator’s returned mobile phones as they were swapped out. We then established it across Europe.

Not exactly a logical move, how did you get into that?
Not wishing to blow my own trumpet, but don’t forget I had a pretty high profile by this stage. I was headhunted and as Gordon Shields, who is one of the UK’s leading entrepreneurs, owned the company I didn’t need asking twice. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some truly brilliant people.

But what happened to Fonebak?
We then did an MBO from Gordon Shields and then floated it and put it alongside Regenersis. The thing that was important for me was all that learning at Astron, was it repeatable – and yes it was.

Without wishing to sounds crass though, you’ve clearly done pretty well and money isn’t really an issue. So what tempted you to take on the job at the BPIF?
Because I’m passionate about print and I’m passionate about training. Michael Johnson [former BPIF chief executive] asked me to present at a BPIF session and I said that the Federation had to be less flatfooted and start ‘going for it’ and he was great, and said ‘if you think you’ve got a contribution to make, come and make it’. So Kay Smith, who was my operatons director at Astron, and I took on the training for two years and then I came in as chief executive in 2011.

So two years in, is the Fed ‘going for it’?
I think we’ve still got more to do and to some people the image is still about ‘yesterday’, the number of people out there that still think our primary purpose is to do the annual pay negotiations is frightening. There haven’t been any annual negotiations for four years. Now, we’re about lobbying, for example.

Lobbying for what though?
Well, one thing is that it’s important that we are seen as part of the creative industry and not a legacy manufacturing industry. You get a very different reception if you’re seen as part of the creative sector.

Skipping back a bit though, you really didn’t need to do this job and I get that you’re incredibly passionate about print, but why take it on?
The potential to impact the industry. This industry has been great to me. It has given me a great career and given me a level of financial security. I don’t want to sound like Mother Theresa – because I’m not. For me it has always been more about excitement than money and the graduate programme [which the BPIF won £1.1m of government funding for and launched last month with 250 delegates] was always my dream. It’s about getting the excitement back into print. 20 years ago there wasn’t really an internet, so people didn’t buy on the internet, people didn’t run their businesses on the internet – it is a totally different business model. I think there’s a whole market there that we haven’t addressed.

You mean in terms of potential customers?
Yes. It takes me back to my time at Fonebak; we started with sales of nothing and then went to £10m, £20m, £50m and £100m and not once did anyone call me about our print requirements. Also, print is cheaper today than it has ever been...

What do you mean by cheap?
I mean that it offers the highest level of return on investment it has ever offered. You can have an incredibly cheap email campaign, yes, but the ROI is nowhere. If you combine it with print though, it’s incredible. There’s a massively untapped market too when it comes to cross-media and it’s a market that the agencies aren’t ever going to be interested in...

You mean SMEs?
Absolutely. It’s about selling cross-media to other SMEs. I think if we get that right then we can revitalise the industry. I almost want to do an Astron story for the whole industry, and key to that is about launching a big training programme and networking opportunity and getting those young managers, and industry stalwarts to learn from each other. And then I think we’ll have a great story, and we won’t just be bullshitting, we will be part of the creative industry, because we will be contributing to the success story of British SMEs.

But surely print is quite unusual in that it has one clearly dominant trade association, so you should be in a strong position to have meaningful impact on the sector?
I think we’re in the position where we can make a real difference. We’re on all the major seats, we have seats at the CBI, Intergraf, Manufacturer’s Alliance, we’re on a number of government strategy committees so we have a voice and we are heard, which many of the smaller federations aren’t.

So what about merging with some of those smaller trade associations?

I think it would be a good idea in principle, but I think you would need a different industry figure than me to take the Fed down that path.

You’re not thinking of leaving though?
Well, my two-year contract was up this month, but its been renewed as an open contract.

Do you mean that you are considering leaving then?
Not at all, there’s no timescale in mind. But equally if I thought we’d found the perfect replacement then I would leave tomorrow. My dream was always that I would go and take on another challenge before I retire.

Do you mean that you’ve achieved what you wanted to with the Federation?
It’s not necessarily that. I just think that there’s probably someone better out there for the next stage of the BPIF’s development: front-end marketing, which I don’t think is in my skillset. I think we need someone who could look at how we get print into multimedia marketing. I think if we got the marketing director of a big brand for example, then I could see that sort of person being perfect.

But couldn’t you just get that person on board to work with you?
But we couldn’t afford them, unless they’re chief executive.

Do you think how we ‘market’ print is the biggest challenge facing the industry?
Of course not, but I think we have to engineer our image and that should be on our agendas at all times. But image has got to be backed up by something. I think if I’m honest its about skillsets. Companies need to be brave enough to take on software engineers, media engineers, data analysts and brave enough to make the investment in those skills. I’m not sure that everyone has got the money to make those investments though, so it will be about how they develop shared skill relationships through partnering with others.

Is that something that the Federation should be assisting with?
Yes, but we’re still trying to work out what the skillsets are. The graduate training programme is a step in the right direction, but we can definitely do more. One of the things we have to talk a lot more about as an industry is the ROI of print. I’m on the board of Print Power and its hosting a website where printers can upload case studies of where print has had a real impact, because openly talking about ROI and other knowledge transfer information like that is critical to the industry’s wellbeing.

Do you think the BPIF represents good value though?
Absolutely. But we need to get the message out that we’re a federation for the industry – it’s not just about individual members asking what they get for their £3,500 this year. We are hampered by the people that only want to have that discussion. I get that our members need to see ROI and every penny has to work, but they get a huge amount free and for what they get it’s fantastic value.

What’s been your proudest achievement?
The graduate scheme.

And outside of the BPIF?
Astron, definitely. But, if I could be greedy: the Astron story; the Fonebak story and getting the government to stump up £1.1m to fund the BPIF graduate training scheme.

Final question: you’ve spoken a lot about Astron, so I’m guessing that David Mitchell has had the biggest influence on you professionally?
What he taught me was that you can be a tiny little company and you shouldn’t be afraid of the size of your dream. But actually, in a similar vein, it would probably be my Dad that’s had the biggest influence. Before the War he worked as an apprentice at [British press manufacturer] Crabtree and when he was selected for service in the RAF he was standing in the rear gunners’ queue and he looked over at the pilots’ queue and he saw all these ‘nobs’ in it and thought ‘I’m going in that queue’. He then became a pilot, DFC and Bar and went on to be one of the most senior directors at ICL. He taught me the lesson that you should always think big and don’t think about where you’re standing now, think about where your potential can take you.


1980-1986 ICL where she became organisational development manager at the computing giant
1986-1989 British Newspaper Printing Corporation, development manager managing the cultural shift out of Fleet Street for the The Daily Mirror’s print operations
1989-1996 BPC, development director helping the 50-plus companies to become one unified business
1996-2002 Astron, group operations director, from its early days and through its merger with Tactica Solutions
2002-2007 Chief Executive of telecoms start-up Fonebak, where she led an MBO in 2004 before taking it public in 2005
2007 Set up training provider Partnership Educations with Matthew Turner (a former non-executive director at Astron), acquired Management and Personnel Services
2009-2011 BPIF Training chair
June 2011 to date BPIF, chief executive

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