Tributes pour in for an inspirational, one-of-a-kind leader

By Jo Francis, Monday 23 February 2015

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Law’s loss was most definitely printing’s gain. Few people achieve legendary status in their field, and legend is a much over-used descriptor. But it is an entirely accurate one for Bob Gavron, the founder of St Ives who died on 7 February aged 84.

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Lord Gavron (Picture: Rex Features)

Rarely has the word “wonderful” been used in so many tributes.

Although Gavron trained as a barrister and was called to the Bar in 1955, he opted instead to join a printing company as a trainee executive. 

After all that studying, and all those exams, why on earth didn’t he take up such an esteemed occupation? Brian Edwards, who was audit manager for St Ives at Ernst & Young some 40 years ago when he was talent-spotted by Gavron, has the answer: “He always said to me he didn’t want to be at somebody else’s beck and call all the time, and if you are called to the Bar that’s exactly what you are.”

So began Gavron’s printing odyssey, a journey that resulted in the creation of the most highly respected and successful print group of its day and made Gavron a multimillionaire, along with quite a few others. He was then able to follow his many interests in the arts and in philanthropy, and indeed politics. He became a Labour peer in 1999.

Before he founded St Ives Gavron worked at Commercial Aids Printing Service (CAPS), a company notable for the entrepreneurial talent that sprang from it: Gavron, Mike Hunter (Hunterprint), Ron Welch (Colorgraphic) and Ken Collier (Collier Searle) were among those who went on to start their own firms. 

Keith Murdoch, formerly of KL Litho, recalls: “Bob should be remembered for his legacy at CAPS. The new commercial TV channel (ITV) resulted in a growing advertising print market. The level of service demanded – estimates in half an hour, shift and weekend working – was unheard of among the old school. These demands were met by a small group of start-ups that also gave birth to many of the companies that dominated the print industry in the 60s and 70s and hastened the death of jobbing letterpress.”

By all accounts Gavron had great charisma and was a superb salesman. This, combined with a fine mind and an ability to bring out the very best in other people made him an exceptional businessman. 

“He knew what he was good at, and he got a bunch of people around him to deal with the things he didn’t like doing or wasn’t good at,” says Edwards. “He assessed your ability and let you get on with it.”

The beginning of what was to become St Ives PLC came in 1964 when Gavron took over a failing printing business that had a factory in the Cambridgeshire town. There is an apocryphal tale that we could have been talking about the ‘Gavron Group’ now if the branding experts of their day had had their way. Apparently Gavron commissioned the late Wally Olins to come up with a name for his fledgling venture, but rejected the eponymous option, eschewing that sort of Donald Trump-esque self-aggrandisement and opting instead for the suitably neutral ‘St Ives’.  

Going public

The business grew through acquisitions and then made the leap to flotation, in 1985, in order to be able to go after bigger and better targets. 

“The reason we floated was to have access to more capital, to get cash or paper [shares] for future acquisitions. The venture capital market was not as developed then as it is today,” Edwards explains. 

The shares sold like hot cakes with the initial placement more than four times oversubscribed. The minimum tender offer was £2.90 and the shares went for £3.30 at the group’s listing, when it was capitalised at £18m.

St Ives had sales of £16m and pre-tax profits of £1.8m prior to the float. 

The buys continued, with book printer Clays being one of the most pivotal purchases, also in 1985. Chase Web followed in 1986, and then Riverside Press and Burrups as part of the group’s meteoric rise. 

Andrew Clay, non-executive chairman at Clays, says: “Clays had gone through an uneasy time. Expansion in the UK, Singapore and China all came along at the wrong time and it was Bob’s vision that created the company that Clays became and was the foundation for our success today.

“I remember him saying ‘go back to Bungay and sort out the core of the operation’, and he sorted out China and the rest of the company.

“Bob’s ability to see where the company needed to be, to understand the market, listen to customers and motivate us into an effective team made Clays the number-one book printer. Although not always the easiest person to work for we all had the utmost respect for Bob,” Clay adds. 

John Waterlow, who was a director of Burrups when St Ives acquired it in 1987, also has vivid recollections of the energy Gavron brought to the table. “My first meeting with Bob was in July 1987, when St Ives acquired Burrups. His opening comment was ‘we are going to have fun and make money’. He was very lively and ready to do things differently. He enjoyed controversy and getting people moving. He was very charming and amusing, but also determined and could be a bit brutal. If your opinion was different from his you had to have a very strong logical case to persuade him,” he says. 

Astron founder David Mitchell, who in 1987 aged 27 cheekily wrote Gavron a letter saying “you need me”, has fantastic memories of his time at the group.

“He and Brian Edwards interviewed me. I thought things were going well when Bob proceeded to highlight my poor grammar and diction. I kept it together just. It was to be the start of a wonderful eight years with St Ives. He sent me to business school; he sent me to Japan, twice; and he moved me and my very young family, twice: to Tonbridge to run Robert Stace and then to Peterborough to manage what was then Kingfisher Web, a year-old site. Most of us would have gone to Siberia if he had asked us to,” Mitchell says.

“Bob was not the tallest person but he was a giant in terms of his charisma, his personality filled the room but above all he was an engaging listener. I left St Ives a year after he retired – he didn’t know it at the time but he inspired me to look beyond the corporate world and to have the confidence to make my own way.”

St Ives has, of course, been utterly reshaped since Gavron cut his last ties with the business in 1998, when he sold his last significant chunk of shares. Although he always maintained an interest and would of course recognise that big book printing plant in Bungay. 

The group’s present-day chief executive, Matt Armitage, says: “St Ives Group looks very different today compared to when Bob carefully nurtured the company in its infancy. It’s fair to say, however, that the legacy provided by his passion and brilliance has allowed us to remain securely at the forefront of the print industry, while expanding into many new areas of the marketing spectrum.”

At St Ives, and beyond, the legendary Bob Gavron has left a powerful legacy in print. 


GAVRON IN HIS OWN WORDS

In those days, a printer would do anything, from mail order catalogues to business cards. It seemed rather a waste of resources” (on the printing industry in the mid-1950s)

I got almost everything wrong for a while. The company nearly went bust on a couple of occasions. But I was learning by trial and error – and when the error predominated, we ran at a loss two years’ running” (on the early days of St Ives)

“We want to acquire companies and improve them”

“It pays like mad to invest” (on St Ives’ policy of investing in the latest technology)

You can teach intelligent people to print but you cannot teach printers to be intelligent”

You can go on making acquisitions as a private company by buying things from receiverships, which you can get very cheaply. If you want to grow at a faster rate it’s very much easier to do so if you’ve got a quotation for your shares and you can use them”

He has to be intelligent, sensitive, and discerning, but he’s also got to be constantly looking to improve service, machinery, quality and the range of products that can be handled” (on what makes a good manager)

I hate to see print going abroad from the country that had Caxton… we really should be doing our own printing.”

Marketing is the key to almost everything. By that I mean marketing in its widest sense: providing what the customer wants by buying the right machinery, having the right people, and linking the individual units to a customer’s requirements”

We decided the money could be spent in better ways” (after opting not to launch a bid for BPCC in 1988)

It’s never easy to let go when you’ve founded something and looked after it for nearly 30 years. I’ll step back a couple of feet. It’s time I took an advisory role” (on stepping down as the group’s chairman in 1993)

It would have been quite nice to be Lord Chief Justice, but I don’t really regret my involvement in print” 


READER TRIBUTES

“Bob was a truly remarkable person. His achievements as a printer are legendary but I will remember him more for the happy times we spent together as friends. He was a man who enjoyed life to the full and helped others to do the same. His smile was infectious and will remain just one of the many things I will miss.”

Lord Heseltine Chairman of Haymarket Media

“A master of timing, what more is there to say!”

Miles Emley who succeeded Gavron as St Ives chairman

“I knew him for nearly 40 years. He was a wonderful man to work with, and a brilliant salesman. He was only 65 when he left the industry. I’m sad he left so young.”

Brian Edwards Former St Ives group managing director and chief
executive

“He was an inspirational business leader who generated tremendous respect from those who worked closely with him. He made you want to drive the business forward, he recognised effort with praise and reward, and he cared about his team.”

Ray Morley Former group finance director at St Ives

“Bob was an amazing and admired boss, who gave us freedom to make our own decisions but always managed to add many important suggestions. He also gave several of us the opportunity to become shareholders in the company and benefit in the success of St Ives PLC – an opportunity that was much appreciated. Many thanks Bob. Rest in peace.”

Peter Livermore Former sales director at the St Ives web division

“Bob Gavron was well respected in the printing industry – not just by companies but also by FOCs and MOCs in St Ives and other companies, and by national and regional union officers. He built the St Ives Group at a time when the web offset industry was a cut-throat place to do business; contracts were won and lost almost on a weekly basis and were hard fought for, but Bob was seen as being reasonable and was open to reach agreements that were fair. Bob seemed to have been around forever. He came from an era when web offset magazine printing was at its zenith and employed thousands of print workers. Meeting Bob was a day-to-day occurrence for some NGA and Sogat (later GPMU) officials and those who knew him well I recall always referred to him as ‘Bobby’ Gavron!”

Tony Burke Assistant general secretary, Unite the Union

“I admired him from afar. He did a great job in overseeing the growth of St Ives. I remember him buying a company in Caerphilly for £250,000 and thinking he was quite mad. That was the start of the St Ives web division.”

Ian Cooper Former chief executive Cooper Clegg

“Without Bob Gavron none of the successes could have happened. He was a wonderful person and will be sadly missed by many of us who were lucky enough to know him.”

Andrew Clay Non-executive chairman, St Ives Clays

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