Humble beginnings are no barrier for print’s high flyers

By Jo Francis, Monday 11 September 2017

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Apprenticeships are back in vogue, and understandably so. The advent of tuition fees has caused young people considering whether or not to study for a degree to reassess their options, and who can blame them? An apprenticeship, and the opportunity to earn while learning, can compare favourably to studying for an expensive degree that’s no guarantee of a glittering career.


Whether it’s a formal apprenticeship or some other form of training initiative, new joiners with the right attitude and aptitude can achieve great heights, as our selection of printing industry examples shows – be it joining the board, meeting royalty, owning the firm or building a business that sold for nearly $1bn – didn’t the trainee do well?

alan-newman-de-la-rueAlan Newman, De La Rue

Then: Electrotyping and stereotyping apprentice

Now: Design and development operations director

Alan Newman’s father was a senior printer at the Bank of England print plant in Debden, so Newman was aware of the scope and scale of the potential opportunities on offer at the plant. But securing an apprenticeship was not a foregone conclusion, there were more than 60 applicants who had to complete a range of tests, including maths and English competence and a dexterity test involving bending copper wire into specific shapes.

“It was also quite a political situation at the time,” Newman recalls. “The union had frozen recruitment of apprentices due to the issues at Wapping, so when I was interviewed it was with the management team and the FoC of the union chapel.”

Nevertheless, Newman’s application was among a batch that were successful and he embarked upon a four-year apprenticeship in the pre-press methods of electrotyping and stereotyping, with day release at Harrow College to study corrosion technology and electroplating. After coming out of his time, and enduring a banging out ceremony that involved being covered in rotten food from the canteen, he was “promoted pretty quickly” and by the age of 21 was responsible for half of the shift in the pre-press department, overseeing 15 people. 

“It was quite unique in an industry with what could be described as ‘dead man’s shoes’ development,” he says. “I gained a great understanding of the business from grass roots level, and I took my knowledge of the pre-press side into my other roles.”

He went on to become production manager for currency production and also oversaw a finishing department that was, at the time, 90% women – another valuable experience. He Tuped over when De La Rue bought the Bank’s printworks in 2003 and began a new phase of his career. Upon being promoted to design manager at the PLC’s Basingstoke site, he was able to bring his wide-ranging experience to the role. 

“I was putting together a centre of excellence for design,” he explains. “By understanding fully the production processes from front to back, I could bring that knowledge of manufacturing to the design aspect, at the beginning of the process.”

As a result, the design team was transformed into a world-class operation that went on to pick up 14 international design awards and designed 40% of the world’s new banknotes. And Newman found himself in rarified company. “I’ve travelled the world and met kings and queens, prime ministers, and central bank governors. It’s an immersive experience when you’re talking to people about how to bring their currency to life.”

Newman also ran two of De La Rue’s international plants for a period, which he described as “a great opportunity to work overseas in a completely different culture”.

His role today includes responsibility for the group’s intellectual property portfolio and its strategy about how its IP is used, and he is also involved with new product releases such as its Safeguard polymer, as well as group pre-press standardisation and value engineering. 

Throughout, his experience as an apprentice has stood him in good stead. “The great thing is you get immersed in the business and people want to help you and impart knowledge. It gave me valuable insights and knowledge into how the organisation works.” 

Top tip for today’s trainees

“Be enthusiastic about working with people and learning. Some tasks can seem quite mundane, but look at it and think about how it can be done differently. Ask loads of questions.”

darren-drake-linneyDarren Drake, Linney Group

Then: YTS trainee 

Now: Group finance director

Things could have turned out differently for Darren Drake if he’d opted to pursue a trainee opportunity at a local signwriter. But as it happens his natural affinity for numbers, and his parents’ belief that local newspaper The Chad would be a great place to work, resulted in him deciding on the second of two traineeships being advertised, which was a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) position for an accounts department trainee at the then-Linney owned local newspaper in Mansfield.

“I didn’t realise I’d be filing for a year,” Drake quips, while recalling his two-year training programme involving a mixture of office junior tasks combined with studying on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

He subsequently further honed his financial skills alongside the management accountant, and although he remained at The Chad when Linney sold its newspapers to Johnston Press in 1995, he jumped at the chance to return to the group in 2000. “I just felt there were better opportunities at a family business,” he explains, and that has proved to be the case. Drake went on to work as the financial controller within individual parts of the Linney operation, and then became a member of the group’s continuous improvement team. He became company secretary in 2012, and its group finance director two years ago, where he oversees a department of 20 at the £84.5m-turnover company.

“I always got the impression that I would get opportunities here but didn’t imagine it would be this – there’s actually quite a few of us in senior positions at the business who started off as trainees,” he says. 

“My favourite thing about this role is there’s not one day that’s the same, every day is different, apart from the filing!”

Top tip for today’s trainees

“Getting into a business and getting your head down is a great opportunity, but not all businesses are like Linney, so choose carefully. Keep at it and the opportunities will come.”

scott-pearce-datumScott Pearce, Datum

Then: One week’s work experience

Now: Co-owner of company

Scott Pearce went to the same school as the son of Datum’s original owner, and that connection led him into the industry. “His dad got in touch with the school to offer some work experience, and I was chosen,” Pearce recalls. 

That initial week’s work has turned into a 28-year career at the company. “It was a good opportunity and I really enjoyed the work,” he says. Pearce went on to do a four-year apprenticeship as a litho planner and platemaker. 

“It was very long hours and there was plenty of overtime – we’d be working for 80 or 90 hours a week. And a good social life being in central London.”

When desktop publishing came onto the scene Datum set up a separate sister company, and Pearce took up the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks there getting to grips with Macs and imagesetters, prior to setting up a DTP department within Datum itself when desktop publishing really took off. The company worked closely with print manager Charterhouse, and took over its repro requirements, and this connection resulted in the business moving to Hertfordshire when Charterhouse relocated. 

Pearce became a director in 1999. And when the chance arose in 2008 to buy the business, which by then encompassed digital and large-format printing, along with design and pre-media services, Pearce and his fellow director Mark Gamble – also as it happens an apprentice at the same time – jumped at the chance. 

“I could never have imagined this happening and it’s a bit surreal how it’s all turned out, but there’s never been a reason to leave,” he says. “We’re always changing and learning, and I’ve never felt like I’ve been doing the same thing.”

Top tip for today’s trainees

“This is an interesting industry to be involved with, there are plenty of opportunities in so many areas that you can excel in. You are never going to stop learning.”

peter-farnworth-ronsetPeter Farnworth, Ronset

Then: Origination apprentice, Monotype hot metal 

Now: Managing director

It wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion that Peter Farnworth would join the family business, although he admits it was probably his father Ron’s wish that he would. Farnworth got involved with the business in 1985, when he took up an origination apprentice operating Monotype hot metal typesetting equipment. “I was melting up and getting the fish and chips at lunchtime,” he says. 

But the times were changing, the business was losing work due to the advent of phototypesetting, and aged 18 Farnworth junior was the driver behind Ronset following suit and adding phototypesetting to its services. He went on to take over as managing director aged 21, although his father continued to work at the firm into his 80s. 

The business has endured through some tough times, and has evolved its offering; nowadays it is focused on digital and wide-format printing. And the company has just taken on its first apprentice – Warren Thomas – since Farnworth himself held that role. “Apprentices now are not like they were in my era with printing colleges. We’re teaching Warren the printing trade ourselves. We are pushing forward for hopefully generations to come,” Farnworth adds. 

Top tip for today’s trainees

“You are coming into a good industry. It has changed enormously but it’s still a skilled person’s trade. It’s a good trade for a young person with many opportunities.” 

Further inspiration from the archive…

David Mitchell

From humble beginnings as an apprentice at a jobbing printer in Dunfermline, David Mitchell went on to create a business that was valued at almost $1bn (£520m at the time) when it was acquired by RR Donnelley in 2005. 

“In the main Dunfermline was a very working class area and the mantra was ‘get yourself a trade son and you won’t go wrong’,” Mitchell recalls. “My main ambition was to get out of Dunfermline and head to Fleet Street armed with my NGA card. That’s where the money was. But it was clearly impossible to get a job in the papers unless your dad was a cabbie or something. It was a closed shop even to NGA members and vacancies were left unfilled so as to manufacture more overtime opportunities for those there rather than employ those who might want to move. This was a strange difference for me. Up north excessive overtime was positively discouraged by the local branch especially if there were unemployed members on the books. Fleet Street was different, if you were from the provinces.”

Mitchell went on to join colour book printer WS Cowell in Ipswich, and subsequently worked for the inspirational Bob Gavron at St Ives, which proved to be a formative experience. After Gavron retired, Mitchell decided to strike out on his own, and gained backing to acquire the three small print firms that would form the beginnings of Astron, which grew into a circa £286m-turnover group. 

Bryan Bedson

Wyndeham Press Group founder Bryan Bedson started off as an apprentice at Hove Printing Co. After joining nearby Grange Press in Brighton, he quickly progressed from running a press, to works manager, and then managing director. He went on to turn the business around for its then owners, before acquiring it himself. He formed Wyndeham Press Group, floated it in 1991 and made a string of acquisitions. The business was sold to Icelandic investor Dagsbrün in 2008, for £80.6m. “Today, I wonder if a person could get so far without qualifications, but it can happen,” he says. “I was always keen to promote people like that from within [ie trainees and apprentices]. It wouldn’t put me off if a person didn’t have a degree.”

…and one from today

Mark Scanlon

Former typesetter Mark Scanlon studied for his apprenticeship at the then London College of Printing, “I was an NGA card carrier for two months,” he says. He went on to hone his entrepreneurial nous at Adare under Nelson Loane, before joining Stephen Hargrave at Thomas Potts. The duo, together with Richard Fookes and Paul Utting, went on to acquire Wyndeham after the Icelandic financial crisis resulted in the collapse of the group’s leading lender, Landsbanki. They have subsequently created a circa £400m-turnover pan-European group with further acquisitions in Spain and Austria.

Author’s note: Jo Francis joined the printing industry on a six-month-long Youth Opportunities Programme Scheme and is forever grateful to Boots Print for the opportunity. 

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