After he received his 50th or so rejection letter, Tony Hards could have been forgiven for thinking that perhaps finding a position as an apprentice compositor just wasn’t his destiny.
However, Hards wouldn’t take no for an answer, a trait that no doubt stood him in good stead as an equipment salesman after he finally got his ‘papers’, spent a few years as a journeyman compositor and rejected the advances of Fulham FC.
After leading the MBO at Graphic Arts Equipment (GAE) in the 1990s with then finance director Bryan Godwyn, both men spent the next 16 years growing the business into one of the UK’s leading printing equipment suppliers, only to suffer the indignity of administration less than two years after selling the business they had worked so hard to create.
However, out of the ashes of GAE Intelligent Finishing Systems (IFS) was born, with Hards and Godwyn as joint managing directors of the leaner operation focused purely on post-press kit.
And now after notching up 60 years in print, die-hard Spurs fan Hards is, perhaps a little reluctantly, preparing to retire after taking on the mantle of non-executive chairman and selling his stake in IFS to business partner Godwyn.
Darryl Danielli Have you officially retired now?
Tony Hards Well, I’m still working until the end of the year, after that we’ll see. But I’ve sold my shares to Bryan [IFS managing director].
Were you 50/50 partners then?
No. When we came back after Litho Supplies went down, I had 40% and Bryan had 60% – I probably should have gone in it at 50% looking back [laughs].
That was around 2010 though, so perhaps you already had retirement in your sights then?
To be absolutely honest, no. I don’t really think about retiring even now. But you get to the stage when you’re travelling up the motorway for hours at a time to visit a customer and you start thinking: I’m 76 and lucky to be fairly healthy, but do I really want to be spending all this time on motorways at my age?
You’ll still go to Drupa though?
Absolutely. Horizon will have a fantastic stand – even bigger than last time.
Going back to the beginning, though, how did you get into print?
I left school at around 15. While I was there I did a paper round and I used to look through the papers as I delivered them and one of my favourites was Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly – I used to read it cover-to-cover before I put it though the letterbox. One issue had this picture of Eton Manor [football club] in Hackney Wick, who were senior amateurs and used to play in the Amateur Cup and the FA Cup – all the major competitions of the day. Alf Ramsey was the manager, even though he played for Tottenham at the time, and I was a keen player and decided that was the club for me, so I joined. They played all sorts of sports there: athletics, squash, tennis, table tennis, boxing... And they had all sorts of international sportsmen and professional footballers who were there then too. It also had a library and even its own little bank, everything – it was all funded by a big trust.
So you wanted to be a footballer in your youth?
Well yes, but it was amateur back then [the 1950s] so I needed a trade, and a lot of the boys there, because of the area I guess, ended up in the print trade. So that was what I wanted too. Back in those days though to get into print wasn’t just a case of applying for a job, it was like ‘father to son’ and I didn’t have that connection. So I wrote to a lot of printers and also the union, because it was very much a closed shop back then, to try and get an apprenticeship.
Did you start applying when you were still at school?
Well, I never officially left school, I just stopped turning up – you could do that then.
How many companies did you write to then to get a job in print?
I don’t know. Most of the printers in London and Essex, and there were a lot back then – I’ve kept most of the letters, you can look through them.
These are amazing, there must be 50 rejection letters here?
There were probably more, I’ve probably lost some over the years. In those days there was very good money in print, so it wasn’t easy to get a job unless you had the connections and I didn’t. Back then there were three trades to get into: print, banking or the docks. So after getting nowhere by writing, I went to the local youth office, a sort of careers office, and they got me an interview at a place called Krisson Printing on Foubert Place in the West End – they were non-union. I got the job and joined as an apprentice compositor at 17 in November 1956 and they sent me to college at Elephant & Castle.
And your glittering career in print took off?
Well, the problem was that the unions used to control the industry, and I served my apprenticeship at a non-unionised company. So I knew that once I finished my apprenticeship I would have to get into the union if I wanted to get another job. Without a union card, it would have been impossible. So I wrote to the union and they said I had to do 18-months probation [at a recognised company] to get my card, so I did 18-months at Patina Press in Highbury.
Still as a compositor?
Yes. But I was very ambitious, so after my 18 months I was keen to move up, and in those days, once you had your union card and were ‘in’, getting a job was easy. There was none of this three months’ notice nonsense, you handed your notice in one day and started your new job the next day.
Did you move around a lot then?
Everyone did, I lost count of the number of companies I worked for, Strakers, Witherbys… The biggest was Waterlows on Worship Street. I had only worked at small shops till then, but they probably had 300 comps there. It was all City work: reports and accounts.
And what happened to the football career then?
Well, along the way I was offered a trial at Fulham.
Were you playing semi-professional then?
No, I was still amateur, playing for Eton Manor. But I got approached and met with the [Fulham] manager Bedford Jezzard, he was a former England player. So I went to Craven Cottage and he asked me what I did for a living and I explained I was in print and he said ‘so what do you want to be a footballer for? You can earn much more doing that than playing football – I would stick with print if I was you’. This was before Jimmy Hill got the footballers maximum wage scrapped [before 1961 footballers wages were capped at £20 a week, around £400 today].
So you passed up a potentially glittering football career for print?
I’m not saying that I was ever going to play for England, or would even have made it as a professional, but I was pretty good and it was an honour to be asked to go and play for Fulham.
So when did you get involved on the supplier side of things?
If you were a comp, then the biggest supplier of the day was a company called Cornerstone and I applied for a job there after seeing an advert in PrintWeek. If you were a machine minder and you wanted to join a supplier, you wanted to work for Heidelberg, if you were a comp then the equivalent was Cornerstone. So I joined them in 1964, which unfortunately was the start of when the industry was changing, and I was made redundant not long after joining them.
Is that when you joined GAE?
I briefly worked for another company that supplied chases and all that, but joined GAE in January 1965 after seeing another advert in PrintWeek. The big thing for GAE in those days were Polar guillotines, Hostmann Steinberg inks, and Nebiolo and MAN presses. I used to sell the lot, my patch was east London, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk and it was the best time of my life. I loved it. Travelling all over the place, playing golf and making lots of great friends. So many of those firms I used to deal with have gone now, unfortunately.
So GAE was a big business even then?
It was a partnership with Vernons Pools.
Football was a recurring theme in your life then?
[Laughs] Max Olive, who founded GAE, was very friendly with a big printer in Macclesfield and they were part-owned by Vernons. The printer said he would introduce Max to Vernon Sangster, who owned Vernons. They got together, and set up the company. Anyway, in the early 80s I became sales manager.
When did you buy the business with Bryan, then?
How did you two meet?
Bryan was a salesman for a finance company that GAE used in the late 1980s. He was very different from other finance people, because they just wanted to do a deal, but with Bryan he was very good because he helped the printers with their accounts. After a while, probably around 1990, Bryan joined GAE and he was really my right-hand man, and it worked very well.
How would you describe your relationship?
Well there’s the age difference [Godwyn is 25 years Hards’ junior], but we work well together, we’re a good team. I’m probably a bit more relaxed than Bryan, perhaps I was more the heart of the business and Bryan was the brain – but that probably blurred over time.
Buying the company in 1992 must have been a gamble though, that was just at the start of the 1990s recession, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t easy to get the funding that’s for sure, but we knocked on a lot of doors and got it sorted. We had some scary times though, in fact it wasn’t long afterwards when the person that lent us the money to buy the business recommended that we just close-up, sell the stock at auction and walk away. But we got stuck in and worked our way through the recession. It was a tough time, but we learned a lot.
Were you already selling Horizon kit by then?
We got Horizon in the early 1980s.
How did it come about?
One of our agencies wanted someone from GAE to go to the Print ‘80 show in Chicago where they were exhibiting. But our sales manager at the time couldn’t go, because his wife wouldn’t let him. I had already had a visa because I had been to the US on holiday that year, so I got to go instead. We had a great time, sold some machines, and from that I suppose I was offered the chance to go to IGAS in Japan in 1981. From the moment I walked through the doors I kept hearing this name ‘Horizon’, so I thought I should take a look.
Were they not that well known outside Japan at that time then?
Probably not. But I had a look at their stand, which was pretty small, and their machines looked good, very good. I then found out that Morgana, Friedheim, Heidelberg, anyone who was anyone, was after the Horizon agency. I basically camped out on their stand for the whole show and for some reason the president Mr Hori and his father just took a liking to me – and by Drupa ‘82 we got the deal.
On the subject of competition, you’re always up against the same suppliers when it comes to new agencies or sales, is there a friendly rivalry?
I wouldn’t say friendly necessarily, but we try not to run each other down, we’re polite to each other, there’s a healthy respect.
Fair enough, back to Horizon though, was the kit an instant success?
Not instant, but it didn’t take long. By the 1990s we were selling around 12-14 vertical collators a month, it was mind boggling – and there are still some out there running, which is amazing.
In those early days, was there still a little bit of scepticism about Japanese kit?
Maybe, but it didn’t last long. Especially as they started to develop in so many areas, like perfect binding, bookletmaking and folders.
Fast forward to 2008 when you and Bryan sold the GAE business to Litho Supplies, how did that come about? Were you looking to sell?
Not really, no. Bryan was keener than I was, but I could see some good in it – and don’t forget even then I was over pension age. Bryan was the sensible money man though, and that convinced me. At the time it was a very good deal too: £2.3m. We each got £700,000 up front, then £100,000 each for the next three years if we achieved the annual profit targets and then £200,000 each as a final payment. Well, we got the first profit payment after the first year, even though they tried to get out of it. In the end we got paid though.
And were alarm bells ringing by then?
You could say that, it certainly didn’t help the relationship.
And less than two years after they bought you, Litho Supplies called in the administrators in December 2009
It [Litho Supplies] was a big company at the time they bought us, so there were definitely benefits to being part of a bigger company, but we knew there might be problems too. But we never saw that coming. I never got on with Eddie Williams [then Litho Supplies group sales director], we definitely clashed. I got on okay with [chief executive] Mike Hammond. After Litho Supplies went into administration, though, we found out that it had signed up to an invoice discounting agreement and used GAE as a guarantee and we didn’t know that, so they dragged GAE down with them.
But you and Bryan bought the GAE assets back, with the exception of the Mitsubishi and Shinohara agencies, as Intelligent Finishing Systems a couple of weeks later?
We did, because GAE was a good business and only got into trouble because of the owner. [Litho Supplies was bought out of administration in January 2010, then sold to Agfa a year later.]
I remember talking to Bryan around that time and he mentioned that a few customers, who had placed orders for kit with the ‘old’ GAE, had lost deposits, but that you both paid them out of your own pockets so that the customers still got their machines?
You didn’t have to do that though?
We felt we did. Even though what had happened was out of our hands, we felt it was the right thing to do.
So the only people that lost out from the collapse were you and Bryan?
Well not really, some people lost their jobs.
Good point. But you could have just walked away at that point, as you said you were past retirement anyway?
I just enjoy working in the industry too much. I still do. I still sometimes think that I shouldn’t walk away now, I enjoy the people, the chase for the order, meeting new people – I’m going to miss it. In all honesty I sometimes think I’m not quite ready to put the slippers on.
It sounds like if you had your way, you would never retire?
Maybe, but I’m not sure my family would agree.
Over your 60 years in print, though, what have been the key lessons?
The importance of people – it’s probably that simple. I like to think I’m reasonably good with people and that’s been important throughout my career. Liking the odd drink doesn’t hurt either. But talking to people and really listening is the most important thing – people buy from people.
And have the challenges changed over the years?
Well it’s harder to get good salespeople nowadays; we’re lucky, but it’s not easy.
On the people side, do you think there are still any big characters in print?
I don’t know if there are any real characters around anymore to tell the truth, people are too wrapped up in their own business now. I’m sure there must be, but it’s not like it used to be.
But then it’s probably a lot more professional now?
That’s probably true too.
And what do you think are going to be your challenges now that you’re chairman?
Well, I’ve never been afraid to give an opinion, so I suppose now I’ve got to watch that I don’t get involved with things that aren’t my business anymore.
In terms of your involvement with the business, you’ve sold your share to Bryan now, so is it now pretty much just supporting him and the new board members [technical sales director Jason Seaber and technical services director Alan Harrison]?
It is, and I’ll offer an opinion when asked.
I suppose the only difference is that people don’t necessarily have to listen now?
[Laughs] That’s true.
What have been your career highlights?
Securing the Horizon agency, we’re blessed with some great agencies though, Foliant, Petratto, Tecnau, Perfecta, etc, but Horizon stands out – on a business level, but also a personal level. I’ve been to their homes, I’ve met their children, and I’ve seen places in Japan that a tourist would never see.
It sounds like you’re fan of the Japanese culture?
I am, visiting Japan is one of the things I’ll really miss. I love Japanese food. There are some good Japanese restaurants in London, but it’s not the same as eating it there. I love the Japanese people too.
And on the subject of culture, do think you’ll become a season ticket holder at Spurs again now?
Nothing entices me back really. It was great when we used to take customers and get them well tanked up, but football now is probably better watched on television. You don’t get the atmosphere, but I’ve had all of that and I now I prefer my own armchair and a nice cup of team to watch the games.
Last question, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Selling to Litho Supplies, obviously. At the time it was a good deal for us and GAE, because as an outsider looking in Litho Supplies was a good business. The worst thing was letting customers and Horizon down though, but both were fantastic and we wouldn’t have got through that situation without their help. Oh, and the other thing would have been moving out of our Perivale site to Hemel sooner – I don’t miss the London traffic.