Profile: Printer determined to make a mark: John Holloran: The boss of BPC stood up to Maxwell, survived the recession and is heading for the stock market. He talks to William Kay

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE COLOURFUL daubings on the wall of John Holloran's modest office round the corner from Lord's Cricket Ground tell the story - the rotund chief executive of British Printing Company is into a second marriage and a new family.

Now BPC, Britain's biggest printer, is also being given a fresh start. Holloran, 49, announced last week that he is taking the printer of Reader's Digest, Country Life and Woman's Own back to the stock market, 14 years after the late Robert Maxwell used it as his comeback vehicle.

In a notorious 1973 Department of Trade report, Maxwell had been deemed unfit to be a director of a public company. But in 1980, National Westminster Bank brushed that condemnation aside because without a saviour BPC could have gone bust, taking pounds 15m of NatWest's money with it.

Maxwell's first act was to phone Robin Leigh-Pemberton, later governor of the Bank of England but then NatWest's chairman, and demand that BPC be given the contract to print the bank's cheques.

Holloran, a cheerful but tough grammar-school boy from Southall, west London, has a style far removed from that of the east European horse trader he succeeded. But he is one of the few people to have had the guts to stand up to Maxwell.

'There was no time for anything other than a good solid, professional relationship,' Holloran insisted. 'At times I simply had to say to him 'if you don't do this now, you won't get the job done'.'

Holloran was recruited by Maxwell in 1987, after Norton Opax won a bitterly contested takeover battle for the McCorquodale printing company, where he was chief executive.

'I was out of work for one day,' Holloran remembered, 'but I didn't tell my mum - she wouldn't have liked that.'

Apart from running BPC, he also had the massive job of moving the Mirror newspaper group's printing out of its head office in London's Holborn Circus.

'At the end of the day,' Holloran explained, 'there was a very big task to be done, and I think that was why Maxwell left me alone to get on with it. The Daily Mirror came out on time and in colour, the first to do so after Eddy Shah's Today. I was very proud of that.'

Kevin Maxwell, the son of Robert, who knew Holloran well, said: 'He is one of the most persistent managers in British industry. He gets his teeth into something and will not let go. He's a stickler for quality and discipline - a very, very fine manager.'

When Robert Maxwell decided to buy the US publisher Macmillan, Holloran took the opportunity to make his pitch. 'I told him I didn't see how a printing arm fitted his media strategy,' Holloran argued, 'so why not let me buy out BPC? He thought about it for a week and said OK.'

Such high-flown thoughts may have coincided in Maxwell's mind with the need to raise cash at a time when he was borrowing billions. Either way, he let the buyout go through - though even he did not bargain for Holloran taking his office furniture to his new base.

'The deal was that I could have all the assets in the BPC businesses,' Holloran explained. 'We didn't have an office or a bank account, but I was entitled to take the table we're sitting at now.' So he did.

Holloran needed all his persistence and determination to see BPC through the subsequent recession. As it is, Electra and Candover, the venture capital groups who backed Holloran's management buyout from Maxwell Communication Corporation in 1989, are nursing large paper losses on their investment.

When BPC is floated in the next month or two it should be valued at little more than the pounds 240m for which Maxwell sold it. But there has been pounds 100m of new investment and two refinancings, one of which brought in the British Coal pension fund and Mezzanine Capital Corporation.

In the midst of it all, when orders were already being slashed from all directions, the Government deregulated the television listings. That cost BPC, printer of Radio Times and TV Times, two million copies a week. It eventually recouped them, because it won the contracts for TV Quick and What's On TV, but the timing was dire.

'At one stage I even thought briefly about going into publishing,' Holloran admitted with a wry smile, 'just to give our presses something to do.'

'It's been a loser in a big way,' admitted Michael Stoddart, Electra's phlegmatic chairman. 'We overpaid for it, in hindsight, but I have a high opinion of John Holloran. He is an extremely good man.'

If Stoddart and Kevin Maxwell can agree about Holloran from their two very different standpoints, he must have been doing something right.

The group has understandably timed its stock market return to coincide with a strong upturn in business as the economic recovery gathers momentum.

'The market is moving up quite sharply now,' Holloran reported. 'More advertising means more pages, which means more to print. Advertising bookings are up, so I think we will have a busy second half.'

BPC is closely tied to the economic cycle. Apart from magazines, it also produces books and scientific journals, catalogues for Next, B&Q and Thomson Holidays, packaging for Thorntons' chocolate, Twining's tea and Vosene shampoo, and labels on beer, whisky, gin, cider and a wide range of tinned food.

And the group still has the NatWest cheque contract, as well as those for half a dozen other big cheque issuers.

The irony, in a craft industry that still prides itself on passing on its skills from father to son, is that Holloran's father was a car dealer and he himself trained as an accountant.

'When I was 16, my headmaster said 'don't bother coming back',' he recalled, 'so I went to the careers office and said I wanted to be a carpenter. They told me to train as an accountant, and I took to it like a duck to water.'

After spells with Southern Electricity Board, Colgate Palmolive and Smiths Industries, Holloran moved jobs again - to McCorquodale - to beat the Labour government's pay freeze. He took to printing even more enthusiastically than he had accountancy. Within six years, he was director of production.

The stock market flotation will be used to release BPC from the burden of paying pounds 25m a year in debt interest. That money will be diverted into new technology and setting up a Europe-wide network of printing plants.

'I want to start to exploit the benefit of the digital revolution,' said Holloran. 'It's the biggest thing to hit our industry since movable type. We are at the forefront of that: it can enable a client to redesign a label overnight, and we can have the new labels on the cans two days later.'

The European plans are part of that well-worn theme of getting close to the customer. As more and more of BPC's customers go international, so the pressure is increasing on the group to follow them.

Holloran is also hoping that the Continent will follow the US and British trend towards splitting publishing and printing. If so, that should give BPC even more opportunities to expand.

But one area of the business he is determined to keep well away from is newspapers.

'I got fed up with being woken at four or five o'clock in the morning by editors and production managers,' he said.

'One time a picture editor wanted to stop the presses so he could run a colour pic of Nick Faldo. I said 'if you give me your name I'll tell your managing director that you have cost the paper 200,000 copies'. The next sound I heard was a dialling tone.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments