A View from the Top: Back to the future with Photobox chief executive Jody Ford

Business is booming at the digital print firm, despite the squeeze on consumer spending

Ford previously worked on the west coast of the US for eBay
Ford previously worked on the west coast of the US for eBay

It’s back to the future at Back Hill in Clerkenwell. Once upon a time, this dramatic 1920s building was the printing works for the Daily Mirror, whose presses belted out millions of copies of the newspaper: at its peak, seven million Mirror copies a day were printed here.

Now Herbal House – as its called today – is the European headquarters of Photobox. It’s still in the print business, but it’s also a digital one which produced more than 22 million personalised books and gift cards for more than 10 million customers in 15 countries last year.

Jody Ford, chief executive of Photobox, chose the building as the group’s new £20m HQ because he likes the link to the past but also because Clerkenwell is back buzzing as London’s most creative district.

It certainly feels buzzy. The guts of the building have been ripped out to expose huge concrete and steel girders which give the place a raw industrial twist. Yet the atmosphere is warm and teeming with laid-back young techies dressed in jeans and sneakers who look to be more at play than work.

Each of the four floors is colour-coded using the CMYK formula at the heart of all print shops. The ground floor is yellow for Moonpig, and one floor below is pink for Photobox. Downstairs in the bowels – where staff meet on Friday afternoons for “soapbox” style chats with colleagues to bash around new ideas and for weekly yoga sessions – is blue.

Upstairs on the first floor the colour is black: that’s for management style group functions. It’s in one of the blue “breakout” rooms that Ford meets me for our chat: he doesn’t have his own office as such. Nor do staff: it’s all open-plan. The 400 employees work in teams and “squads”, in their coloured sections, and are encouraged to think out of the box: welcome to agile working.

If all this sounds a little west coast-ish, that’s because much of Ford’s leadership thinking was formed in Silicon Valley. After studying for an MBA at Insead and a few years at McKinsey, Ford cut his teeth at eBay, the tough way. His first job was in eBay’s second-hand car market and then on helping to build eBay’s fashion business with brands like Karen Millen and Superdry.

After six years, he was promoted to eBay’s HQ in San Jose, shooting up the ranks to become head of global growth marketing. Californian life was great for him and his young family, he says, but also for hanging out with the valley’s Yahoo to Google crowd.

Then came the call. The private equity owners of Photobox wanted him to take over the hot seat with express orders to shake it up. The 18-year-old business, which had expanded rapidly into Europe by buying Moonpig and Hofmann, had been bought by Electra Partners and Exponent for around £400m, after plans to float were shelved.

“It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I am the guy who puts together the Photobox photos for the books. I’m the one who puts together the music for parties and makes the playlists.”

He lets on that while at Exeter – where he studied economics and politics – he was a regular DJ on the university radio, Xpression FM. “I was an indie kid, played Blur, Oasis, Radiohead and dance music.” (He trained with Formula 1 commentator Ted Kravitz).

“I still play dance music whenever I can with my kids: they think I’m a pretty cool dad. O god, I’ve said far too much,” he says, with a big laugh.

His kids are right. The 43-year-old is cool, and as bright as a button too. Even so he will need some big tunes to meet his ambition to take Photobox from annual sales of £325m last year – and profits of £47m – to sales of £1bn over the next few years.

So far, so good. Photobox is the biggest digital personalised printing business in Europe, and is growing internationally too.

Demand for digital books created by Photobox, and products from its sister brands including Moonpig, the Spanish Hofmann business and Germany’s posterXXL, is booming despite the squeeze on consumer spending. And in ways that are difficult to predict.

Chili plants and craft beers are still favourites to give as gifts for Father’s day. Specialist gins have become the must-have present for Mother’s Day celebrations – although tulips remain the favourite flowers to give.

You can also now have your beloved’s face – or whatever – printed on just about everything, from playing cards to mugs to pillows or beach towels.

Whatever next ? Well, if you want to know, Photobox reports a rise in cards for “palentines” and “galentines”: shorthand for friends celebrating each other. Special cards for Nan, Grandma and Grandmother are growing like topsy as generations live longer. There is also a boom in cards for “pre-mother” women and from the “bump” being sent by fathers or partners to expectant mothers. And cards for pets.

At the same time, Photobox is launching its own curated products. One of these is a new Artist Collection, “gallery-quality” art prints selected for you by interior stylist Pippa Jameson.

That’s the front end of Ford’s business, the bit we see. The back end is less visible, much of it hidden in the cloud. There are now 7.8 billion photos uploaded onto the Photobox platform which is in the process of migrating a whopping 9 petabytes of data onto Amazon’s web services to keep it secure.

Paris is the hotbed of technical expertise where 60 specialist AI and machine-learning experts work on the photo management. As well as the London HQ, there are another 200 people based in Munich working on the German brands. Another 300 or so people are based across five manufacturing sites where the books and card gifts are made and posted out around the world. These are spread across the UK, Guernsey, Spain, France and Germany.

A new tech hub for Moonpig is being set up in Manchester as we speak, and is about to start a big recruitment drive to hire the best engineering talent around.

Nurturing talent is top of Ford’s agenda. One of his first moves was to bring in a new top team of managers, updating functions like human resources. Everybody has the chance to be coached, and it’s a move that has already paid off.

Moonpig, which made some 65 million personalised cards last year, has seen internal targets soar by 300 per cent. Ford has also introduced a Be That Manager programme for all 150 managers.

“It’s not a one-off development course. We want to create a culture of lifelong learning.”

Finding the best talent is also the scary bit, he says. “I spend a lot of my time worrying about whether we have the best people we can find, the best engineers, the best innovators. And whether they will want to come here to work.”

My hunch is they might rather enjoy themselves.

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