Me And My Partner: William Sieghart And Neil Mendoza

William Sieghart and Neil Mendoza became friends at Oxford in 1980 while putting on student plays, and 10 years later set up Future Publishing. They now have 150 employees and a pounds 25m turnover, producing in-house corporate magazines

Interviews,Rachelle Thackray
Tuesday 22 June 1999 23:02

WILLIAM SIEGHART: I met Neil in a bar and I was incredibly impressed because he had a statuesque and gorgeous-looking woman on each arm. I had been at Oxford three days - he was a year above me, and he was a glamorous, cool guy. Then we were working on the same play together: Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. Neil was a great impresario. He had a riproaring, bloodthirsty part and I had a much smaller part but we roared with laughter. There was a lot of lying on the floor doing funny breathing techniques. That was a great bonding experience.

Neil put on a production at the Oxford Playhouse: he was the director and I was one of the actors. After that, we briefly became a double act in a revue show and ended up sharing a flat after we left. After Oxford, I went travelling to India, then I came back, ran out of money, and got a job selling photocopiers. Neil was a trainee banker. I remember him sleeping in the same armchair every night, and his idea of cuisine was interesting. It felt like The Young Ones - Neil being called Neil was an opportunity.

We had lots of ideas for doing business, such as delivering takeaways and overnight dry cleaning, but both required working nights. I ended up staying at Xerox while Neil went off to America to become a film financier. I wanted to be self-employed as soon as possible. I found corporate structures and hierarchies bizarre and pointless distinctions.

Then my bosses discovered I had been to Oxford. They said: "You've got an arts degree - you do the magazine". So I did it, won an award, and thought, at last I've found my metier. It was a period when big companies were trying to slim down their staff: I wasn't really eligible for a package, but I persuaded them to let me out.

I had a friend with an office in Soho, and in return for helping them a day a week, they gave me free space and a phone line. That was the beginning of Forward Publishing. I gave Neil a 5 per cent shareholding and he was supposed to give me financial advice. After 18 months, I landed a big contract with ITV, and persuaded Neil to chuck in his inflated salary for a 50 per cent stake, plus a trestle table for a desk. First and foremost, we have a laugh. We had a reputation as "the nice boys" - we would go out to visit with our little suits and briefcases and it was fun.

The highlight in the early days was probably when IBM came along and turned us from a company of 12 people to a company of 50 in a year. We were doing 14 magazines in 12 different countries. People's impressions of the business, if they looked at the figures, was that it just went up and up. One day in 1994, a new chief executive was appointed at IBM and all agency contracts were cancelled. We lost a big piece of business, 90 per cent of our profit, but in 18 months we were bigger than before. The first magazine we did, I edited, sub-edited, chased and almost hand- delivered myself. Now I'm at the other end of the scale.

Neil likes doing the things I don't like doing. I have never seen an invoice, a VAT return or an employment manual - I never had to worry about it. My job is to lead the marketing and creative side of the business and that's what I am good at. Neil is a renaissance man in his love of art, theatre and opera, but he has a better natural focus. I have a butterfly mind and I am always thinking about the next thing.

In personal terms, we have had bad times. My father, to whom I was very close, died: Neil had a divorce. Both of us took up the slack. After seven years as partners, we had what I can describe only as an itch. We found ourselves getting on each other's nerves. We brought in the equivalent of a marriage counsellor and had half-a-dozen two-hour sessions with her. We both probably shed a tear, and ended up swearing lifetime fealty. There have been times we had to say: "We are on the same side".

At Forward, we have created a feminine, sensual culture which is not about egos competing. We are proud of the fact this is a company with a lot of part-time mums working half-days. We have an in-house masseur, and every six years, people are forced to take three months off. You pay suppliers, your freelancers, on delivery. Most magazines make them wait months. That's wrong. I felt the key was to give everyone a nice existence that reflects the balance of life.

Because we have lived together and have sat two feet from each other for 20 years, we are pretty much like twins. We know what each other is thinking during a meeting, which kind of short-circuits a lot of communication. We probably don't get as many laughs now: Neil's one of the funniest people I know, but we don't spend as much time hanging outand I miss that. I had a birthday party a couple of weeks ago and had 12 of my closest friends round for supper. Neil was on holiday and it didn't seem the same because he wasn't there.

NEIL MENDOZA: We have been together for so long, some of our stories feel apocryphal. After university, I lived with William and his sister. We have been incredibly close and a lot of people say: "Doesn't that drive you crazy?" There are times when it gets tense and sometimes I think, I have been sitting next to this person for years - isn't it about time I had an office of my own?

We were always talking about setting up in business together, and when William had the idea for Forward, I immediately saw it was a no-brainer to do: it was a service business, so you could start it up with no money. Some people thrive on being on their own: others need something else to complete them in a business sense. I was very much the businessman, having been a banker putting movie deals together, and he was the person who had a vision of what he wanted his company to look like. If he only wants to work for three days a week, he will do that. To begin with, I found that quite frustrating because I was used to a more standard work ethic.

William and I got a bit bored with each other after seven years. We began to be at our happiest when the other one was away, which meant you had the whole toybox to yourself. Lots of tension would build up when the other was in the room. We are both incredibly competitive and that did take a long time to get over. We even used to argue about who was the most competitive. That's when we got the shrink in.

We have developed an extraordinary interlocking and interweaving of our roles so both of us only do the bits of the job we really want to do. When we started, he was marketing and creative and I was business and management, but that's blurred over the years. Now, everything is seamless. If we are interviewing someone for a job, halfway through, one of us can offer the job.

Companies are often an extension of the people who run them. We have always tried to avoid meetings and politics. We decided early on that we were keen to hire mothers returning to work, who are often excluded from the labour market. We felt that if you can be flexible enough to offer them the hours they need, there's a fantastic amount of talent there. More people are realising it, but that recruitment doesn't happen.

When the IBM contract was taken away five years ago, it was more of a relief than anything. IBM had always told us they were like an elephant, and could easily roll over and squash you, and that the culture was changing, shifting the focus back to America. We had to take some hard financial decisions, but it made us feel freer and lighter. We went from being a profitable business to being one that didn't make any money. Now, we are in a massive growth phase.

Someone said to us recently: "Maybe you guys would have been more successful if you had gone your separate ways, because you can get into a kind of mould. Wouldn't it be better if you were on your own?" I don't think so. I have learnt so much from William. We are off to see a client and we still feel like two schoolboys going out pretending we are businessmen. That makes it fun. It's what I am most proud of in this company, the culture that makes it a fun place to work. We care a lot about it.

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