The death on Saturday of Lord Gavron means the industry has lost one of its most cultured men, as well as a staunch supporter of print in the House of Lords.
He died, aged 84, apparently of a heart attack after a game of tennis. While he no longer had a direct involvement with print, Robert Gavron, later Baron Gavron of Highgate. will for ever be associated with the St Ives Group.
While also chairman of the Folio Society, Carcanet Press and for a while, chairman of Guardian Media Group, Gavron will be best remembered for creating and growing St Ives Group from a small factory alongside the River Ouse in St Ives, Huntingdonshire, into one of the largest print groups in the UK and at one time, also one of the largest in the US.
He specialised in acquiring run down businesses and turning these into powerhouses, working in close partnership with customers, suppliers and employees. During the expansionist years on the 1980s and 1990s, St Ives rarely encountered the labour problems that beset BPCC at the same time.
Gavron was called to the bar as a barrister, but did not practise, instead joining Commercial Aid Printing Services in Soho, with his uncle Gerald Frankel. Gavron was put in charge of sales and later explained that a barman early on had pulled him aside to suggest he would keep a special bottle behind the bar for the young salesman who needed to entertain numerous print buyers. This would contain minimal amounts of Scotch allowing the young man to drink all afternoon.
Caps gained status by offering 24-hour turnaround four-colour litho printing from the centre of London, running a Zirkon web press. By the time it collapsed, those that had worked for the business spread throughout the industry setting up the likes of Colourgraphic, later GI Direct, Collier Searle Matfield, Impact Litho and so on.
After Caps, Gavron picked up Enderby Litho, a carton printer in St Ives printing boxes for aircraft kits among others. While this business only lasted four years, St Ives was on its way. Award winning carton printer Beamglow emerged from this experience. Gavron failed to sell the property, next to the ancient bridge in St Ives and prone to flooding, to local buyers. He was more successful when marking up the price and marketing it to a London audience.
The first breakthrough into the premier league came through the 1983 acquisition of Severn Valley Press in Caerphilly as it was about to be closed down. St Ives secured contracts for Which and The Economist and took on the business which flourished. The expansion of the business continued with the acquisition of Chase Web Offset in Plymouth and St Austell, swiftly followed by the IPO of the company in 1985. St Ives reinforced its power in web offset magazine printing with Peterboro’ Web.
In 1987 the break up of Extel provided the opportunity to buy financial printer Burrup Matthieson and associated companies Westerham Press, Robert Stace, Cripplegate and others. This was at the time of the sell off government owned corporations which Burrup and St Ives with its press capacity could exploit. It forged links across the Atlantic, leading to the acquisition of AD Weiss in Florida in1989, bolstered by subsequent acquisitions after Gavron’s departure. In the UK St Ives continued to expand with the purchase of Riverside Press and Madison Packaging among others.
Perhaps the most important acquisition took place in 1986, the purchase of Richard Clay, which is still part of the much reconfigured group. It struck a chord with the chairman’s love of books. He had become the main shareholder and chairman of the Folio Society in 1982 and a year later owner of poetry publisher Carcanet Press. Folio Society books continue to be “produced to a standard not a price” according to a mandate from the chairman with proper consideration to print, paper and binding.
He had also been director of Paul Hamlyn’s Octopus Group from 1975-87 and shared the publisher’s love of opera, and was a director of the Royal Opera House from 1992-98.
Gavron stepped down from St Ives in 1993 and had sold all the shares in the business by the end of 1998. It had made him one of the richest men in the country. He was an active Labour Party member, contributing funds and he was rewarded with a life peerage in 1999. He had been a CBE in 1990. He also served as chairman of Guardian Media Group from 1997-2000 during the formation of the Guardian’s website.
Robert Gavron, born 13 September 1930, died 7 February 2015.
Lord Gavron was named a Champion of Print at Ipex 2010, underlining how he retained an interest in the industry even after selling the last interest in St Ives in 1998.
He remained chairman of the Folio Society where he placed production quality above price and was quoted as saying a gentlemen ought to possess no fewer than 25,000 books. "Well, obviously, I have far more than that," he told the Daily Telegraph.
This is very sad news. Bob Gavron was a man of huge intelligence and vision who surrounded himself by very able people and inspired many in our industry.
Bob started what was probably the perfect print company for its time, the number of individuals that have passed through St Ives was like the BBC in broadcast.
The original culture of the business was Bob, the foundation was also Bob. Some may argue he was in the right place at the right time - but in my view there has never been a business in print that has created such a culture of customer, professionalism and supreme technological advancement. Yes in the early days we flew by the seat of our pants - Ask Keith Holmes, but the business was, and arguably still is the forefront of print and where it is heading.
St Ives would never have been what it is today without Bob's vision and culture - he believed in doing the right thing. And continued to do so well after leaving St Ives.
I remember having to present to him and he was charming, considered and challenging all at the same time. He was one of my early influencers for which I will always be grateful!