21 October 2018 People

Michael Passmore casts a long shadow

Michael Passmore led the business his grandfather had started into the high speed web offset age and was an enthusiast for all things print, especially letterpress. Here Chris Passmore pays tribute to his father.

Michael Passmore, a former managing director and chairman of Alabaster Passmore and Sons died on 13 October after a short illness at the age of 90. Michael joined the family printing business in 1948 which was founded by his great grandfather in 1844. He initially trained as a letterpress compositor at the Maidstone College of Art before going into sales and estimating.

In the late 1950s, Michael had an exchange with a Swedish litho printer. Here he saw the huge benefits of this new method of production over traditional letterpress and on his return he became known to his colleagues as “Mr Litho”. In 1963 he had the opportunity to put what he had seen in to practice when he became managing director of the printing factory at Tovil, near Maidstone, which employed over 300 staff, printing mail order catalogues, annual reports and house magazines all utilising the letterpress process.

With a number of the older managers retiring Michael was able to slowly create a younger team of managers who took up the challenge of transforming the company into one of the leading heatset web offset magazine printing businesses during the 1970s and 1980s. Michael masterminded the purchase and installation of four sheetfed litho presses and two-colour quad Rolands which were installed in the late 1960s. In those days the origination of the images to print was a much more complex process and even the aluminium plates had to be coated with photographic emulsion on site.

There remained much opposition to the further installation of litho presses and for a long time the best apprentices were still trained on the letterpress machines. In addition, the hourly labour rate for each new press and process had to be negotiated with one or more of the four Chapels (trade unions) in the factory which was a closed shop (all union membership with collective agreements). There would be periodic overtime bans and work to rules if the percentage pay differentials between all the Chapels and grades were not maintained and at one stage there was even a lockout for two days when Michael had the opportunity to re-engage the staff on new contracts.

The constant pressure to maintain production meant that the staff were quickly re-engaged on their previous contracts. During the early 1970s the litho presses easily outperformed the letterpress department in the quality and speed of production of four-colour printing. However, the litho presses were still unable to match letterpress for the crispness of mono text, resulting in production being shared between both processes.

Michael encouraged his team of directors and managers, along with customers, to visit exhibitions and it was decided that the best way to print mono text by litho was on a two-unit Albert heatset web offset press, which, with its open oven dryer, was able to produce the litho text as black and crisp as letterpress. With a combination of four-colour sheetfed presses and mono web presses, with inline folding the Tovil factory was ideally configured to produce weekly controlled circulation trade and technical magazines which were financed principally by classified and recruitment advertising.

During the 1970s the plant grew very quickly as more and more magazines came to Tovil to take advantage of the much shorter production schedules, and a number of new web offset presses were installed, including five-unit Harris M300 presses and the double circumference Baker-Perkins G16s. The bindery was constantly being expanded and the business also moved in to mailing to further compress the schedules of the weekly magazines where minutes counted if Royal Mail deadlines were to be met.

Michael was very keen to work closely with his leading publishers to share the benefits of the new processes and established very trusting relationships with many of them. This helped the factory through the times when production schedules were being disrupted either by the, sometimes, uncooperative Chapels or the occasional press or binding line breakdown.

Another of his strategies was each year to take mixed parties of apprentices, employees, managers, customers and suppliers walking in Snowdonia for a weekend. Here they all shared the same challenges and hardships in Jessie James’ Bunkhouse, often climbing Tryfan, his favourite mountain.

The site at Tovil became increasingly congested and inefficient with presses and binding equipment being placed where there was space, rather than maintaining a good workflow. To ease this congestion Ambassador Press was purchased in 1982, located in Radlett, Hertfordshire. This further strengthened the position of what became Passmore International as one of the country’s leading magazine printers; as such they were granted the Queen's Award for Export Achievement.

With the next generation of Passmores able to take on the business, Michael retired in 1990 and with several printing colleagues, who had also trained on letterpress, he set up a small composing and letterpress operation in his garage in Barming which became known as the Monday Club. This ran for another 25 years, producing letterheads and a wide range of attractive items of letterpress printing.

During his 65 years in the printing industry Michael participated actively in most of the trade organisations including: the YMP (Young Master Printers), the Trafalgar Club, the BPIF, the Stationers Company, the Wynkyn de Worde Society, the Institute of Print, the National Printing Heritage Trust, the British Printing Society and the Kent Printers Guild.

He is survived by his wife Anne, 3 children, Chris, Stephen and Stella, all of whom worked with him in Alabaster Passmore as well as eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

His funeral will be at St Margaret’s Church, Barming on Wednesday 7 November at 1.30pm and afterwards back at Scraces, his family home since 1963.

Chris Passmore