Michael Sandford-Couch, chairman and chief executive of Potts Print (UK) Ltd

IT took a round-the-globe trip and road to Damascus-style conversion to set Potts Print chairman and chief executive Michael Sandford-Couch on the path to success.

Michael Sandford-Couch, chairman and chief executive of Potts Print (UK) Ltd
Michael Sandford-Couch, chairman and chief executive of Potts Print (UK) Ltd

AFTER a year travelling across the world, Michael Sandford-Couch was at a crossroads.

He was due to go back to university after dropping out a few years earlier. He had a place on an English course at York and was thinking about becoming a teacher.

Instead, fired with enthusiasm, he decided to go back to the family print firm where he had worked as a youngster during the school holidays determined to grow and expand the business.

There had always been an expectation that Sandford-Couch would eventually join Potts Printers in North Shields, where his dad was chairman.

But it took a year-long world trip to put him on the right track. It was the experiences picked up working and travelling that gave him the ideas and inspiration to come back and set about transforming the business.

When he left to travel the world there were 13 people employed at Potts. Now the company employs 165 with the expectation that figure will reach 200 within five years.

Within 10 years of joining, Sandford-Couch had taken control of the business.

He said: “There was always a high expectation I would go into the business. I used to work there during my school holidays and when I could drive I did deliveries. It wasn’t the only thing on offer, but ultimately I did.

“I went to university and dropped out at 18. I’d intended to go back, but never did. I think I wasn’t suited to academic life. The speed of it wasn’t for me. Even at 18 it felt too slow.”

As friends finished university and took time out to travel, Sandford-Couch decided the time was right for him to try something new. He told his father, who supported him but warned there might not be a job at Potts when he returned.

He recalls: “I asked my dad if it was OK to do that and he said he couldn’t guarantee my job would still be there but if it was something I had to do then fine. He had been in the Army doing national service for two years and had been lucky enough to be posted in Cyprus. He appreciated that it is good to do some travelling.

“So I did that and went around the world, spending most of the time in Australia.

“I started in Thailand with a ticket that took me to Malaysia and then Singapore. I moved from Singapore to Sydney and found somewhere to live. I started looking at print firms and went to work for a few months.

“I travelled around Australia then New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Los Angeles and all around the States. While I was in New York I had been mulling over what to do.

“I had been due to go back to university. I had a place at York and the idea was to be a teacher, but I had worked in a big print firm in Sydney and really enjoyed that. I rang my dad up and said ‘I am going to come back and do it if that is OK’.

“I said ‘I can’t go back into the factory, I am going to have to do something else,’ and he said, ‘You can be the salesman’.

“So I came back, bought three suits, five shirts and ties and went to work and got a little white Vauxhall Nova 1.2. That was pretty much the start of it.

“It wasn’t really until I had been away for a gap year that I decided I could do something with Potts and make it a business.

“From that moment I committed myself fully to growing the firm. The immediacy of business appealed to me as soon as I was in it. To get anything in life you have to put your own effort in.

“By the end of a year’s travelling I was sick of it and wanted to do something.

“The print industry was changing. It was a useful time for me to be coming in. Potts was a good, established business – a great one to throw my energy behind.

“I saw the Australian printing industry was certainly ahead of the North East. A lot of the things we were still doing manually were automated there. I though if we can bring some of these bits of kit it would make a difference.”

But not all his ideas for modernising the business were well received in the early days.

“I argued with my dad every day until he retired,” he recalls. “He didn’t want to change. He didn’t see the need to change. I bashed it through and did it.

“He accepted I was right, but he never said it. He’s 76 now and he loves it.”

Now rebranded Potts Print (UK), the company is a leading print, packing and direct mail company with strong international, public sector and corporate clients. In the past financial year the firm grew by 33% and invested £1.5m in new equipment.

The company also announced a 10-year growth plan with the aim of achieving turnover of £25m. This year turnover is expected to reach £14m or £15m – up from a record £12m in 2010.

Sandford-Couch adds: “Last November we relaunched the company as Potts Print (UK). About 25% of the firm’s turnover comes from outside the North East and we have European clients.

“We had been talking about the rebrand for a while. I used to own all the company, but now I have 75% and the directors have a minority shareholding. It seemed the right time to do it and to rebrand with the restructure.

“I am probably relentless. When I want to do something I don’t stop. I am a good decision-maker, decisive, I don’t dither. If it doesn’t work out then change it. In a year’s time all your decisions would probably be different. That’s me, I like to go forward.”

Outside work, Sandford-Couch was a decent tennis player. He is also a cricket fan and returned to Australia to see England win the Ashes at the start of the year.

He still loves travel and with wife Clare, a senior lecturer in law at Northumbria University, has continued his globe-trotting ways.

“We love going on holiday,” he says. “Not having children makes it easier. We like to try and take off for New Year if we can. All my competitiveness is at work. I can switch off completely outside work.

“I was a pretty good tennis player. I play at the Northumberland Club in Newcastle. I also did a lot of swimming when I was younger and all the family are keen mountain walkers.”

In 2006 the company moved to a new 100,000sq ft HQ and print facility, Atlas House in Nelson Park, Cramlington.

“If it was easy everyone would do it. I knew it would be hard and I prepared myself for that,” he tells me.

“The first year after the move was awful. We spent millions of pounds in the first year and made a loss. I have made losses before, but not many. You can turn a loss into breaking even and then profit the next year.

“A lot of the competitors have gone, survival is important.

“We have enjoyed a long period of successful growth. The company had a turnover of only £1m in 1998.

“Our move into larger premises allowed us to get a head start before the recession impacted on the rest of the industry.

“As a result we have avoided much of the fallout from the downturn, as well as picking up extra work afterwards from those that have been less fortunate.”

“In this industry, if you consolidate and stand still for two years then you are gone. We set very high growth targets and in 25 years we have failed to grow only twice.

“Our directors and business development team are constantly driving the business forward, attracting new clients and maintaining the loyalty of existing ones, large and small.

“We could not have moved now. It couldn’t be achieved. We had very soft money – we bought kit with no deposits.

“A printing company couldn’t raise that sort of money these days. There’s luck in the sense the move came at the right time. There was nowhere in North Tyneside fitting the growth plan.

“And we can continue to grow. We will be the fastest-growing company of our size in the North East. We will be looking very seriously at new technology – specifically digital.”

The company is fortunate to now be in the position to help local charities and organisations through sponsorship.

There are more than a dozen arts, sports and community groups the company helps with cash, according to Sandford-Couch.

“The staff decide who they want us to support and we do. A lot of it comes from them,” he says.

Sandford-Couch was recently shortlisted as a finalist for the North East Business Executive of the Year 2011 award.

Now in their 28th year, the awards – run by The Journal and the Evening Gazette in association with investment manager Brewin Dolphin – honour the region’s top business people.

“My quest personally is done,” he reveals. “All you can try and be is successful. I don’t need to be any more successful for me, but I think the company can be and the staff deserve it.

“I could not have done this without a huge number of other people. All credit must go to the staff.

“And our investment in people, training and equipment gives us a competitive advantage, which will stand us in good stead for the future.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?
A Jaguar XKR.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Café 21 in Newcastle, the Gate of India in Tynemouth, Irvins Brasserie in North Shields and the Cinnamon Club in London.

Who or what makes you laugh?
Stewart Lee and Jerry Seinfeld.

What’s your favourite book?
A Prayer from Owen Meany - John Irving, Six Armies in Normandy - John Keegan.

What was the last album you bought?
Solid Air - John Martyn.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Screenwriter.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
DO IT NOW!

What’s your greatest fear?
Rats and clowns.

What’s the best piece of business advice have you ever received?
Keep your eyes on the prize.

And the worst?
Why not consolidate for a year?

What’s your poison?
Budvar or Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir.

What newspapers do you read, other than the Journal?
The Telegraph and The Times.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£1.20 for delivering newspapers in the 1970’s.

How do you keep fit?
Reluctantly, with my personal trainer Leslie.

What’s your most irritating habit?
Procrastination and impatience in equal measure.

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Holidays.

Which historical or fictional character do you most admire?
Winston Churchill.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Martin Scorsese, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Seinfeld and Stewart Lee.

How would you like to be remembered?
I would prefer to be forgotten but not gone.

THE GROWTH OF POTTS

1875 - William John Potts establishes a printing company, which trades as WJ Potts and Son from the Atlas Printing and Publishing Works on the corner of Union and Camden Street, North Shields. The company concentrates on providing printed materials for the shipping industry on the Tyne.

1910 – The company relocates to Little Bedford Street, North Shields, and is now controlled by John Dryden Potts, who trades as JD Potts – Printers and Stationers. His son George Potts joins in the 1930s.

1950 – Stuart Couch, future chairman, joins the business as an apprentice compositor.

1975 – Couch is appointed managing director and the company relocates to Waterville Road, North Shields.

1989 – Michael Sandford-Couch returns to Potts with a plan to drive sales at the company.

1992 – Sales have doubled to £500,00 and the company relocates to West Chirton Industrial Estate, North Tyneside.

1995 – Michael Sandford-Couch takes control of the company as managing director with Stuart Couch retiring as chairman after 45 years at Potts.

1998 – Yearly sales of £1m are reached for the first time. The company invests in pre-press, new printing processes and automatic print finishing equipment.

2000 – Company relocates to the Tyne Tunnel Trading Estate.

2005 – The firm has sales turnover of £4.5m and 75 employees.

2006 - Company relocates to Nelson Park, Cramlington, and invests £2m in capital equipment.

2010 – The business is re-launched as Potts Print (UK) Ltd.

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