Once a year, I catch up with a former colleague and current competitor to talk about life, work and the universe. We normally meet for a couple of drinks at some nondescript railway hotel that is equidistant between his company and Mole Graphics. This year we talked about many things: the ignorance of print buyers the simmering resentment of employees who smoke (by those who don’t) and an old school salesman whose annual mileage must have single-handedly increased the UK’s carbon emissions by a percentage point or two.
And then he said something that I’d never thought of before: “Even if your company is prospering, running a wide-format print business is a working-class lifestyle,” he said, nursing his cooking lager. “It’s not a banker’s lifestyle is it? Even if you’re doing really well you have to be on it, 24/7, go into the factory, see what’s going right - and wrong - and do something. That’s not the way a banker works, is it? My brother-in-law, who made his money in the City, still fondly recalls the years when they had so little to do that the weekend began at four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.”
I wondered if he was exaggerating the last bit, although I’ve since had it confirmed by others. He had a point about wide-format though. The margins are small. The sums required for essential investments in the latest technology are not. Customers quibble when you charge them something for the time it took you to fiddle with their artwork to make it look how they originally intended to look. And there’s always some busy fool out there who’s willing to take on a job for next to nothing.
A combination of these factors had lead my old colleague to wonder whether he should encourage his children to enter the business. His son had just gone off to America to study the great works of Western civilisation. His daughter, who was taking a year out, was torn between advertising and acting as possible careers. They weren’t particularly keen and nor, surprisingly, was my old friend. “It’s just so pressured now,” he explained, as he checked his phone for emails.
When I accused him of indulging in Private Fraser-style doom and gloom, he laughed and said: “You can still get rich in wide-format, I know that. It’s just that you can’t become a member of the idle rich.” If wealthy indolence was the goal, we agreed, someone might want to pursue a less strenuous career. Like politics.