Alan Sutton: Reclaiming his heritage

Alan Sutton: Reclaiming his heritage

It is a snowy afternoon on the outskirts of the picturesque Gloucestershire market town of Stroud, and heritage and local interest publisher Alan Sutton is explaining why he felt the need to expand his company.

"Maybe it was because of my megalomania," he chuckles. He pauses, then says that it was necessary to grow the business. "To be successful now I think you need critical mass, particularly in the UK. I don't see how anybody under £5m turnover can easily survive."

Sutton's empire certainly surpasses the £5m mark. In late January, his company NPI Media used private equity funds to buy back the publishing house that bears his name, Sutton Publishing, and four further companies: Jarrold Publishing, Phillimore and Company, Oaklands Book Services and the US-based History Press. NPI already owned Tempus, Nonsuch and Spellmount. The new group has more than 200 employees in the UK, Europe and North America, with a projected annual turnover of £17m.

The move transformed Sutton from a leader in the local and heritage publishing market to its dominant player. He controls the sector's top four UK publishers, the biggest in France, and the second biggest in Germany. There are outposts in Dublin, Bulgaria and the US. And he is not finished; offices are soon to open in Bologna and Madrid, and at least three more acquisitions are in the pipeline.

Critical mass indeed—and not bad for someone who, in 2002, seemed ready to get out of the game. He had sold his majority stake in Tempus, telling The Bookseller that the company needed "a younger management team to take it to the next stage". He spent almost a year in semi-retirement before regaining control of Tempus, so the recent expansion is something of a second wind. "I must admit, in 2002-03 I did miss it," he says. "It's nice to be back in the swing."

Ice cream dreams

Sutton was born in Gloucestershire in 1949—"the same year as the National Health Service and British Rail"—and has remained in the area for most of his life. He was not very academic at school: "I was anchorman, at the very bottom of the class for five years running." But he had an abiding passion for history, a hobby he would eventually turn into a living.

In 1974, while working in the IT department of Wall's Ice Cream, Sutton published his first book, 400 copies of a facsimile edition on the Battle of Bosworth Field, printed on the Wall's office duplicating machine. Though he "knew absolutely nothing about publishing", Sutton sold the entire run. In 1977, he teamed up with architectural historian David Verey to publish The Diaries of a Cotswold Parson. The diaries did very well—they remain in print to this day—and Alan Sutton Publishing was born in 1978.

"We started off at a zero capital base, just started off from nothing. It was on the success of a few books we published that we managed to grow," Sutton says. He thinks his lack of publishing training actually contributed to the company's early success. "I never had a particular system imbued in me. Coming from a computer background, I could see some of the opportunities and savings that the big publishers are missing."

Historical difficulties

In 1985, Sutton Publishing merged sales forces with David & Charles, a move that "seemed sensible at the time but was an unmitigated disaster". Faced with financial difficulties, Sutton sold a majority share of the company to Guernsey Press, but stayed on as m.d. and chairman.

The events of the period clearly still rankle, and Sutton's soft-spoken voice rises a few notches as he discusses them. "For the next six years, I had the joy of running the company to their policy. So every year we would have the same charade. We'd do the budget. They'd ask me what I thought we should do. I told them. Then they told me what I was going to do, and when it didn't work, it was my fault."

In 1992, Sutton tried to engineer an m.b.o., but was rebuffed. A year later, he was unceremoniously dumped by the company. Galled by his sacking, Sutton got some "seedcorn" capital together and started Tempus, setting up the business just down the road from Alan Sutton Publishing. "They didn't like that," he says with a smile.

Sutton says there was "a bit of a frisson" between Tempus and his old company, and admits to a great deal of satisfaction when he returned to his eponymous business. "There was genuine shock when I walked back through the door. There were 13 years of vilification, so I think the staff were quite surprised that I didn't have horns on the top of my head."

Sutton is now focusing on putting together the disparate parts of his empire. A crucial element of his plan is his new headquarters on a six-acre site just outside Stroud, which, by 2008, will house the Sutton and Tempus imprints and Oaklands, the manufacturing side. Oaklands is already up and running and Sutton is eager to show it off, so we brave the snow and hop in his Range Rover.

At the factory, Sutton is visibly pleased with its £4m-worth of brand-new printing press kit. He explains that having a printing press is what makes everything fit together. Local history and heritage publishing means a large number of titles with small print runs: with bookselling chains reining back on local books, cautious first runs with quick reprint turnarounds are "make or break".

Sutton says that his acquisitions carried a certain amount of risk, but are already bearing fruit. "What has been particularly pleasing is that all the assumptions we had made in our business model were true: there are savings to be made here."