Cottage Industry to Global Player

My life changed in 1997. Two young investment bankers – Jonathan Klein and Mark Getty – had decided that the industry they would like to consolidate was photo licensing. This decision proved to be a profitable choice for them – and made millionaires of many photo agency proprietors along the way. It was a stroke of luck!

Getty Images started its acquisition spree in the mid-90s with the acquisition of UK businesses like Tony Stone Images and Hulton Deutsch Collection. Most people have lost count of the number of acquisitions and integrations they have undertaken – but Jonathan Klein’s profile on their website says over 70! I suspect it is nearer 100….

In 1997, I was approached by Chad Murrin who was in charge of Corporate Finance (selling businesses) at 3i (the leading UK Venture Capital firm). 3i had been investors in Tony Stone’s business – and understood more than most the acquisition strategy that Getty Images were set to pursue. Chad had done a trawl of photo businesses of a certain size and approached their proprietors. I liked Chad – and he became a mentor and friend (we still keep in touch with the occasional lunch!).

Chad took me on a journey of public available accounts (by then Getty had raised money in London – and were on their way to an NASDAQ listing in New York). He showed me how I could compare the performance of my business, EMPICS, with other businesses in the same sector. It was interesting to see comparisons of revenue per employee, levels of debt, etc. It also helped to understand the value of the photography asset we had started to build – the value of our photo archive. Late in 1997, Getty Images bought our main competitor in the sports photography market – and 3i decided to invest in EMPICS.

The introduction to the area of listed companies and venture capital was life changing. It helped to understand that the game of business could be played at a very different level. I poured through the Getty Images annual reports and listing documents. I was in awe of the clarity they had on strategy – and the confidence they had in the raising and application of funds. I met Mark Getty on a couple of occasions. I know many people put the success of Mark’s business down to having the “Getty Money” behind him (he is the grandson of oil magnate, J. Paul Getty) – but they’ve got that wrong. He’s one of brightest business minds around – I’m glad he brought that brain to photography.

One of the bonuses of having an investment from 3i was the appointment of our first non-executive chairman. This was not a board appointee for 3i – but an independent person to help build the business. His name was Tom Kirby – the Chairman of Games Workshop (a stock exchange listed company based in Nottingham). He introduced me to the use of a whiteboard (when asked if he wanted to see our business plan he said something to the effect of “I’m sure it will be a waste of time”) – and most of all, he focused on strategy. It’s so difficult when in the thick of things to pull your head up and look at the bigger picture – but he did that for me. It’s something that I make sure to pass on today to anyone I offer to help.

In terms of strategy, he had the view of an expert general (maybe why he loved his business, Games Workshop, so much). He got annoyed when we talked about competitors (which we seemed to obsess about!). He wanted us to look for a “green field”. How could we apply our expertise, knowledge and passion to an area where there were no competitors? Why hand to hand fight over a small bit of land – when you can settle on a large green field with no competitors!

Tom was the best chairman we had – and we had a couple of other good ones along the way. He bowed out when funds got tight and we needed more tactical, day-to-day help. This new journey – prompted by the entry of Getty (and another company called Corbis – 100% owned by a chap called Bill Gates) to the photo industry – was a roller coaster. Before EMPICS’ exit to the Press Association we had lots of courtships (Getty amongst them), many ups (with just as many downs) – and some fantastic experiences that gave me the love of business I have today.

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