Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Chris Ingram, founder of York Mailing

INK runs through Chris Ingram’s veins. His great-great-grandfather Herbert Ingram founded the Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated news weekly, in 1842. Ingram was destined to follow in his forebear’s footsteps.

“I’ve been in printing all my life,” said Ingram, 48. “I learnt a significant amount from my father, who sold the News in 1963 to start his own printing company.

“I always had an ambition to have my own business.”

In 1999 Ingram founded York Mailing, a printing house that produces 75% of all retail flyers in Britain, as well as delivering flyers, leaflets, catalogues and media inserts around the world. It is said to be worth £100m.

Based near Elvington, east of York, the company expects to report sales of more than £80m when it files accounts next May, against sales this year of £75m and a profit of £7.6m.

York Mailing’s sales abroad — its biggest markets are Ireland and Scandinavia — rose to £8.5m last year, ranking it 125th on The Sunday Times International Track 200 of leading private companies with overseas sales.

Last month the Business Growth Fund, a government initiative backed by banks, invested £10m in York Mailing, which used the cash to buy out the Lettershop Group, a rival that turns over about £20m a year. It is York’s second big acquisition since it bought Pindar, another printer, in 2011.

“We are, by some margin, the biggest supplier of print in the retail sector,” said Ingram. “Competitors? We don’t have any.”

Ingram was born in Farnborough, Kent, and raised in Cheshire. He boarded at Haileybury College in Hertfordshire before moving to Wrekin College, Shropshire, for his A-levels.

“I wasn’t particularly academic,” he said. “The other day my father found an old school report and I was horrified. It sounded like I didn’t do any work at all.”

Ingram’s younger brother, Louis, also attended Wrekin and went into the print industry. He owns a digital publishing business producing images for the media and graphic arts industry. “We’re very competitive but we’re extremely good friends,” said Ingram, who worked for his father’s company, Eaton Press, straight after leaving school. “I didn’t bother going to university. I just wanted to work.”

After a year as assistant to the commercial manager he joined the Lehman Company, a printer in northwest England that has since folded. There he met Mike Newbould, the father of his current business partner, also Mike.

In 1992 Ingram and Newbould Sr left Lehman and invested £35,000 each to set up York Direct, printing mini-catalogues for mail order companies.

The business was not a success. “The mail order industry was a very different animal to what it is in the digital age,” said Ingram. “When clients, retailers such as Matalan, moved onto the high street from out-of-town locations the whole concept of mail order practically vanished overnight.”

The pair sold the business in 1998 to the management, backed by 3i, the investor. Ingram founded York Mailing a year later with a personal investment of £250,000.

He was happy to buy back his old company in 2000 for “significantly less” than its sale price. “York Direct was struggling and taking it back presented a good opportunity to expand York Mailing.”

Expansion proved costly when Ingram signed a contract to buy a new £7m press in summer 2008. His backer, Lehman Brothers, collapsed during the financial crisis and he struggled to gather funds.

“They were dark days,” said Ingram. “To finance a printing press, not the sexiest thing in the world, in a unpublicised sector and unstable economic environment was very challenging.”

The previous year a press in the York plant had caught fire. “It was destroyed,” he said. “We got back in production within six hours of the fire, albeit one press down. We didn’t disappoint our customers.”

Those customers include Tesco, Lidl, Morrisons, Asda and Co-op, with Pindar (based in Scarborough) printing for Boden UK, the White Company and Otter Shoes. Lettershop is based in Leeds.

“The key is to create a group of printing businesses that individually focus on specific retail markets but do so together by using the very latest in press room technology,” said Ingram. “Only then can we provide customers with a one-stop shop for printed marketing literature.”

Ingram lives in the Yorkshire Dales near Masham with his wife Alison, a housewife who is currently redeveloping their property. They have a daughter, Phoebe, 16.

He advises budding entrepreneurs to stick to a simple business idea. “Do not overcomplicate what you are offering and remain determined to succeed, whatever is thrown at you. That is what differentiates the winners from the losers.”

Link to Sunday Times website

PDF – How I Made It York Mailing

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