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Industry veterans recall ‘the good old days’

100% mark-up, £5 origination, £5,000 annual salary…. that must be a long time ago.

So what happens when four industry retired figures come together? They talk about the good old days! bpma director general Gordon Glenister arranged for George Hayward, founder of the Page Group, Marion Oxley of Lesmar, Tony Cohen of the Incentive Group and Keith Willis, founder of Dowlis, to come together for lunch and talk about how the industry has changed over the last 50 years as part of the bpma’s 50th-anniversary year.

Keith started his career in 1972 with Gale Melville and, before long, headed up the newly formed business gifts division. Don Wood and Keith Willis saw Gale was going nowhere and created a new company out of their names, Don and Willis, which is how Dowlis was formed.

Keith remembers his first order for 50 lighters for RCA. It was probably worth £100 and the origination charge was around £5. They used to go to the Blackpool Gift Fair in February which was huge – it was like the Spring Fair is today. 

Interestingly the corporate gift industry today really came out of the gift industry. “It was a lot more established in the States, so we were probably around 10 years behind them,” says Willis. “Then, of course, there was the Mount Royal Hotel in London where the industry would take over a hotel and different companies would have different rooms allocated to them. We did feel sorry for some guys that would be there all day and not see anyone.”  Back then, of course, the shows were targeting retailers.

Tony Cohen started after leaving college in 1970, initially having joined a manufacturer selling stainless steel. The company Cado Designs was run by Ken Lessons and specialised in branded cufflinks. Some of the original players in the 1970s would have been Industrial Gifts, Symonds Distributors, Venus Products and Bourne Publicity. Early manufacturers would have been Parker Pens, Letts Diaries, Stuart Crystal etc – all retail brands that could be personalised for the promotional market.

More and more manufacturers started to realise that diversification into corporate gifts was generating more demand and, more importantly, healthy profits. “A 100% margin was not uncommon,” says Cohen. “However, it was necessary to offset the purchase of stock that might not necessarily be sold.”

Cohen started to realise the low-cost options that the Far East brought to delivering a wider range at competitive prices. Much of this early adoption was from the Jewish fraternity, and the connections even today are still very strong. Marion Oxley can boast one of the oldest established promotional gift companies with Lesmar having been founded in 1947 so it has four generations now in the gift industry. Oxley remarked that a lot of business connections and associations came out immediately after World War Two.

George Hayward worked for Parker Pens from 1967, originally in the retail sector and eventually starting his own industrial division in the late 1970s. Hayward said that,
for many years, distributors operated in isolation and didn’t know who their competition was. It was not until he went to a sales conference organised by Parker Pens that he even met his fellow distributors/competitors.

When Glenister asks when the first catalogue group was launched, Hayward says it was the Probus Group which would have been around 1988. In fact, before the first catalogue, you would buy a presentation folder and put inserts in from suppliers’ brochures.  Burostat was the first real industry catalogue, dealing with around 200 companies, and in its heydey worth around £5.5m.  Around the early 1980s, 400 distributors would have taken it.  Action Speciality Advertising was another company who would promote its catalogue heavily and would spend a lot of money on lavish incentives – not long before companies like Product Source followed with their cruise ship targets.

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