Richard Charkin: In Praise Of a Quiet Publishing Leader

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin10 Comments

The late George Richardson was ‘a quiet man, aware of his own shortcomings but with that instinctive knack of being a good leader.’

A view of Puycelsi in the south of France, a hilltop village, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France association municipalities. Image: Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin

A Great Manager With Humanity, Judgment
I‘m writing this from France, where I am living for the next few weeks unless President Macron becomes so irritated by Brexit that he enforces the deportation of all British citizens. Renvoyer-les. Send them back. My routine involves long walks in crazily hot, full sunlight up and down steep hills. The walk to Puycelsi isn’t atypical. It’s a lovely village.

Richard Charkin

On these walks, I tend to think a little less practically than usual and right now I’ve been thinking about a great 20th-century CEO who may be unknown to 99.9 percent of today’s publishing industry.

George Richardson was secretary to the delegates—the chief executive—of Oxford University Press (OUP) from 1974 to 1988. I worked there from 1975 to 1988 so we were almost exact contemporaries.

Richardson was appointed by the University of Oxford to take charge of its sprawling, unprofitable, arrogant, and inward-looking publishing, printing, and papermaking operation at a time of hyperinflation, economic recession, and overbearing trade union power. He had no significant experience of management, publishing, or business. He made no grand statements nor speeches to “rally the troops.”

Yet, at the end of his tenure, OUP had been transformed and has been able not only to publish some of the best books in the humanities, science, medicine, education, reference, music, and more, but also to contribute financially to the university’s well-being. In the year that ended with March, sales were £840.5 million (US$1.1 billion), generating a 2019 profit after tax of £90.3 million (US$112.1 million). OUP has transferred hundreds of millions of pounds to its owner. Not many publishers can say that.

‘Diversity Was Clearly Not the Driver’

At George Richardson’s funeral service, St. John’s Oxford. Richardson’s contemporaries from Oxford University Press. Image: Nigel Portwood

Richardson died this month at the good age of 94. I attended his funeral at St John’s College, Oxford. Naturally there were many from his days at OUP who were there, and I was able to persuade Nigel Portwood, the current CEO, to take the photo above of nine survivors of those days.

“We all worked in different roles in different divisions of Oxford University Press, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see some commonalities. All white. All male.”Richard Charkin

We all worked in different roles in different divisions of OUP, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see some commonalities. All white. All male. I imagine all went to private or highly selective schools. I think all but one attended either Oxford or Cambridge. Nearly all liked cricket. Several played poker. They all had girlfriends or wives. Diversity was clearly not the driver of recruitment. I was asked at my joining interview whether I was Jewish. “It wouldn’t be a problem as there was one in the press already.” As it happens, he wasn’t Jewish but had a German name.

In today’s world this would, of course, be utterly unacceptable, but then it was the norm in many British institutions, particularly those close to establishments such as Oxford University.

But perhaps it wasn’t all bad. We had a shared culture which could be applied to sorting out the mess that George Richardson was trying to address. We didn’t need bonuses to motivate us. Nor did we need appraisals to tell us our objectives. Nor lessons in how to behave ethically. In our 30s, we were each given responsibility and freedom to act way above that justified by our experience. At Harvard Business School it was called empowerment. I don’t think George or we had heard the word but it seemed to have worked.

In the course of a decade or so, OUP had been transformed.

The paper mill was sold off. The hugely inefficient warehouse in London was closed and a new one built in Northamptonshire. A completely new IT system, Vista, was implemented. The wasteful London offices were closed and UK operations centralized in Oxford. The centuries-old printing division was wound down with the loss of hundreds of skilled employees. Typesetting was moved to tiny freelancers or to India.

George Richardson. Image: Oxford Press obituary

In publishing terms, the opening of offices across Europe, Asia, and Latin America laid the foundations for Oxford dominance in English Language Teaching (ELP). The prioritization of scholarly journals made Oxford a legitimate competitor to the massive scientific publishers. The computerization of the Oxford English Dictionary not only preserved a great scholarly work but also furnished OUP with digital skills ahead of its competitors.

When Richardson was appointed CEO, I suspect the university thought that he would bring good academic economic thinking to business. As he describes in a paper here in his elegant and thoughtful prose, it worked out somewhat differently.

He was a quiet man, aware of his own shortcomings but with that instinctive knack of being a good publishing leader and allowing those with particular skills to flourish.

He once told me that he was a lousy manager because, as an academic, he had never had anyone reporting to him and he never reported to anyone. The facts were true but his conclusion was wrong. He was a great manager with humanity, judgment, humility, intellect, and courage that I fear the Harvard Business School simply cannot teach. I only wish that political leaders around the world were as quiet and effective.


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About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former President of the IPA and for 11 years was Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press and Reed Elsevier, and has led many other organizations, such as the UK Publishers Association and The Book Society. Richard has an MA in Natural Sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a Supernumerary Fellow of Green College, Oxford; and attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and he is a Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts London.

Comments

  1. I am usually not commenting but I have to admit I felt the need several times reading one of your articles… now it’s time: I truely like the way you point out essentials. Thank you for this. Martina

  2. According to this year’s annual report OUP transferred £45.6million to the University of Oxford. There’s a good case for saying the John Fell Fund should be the George Richardson Fund based on this article. At a time when ‘Academic-Led’ presses are on the rise, it is intriguing to read about an academic with no practical publishing experience who transformed arguably the most respected of all publishers. Thank you for bringing George Richardson into focus, Richard.

    I’m struck also by the fact that Richardson’s impact did not end with OUP because the long term diaspora of OUPers brought his thinking to other presses. LUP unquestionably benefited from the late David Attwooll’s willingness to ‘give responsibility and freedom to act way above that justified by experience’ in his stint as Chair.

    1. Thanks Anthony. David Attwooll was a great colleague, a terrific entrepreneur and a real publishing mensch. It is certainly the case that he contributed enormously to the current success of Liverpool University Press and I only wish he was here to enjoy that success.

  3. I remember him as a very nice and polite person, and indeed he gave you guys a lot of responsibilty and freedom. Very well written Richard and very enlightening for that time. I joined publishing in 1976. Have a nice time in France.

  4. Very well written.
    ‘I was asked at my joining interview whether I was Jewish. “It wouldn’t be a problem as there was one in the press already.”’ Unbelievable ah? But as you say, those were different times. I think you told me this anecdote when I asked you if you ever encountered overt anti-Semitism? Or was that a different incident?

  5. ‘When I last saw him I was leaning on the counter of 116 High St buying a book
    as a Press pensioner – George R sidled up beside me also asking to buy a
    book saying that he too was a Press pensioner – the Assistant wasn’t too
    sure about that, so I had great pleasure in saying that he most assuredly
    was! G. was tickled pink giving me a great big smile of thanks.’ Nick Allen, Manager, OUP Bookshop 1982-1988

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