Art teacher Gyr King, 69, co-founded fine art print business King & McGaw with brothers Perry and Quentin in 1982, from a derelict house in Brighton.
After his brothers, both graphic designers, had made some silkscreen travel posters, King bought a standby ticket to New York to show the proofs at an art fair. He secured orders for 4,000 and US distribution, and left teaching.
His brothers had both stepped back from the business by 1990, leaving Gyr King as chief executive. Turnover has increased steadily from £18,000 in 1983 to more than £11mn in 2021. A curated range of prints are sold online, directly to the public. The company also works closely with museums, galleries and historic sites to create bespoke prints, cards and notebooks.
Based in Newhaven, East Sussex, King & McGaw has more than 80 employees, and in 2021 sold 210,000 prints.
Born: Seaford, East Sussex, August 26, 1952
Education: 1969-71: East Sussex College, Lewes
1971-73: Brighton Polytechnic, DipEd History of Art
1974-75: BA History of Art and Education, University of Sussex
Career: 1975-77: Trained with established Sussex potter
1977-81: Taught art and art history at Millfield School, Somerset
1982: Founded King Publishing, creating fine art prints
1990: Joined Bruce McGaw Graphics in New York, became King & McGaw in UK and Europe. Perry left to focus on computer graphics
1992: Moved to workshops and offices in Newhaven, Sussex
2003: One year in New York, to run US and UK publishing operations
2009: Sold US business
2011: merged with Easy Art (On-Line art business)
2015: Online operation ceased trading as Easy Art. Online retail and museum wholesale business became King & McGaw.
Lives: East Sussex (he has two adult sons)
Did you think you would get to where you are?
No, I did not. At school I really did not think about the future, but knew I wanted to avoid working for a large organisation. I chose economics, economic history and English at A-level, mainly because I liked the teachers. However, at 17 I went to an Anthony Caro exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and realised I had a connection. I had an affinity with this room full of brightly coloured metal sculptures. Setting up a business in the arts was not an obvious choice, possibly until then.
Did the coronavirus pandemic affect your business?
As the business is in two parts, we ended up being financially neutral. The retail side grew enormously because people migrated to buying online, but we could not supply museums and galleries that were closed. Half the business did well, but the other was temporarily in mothballs.
However, as we were making everything to order for our online business, it was challenging to carry on in the factory with the Covid restrictions. We had to react quickly to the unfolding situation and protect the staff on site.
Everyone wore masks, and changed them twice a day, and their temperature was monitored as they entered and left the building. We had some auxiliary people going around cleaning doors and any surface that people were touching. There were automatic hand sanitisers by every door.
For the people in accounts, marketing and customer service, who worked from home, we had to invest in more computer equipment. The government furlough scheme was incredibly helpful and saved around 20 of our jobs. We had regular Zoom updates, to give the office staff a sense of belonging. Many of them felt isolated.
Have you found it difficult to recruit staff in recent months?
Yes, we have. It is difficult to know exactly why, but a reasonable percentage of our long-term staff have come from Europe, so they are able to stay, but now there is no European labour coming in. People from Europe used to be widely available on the labour market, but today that is not the case. Finding suitable staff, both skilled and unskilled, is getting worse. It seems to have happened overnight. Jobs are available but there are no staff to fill them.
Are you planning for tough times ahead?
We are doing what we can to mitigate a tough autumn by watching our costs and investing in the latest printing systems. People can go to a museum or gallery for free, but not necessarily spend any money in the shop there. There may be fewer tourists as well. We are always trying to be innovative and respond to changing market conditions. I like to remember that since we started out in the 1980s, we have survived several recessions.
Was your first £1mn a major milestone?
We made our first million pounds profit in 2001, when we were operating in the US. To celebrate, my then business partner Bruce [McGaw] and I decided to have a “summit” meeting, with a bottle of champagne, on the viewing platform of the Empire State Building.
Once we came out of America our profit ebbed and flowed. Here in England, our accounts show that we made £1mn profit in 2021. This time it seemed less relevant because I was preoccupied with coming out of the pandemic.
What did you have to sacrifice to start the business?
I did sacrifice time but was not aware of it, because the business was something I wanted to do. It wasn’t a real sacrifice but a pleasure. Back then it was so much easier. I went to the bank and they lent me money. In the early 1980s bank managers had the authority to lend money without collateral, using their own judgment. Nowadays, banks want various fees. I borrowed £5,000.
We worked with contemporary artists. What sells well varies, though prints of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” from the National Gallery remain permanent bestsellers. Contemporary prints change in popularity, but there are exceptions like Andy Warhol, who remains ever popular, and for whom we have the European licence. L.S. Lowry has always been popular in the UK, but incredibly, not overseas.
My own favourite print is “Multiplication”, one of a limited edition of 150 by Sir Howard Hodgkin, a British abstract painter who died in 2017. We published this silkscreen print with him for the Terrence Higgins Trust.
What was the most challenging period of your career?
It was when the warehouse burnt down in 1989. I think it was an electrical fault, but we never discovered the cause. The stock destroyed was worth over £1mn in today’s money.
I am not a fan of banks, but the same bank manager who initially helped us, the next day provided us with sufficient funds to restock our warehouse. The bank’s support was essential, as it turned out that our insurance cover was inadequate. Insurance is important but expensive.
Today we are covered for every eventuality. I absolutely did lose sleep for many weeks but though the fire seemed like a catastrophe at the time, it made me stronger, more resilient and more pragmatic. Thankfully, as it happened overnight, no one was in the warehouse.
What was your best preparation for business?
I think teaching enabled me to understand how important people are and how everybody is different. Also, the ability to communicate in as simple a way as possible is the essence of any transaction. Going back to my stint with a potter, making an object out of clay is very repetitive to get the technique right, so it must have taught me patience.
What is your basic business philosophy?
It is important to take risks, because this is the way you can develop new ideas. If you are risk averse it is more difficult to run a business. When I flew to New York in 1982 to test the market, that alone was a big risk, though the market for prints was much stronger in the US.
I was 30, and I did not even have a credit card. I paid cash for my ticket and as I could not afford a hotel, I convinced some people I knew there to let me sleep on the couch in their hotel room. I took orders just from two proofs of two images of travel posters.
Do you want to carry on until you drop?
I do want to carry on, but perhaps not quite so full-time as I am now. I don’t see myself stopping work entirely. I would like to see the company continue and grow. When I am doing fewer hours, I will probably be making pots in my spare time. I have a pottery set up in my garden shed and I would make bowls and plates.
Have you made any pension provision?
I have a private pension that I started when I was 30. I suppose I vaguely thought it would be a prudent thing to do, but I am wary of relying exclusively on pensions. I have made other investments: cash, property, original art, and the stock market, with emphasis on technology and the environment. I do take an active interest in shares. I have not drawn my private pension yet and I have deferred the state pension.
Do you believe in giving something back to the community?
I absolutely do. As a company we donate to and sponsor museums. As an individual, I am a trustee for the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, and a trustee of Great Dixter Gardens, in Northiam, Rye. Both these trusteeships do take up quite a lot of time.
This article has been republished to correct errors in the CV section