The printer who’s making his mark

The printer who’s making his mark

Once he had sold his eponymous printing business, John Watson could have been forgiven for putting his feet up. But, as journalist Karen Peattie discovers over lunch, the entrepreneur is now supporting the next generation of business talent.

For printing entrepreneur John Watson being late is never an option so he is already engaged in conversation with the sommelier at Glasgow’s Hotel Du Vin at One Devonshire Gardens well in advance of his interview with BQ. It’s a sunny Monday and, with a meeting straight after lunch, he’s keen to get down to business.

Indeed, one of Watson’s four sons – Fergus, 21 – works here. “I’ll have left by the time he comes on duty and he’ll be quite relieved about that,” says Watson. “I’m sure he doesn’t need his dad checking up on him.”  All the same, he can’t resist enquiring about his third son’s progress with sommelier Alan Brady. For the record, he’s doing very well.

So, too, is Watson who sold his hugely successful independent Glasgow-based printing business, John Watson & Company, to United States conglomerate Multi-Color Corporation (MCC) – one of the largest label companies in the world – in 2014. Watson, who was appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to the printing industry and charity in 2006, was the fifth generation of his family to run the business, which can trace its history back to 1826.

Why did he sell rather than pass the reins on to the sixth generation? “I didn’t seek a buyer but it was time to get off the bus,” says Watson. “People find it odd when I tell them I was glad to get the tap on the shoulder at a time when the business was performing so well and in a very challenging marketplace, it has to be said. But I had no qualms about selling because it was right for me and the company – and there were no issues with the family.”

Watson had previously been approached by Toronto-based CCL, the world’s biggest printing company. He says that deal didn’t go ahead “for various reasons” despite initial terms being agreed but when by chance he met Nigel Vinecombe, then chief executive of MCC, at a licensed trade function in Glasgow, the dialogue was different. “It didn’t happen quickly but it felt right and I was happy to go with it,” says Watson.

“For John Watson & Company to have come from such humble roots and to exit as the largest printing company in Scotland with a global reputation was quite something – something I’ll always be very proud of and also the team that made it happen.”

Ending almost two centuries of independence for the company that continues to specialise in producing labels and tube wraps for the Scotch whisky industry was still a big deal, however, given two of his sons were working there. Sandy, son number two, has remained with the firm and is a Heidelberg Speedmaster operator. “It’s like being a Michelin-star chef,” says Watson.

Moving Watson away from his favourite subject – printing – is challenging but not surprising given his 50-plus years with the company. As managing director from 1975 then chairman and chief executive from 1986, the family printing dynasty was his life. “I’ve actually just published a history of the company,” he points out. “It’s called ‘The History of John Watson & Company Ltd – from the nineteenth century to the present day’ and I worked with a well-known genealogist, Margaret Hubble.”

His attention then transferring to his starter – ham hough and puy lentil terrine and pickled vegetables – Watson takes time to savour and enjoy his food. It’s a similar scenario with his main course of confit pork belly, spring cabbage and apple purée. “This is one of my favourite restaurants,” he admits, sadly having to refuse sommelier Brady’s recommendations of a delicate Australian Eden Valley Riesling from Peter Lehmann with his starter and a more robust Wairau River Pinot Gris from New Zealand’s Marlborough region with the main.

With an excellent lunch focusing his mind on life post-John Watson & Company, he changes position in his chair and adjusts his tie. “Sometimes it seems as if I’m busier than ever,” says the energetic 68-year-old who has long held the belief that it’s important to give something back when you’ve been successful.

The businessman-turned-philanthropist, said to have pocketed about £15m from the sale of Watson’s to MCC, has never publicly discussed the exact figure, instead referring to it as a “significant multi-million-pound” deal. But he made up his mind very early in the process that he wanted to “make a difference” and “do something worthwhile”.

John 03

The phrase “giving something back”, then, has taken on a different guise in Watson’s world. For him, it’s not just about supporting a few good causes. “When you find yourself with two things – money and time – you’re in a very privileged position, a position that enables you to make a real difference to people’s lives,” he says.

“When you retire you think about all the things you’ll have time to do, like spending more time with your family, playing golf, holidays – nice lunches like this. But you can’t do that all the time,” says Watson. “When you’ve been at the sharp end of business you don’t just leave the office for the last time and put your feet up or relocate to the golf course. I want to make a contribution to business and society in a different way.”

The seeds of The Watson Foundation charitable trust – set up in 2014 – had been floating around in his mind; the idea being to help young entrepreneurs establish and grow their businesses, and also provide help to charities. Today, Watson is involved with no fewer than nine charities, including Marie Curie of which he is a long-time supporter, and, more recently, Paragolf buggies, which allow disabled golfers to stand up and play.

Watson, still one of Scotland’s most influential business figures, is only too aware of the challenges many companies face when it comes to asset funding – his own firm was no exception – and that is one of his reasons for wanting to support those at the beginning of their journey.

Watson’s solution to the problem was simple – go elsewhere. He took his business to Clydesdale Bank and subsequently saw profits surge to record levels in the last full financial year before John Watson & Company was taken over by MCC. The new equipment – representing an investment in the region of £4m – enabled the firm to move into high-end gift tubes and self-adhesive labels for the Scotch whisky and drinks industry.

“I took risks in my business and always believed we could grow globally and not just be a local company,” says Watson. “Scotland has always had a real entrepreneurial spirit and I want to nurture that. I want to see people with great ideas being successful and having been there and done it myself I have a responsibility to help businesses I see potential in move up to the next stage.”

Watson retains close links with Entrepreneurial Scotland, which was created following the merger of two of Scotland’s driving forces in talent creation and entrepreneurship, the Saltire Foundation and the Entrepreneurial Exchange. “I was involved with the Entrepreneurial Exchange almost from day one so it’s great to see how it has evolved and developed,” he says. “Today’s young entrepreneurs are extremely motivated and the innovation we’re seeing across all business sectors is remarkable – I feel privileged to be in a position to advise people on their next move or help them bring a brand new business idea to fruition.”

John 02In 2015, The Watson Foundation gave £100,000 to Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, which is using the money to assist local businesses. Companies are invited to apply for grants of up to £10,000 – they also receive access to the chamber’s network of contacts and support services. “Contacts can be just as important as finance in business,” suggests Watson.

“People often question the value of attending networking functions like business breakfasts and entering awards,” he goes on. “But all it takes is just one introduction and your business and viewpoint could change forever. I often hear people saying, ‘If I hadn’t gone to that event I would never have met…’ – and that’s what networking’s all about. You can make these things work for you.”

Meanwhile, Watson is working with the high-profile social entrepreneur Josh Littlejohn, who has launched what is thought to be the world’s first skills and employment academy for the homeless community. The Social Bite Academy offers homeless people a paid, four-year course aimed at breaking the cycle of homelessness by providing support ranging from social integration, housing help, skills training and work experience.

Littlejohn’s not-for-profit Social Bite sandwich shop concept, of course, famously caught the eye of George Clooney who brought Edinburgh to a virtual standstill when he visited the shop in Rose Street last November prior to a speaking engagement at Littlejohn’s Scottish Business Awards. The Social Bite Academy has been seed-funded by a £50,000 donation from The Watson Foundation and will see students gain paid employment in Social Bite shops or with partner commercial businesses, helping individuals to make a contribution to society in Scotland as well as turn their lives around.

Watson, whose initial donation has enabled the first three students to enrol in the academy, says: “I’ve been a big admirer of Social Bite so I didn’t hesitate to support the new academy – it’s an inspirational idea and will go a long way to helping change people’s lives. It’s the right time for Social Bite to evolve.”

Since the launch of the academy, Social Bite has confirmed that it is working with a group of Scotland’s leading restaurateurs to create Home, a restaurant where diners can help support the homeless. Operated by Dean Gassabi of Maison Bleue restaurants, Home – on Queensferry Street in Edinburgh – opens in September.

“I think Josh Littlejohn is great example to hold up in the business world,” suggests Watson. “People do business with people, not companies, and that is one of the reasons why he is so successful.”

Does John Watson miss the cut and thrust of daily business? “No, not at all,” he says without hesitation. “Do I miss printing? I have to say yes. And do I miss the people? Absolutely. But I do manage to fit in some golf from time to time.”

Hotel Du Vin

Hotel Du Vin & Bistro

Glasgow’s Hotel Du Vin at One Devonshire Gardens is a luxury boutique hotel and restaurant with a reputation for service and style. Nestling unobtrusively in a tree-lined Victorian terrace in the heart of Glasgow’s West End, the hotel has 49 bedrooms and suites as well as a bistro, bar, cigar shack and whisky snug which is open to guests and non-residents.

Headed by Barry Duff, The Bistro is at the heart of this distinguished hotel and features a menu of dishes crafted from fresh, seasonal, locally-sourced and, wherever possible, organic produce. Duff and his team of top chefs are passionate about creating a true taste of Scotland and have been awarded three AA Rosettes.

With the hotel boasting its own very expansive wine cellar, guests are encouraged to engage with sommelier Alan Brady to find the perfect bottle to accompany lunch or dinner. The whisky room offers more than 300 whiskies and is the perfect setting to retreat for a digestif. Indeed, Brady regularly hosts wine and whisky tasting events where guests can find out more about a particular malt or region.

The Bistro at Hotel du Vin offers an outstanding dining experience. As guests soon discover,
the rooms have all been carefully converted to retain their original Victorian features,
which include luxurious oak panelling and beautiful open fireplaces creating a cosy and relaxing atmosphere.

Hotel Du Vin & Bistro is at One Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow, G12 0UX. Find out more at or call 0141 378 0385.