J Thomson Colour Printers wishes a happy retirement to two incredible members of staff: Allan Harrop, Pre-press Manager, and Aberdeen Sales Representative Christine Houston.
To mark their respective retirements and contributions to the company, we sat down with Allan and Christine to talk about their careers, time with J Thomson and exciting plans for retirement.
Allan and Christine, thanks for taking the time to talk to us and as I'm sure you're both busy planning for your retirement, let's start at the beginning: how did you start at working for J Thomson?
Allan Harrop: Well, I originally wanted to start working in photography, and the nearest I got to photography was a company that was producing pre-press for printers (back in the good old days when everything was photographed). The company I was working for were one of many repro houses doing work for J Thomson back in the days when guys could come and bring artwork away, photograph the artwork, bring films in and build it up that way: What a real faff! I'd said to one of the J Thomson sales guys, Tony Black, "Why aren't you doing this yourselves?", because printers' didn't at that time. He said, "Oh no, we'd alienate all these repro houses that look after us". Well that chat ended promptly, but a couple of weeks later I got a phone call from Hamish (the late J Thomson Chairman and founder), saying "There is a building become available just opposite, are you up for it?" and I just said yes there and then. We didn't talk about money or anything else, I just thought we'd give it a shot!
So we got the empty building and got our own pre-press department going back in 1984.
Christine: Well, I was actually approached a long time ago, when all my colleagues from Nevis Print joined J Thomson. Kevin Creechan (J Thomson Managing Director) spoke to me then, but it just wasn’t the right time for me personally. I didn't join until 2012 when I thought, “Yes, this is exactly the right time and the right company for me".
So had you worked in the print industry for a while before you joined J Thomson?
Christine: All the guys in the J Thomson office in Inverness worked for Nevis Print for a number of years, so we all knew each other from then.
We had a Nevis Print office here in Aberdeen, which I headed up, but we used to travel back and forward from Aberdeen to Fort William for meetings. We used to leave Aberdeen at 5 o’clock in the morning and get back at midnight! Of course, the winter was just great fun, travelling across those Highland roads, avoiding deer late at night when you’re driving back! But thankfully, J Thomson is a lot more organised!
What were your first roles at J Thomson Colour Printers?
Allan: I mean, when I came to J Thomson I knew very little about print because I had never been around print, so it was a pretty steep learning curve. Once a repro house produces that bit of film, and proof, it goes! Back when we started the pre-press department, we had banks of guys just hand assembling separations and film, some were proofing continuously, I mean it was really a fair old skill level by then.
Then later we moved onto Macs and computers to do all that. Now these guys, if they can’t do it with a mouse, they’re lost! It’s quite a different way to work, and just different work generally. You just have to go with it or you get left behind. A lot of my work since those developments have mainly been around equipment, staffing and problems - and I love problem-solving!
Christine: Well it’s very much the same sales role as I had at my previous job. David (Stewart) does the bulk of sales in Aberdeen, but we were just looking at where we could pick up more work and establish more of a base here and help J Thomson feel more local to the businesses up here. At that time, we tended to work behind the scenes a bit more, for graphic design and marketing agencies and other printers. So generally, we just weren’t really on the radar of a lot of the companies we wanted to have relationships with. So my role was based around networking and trying to build contacts in Aberdeen and see how we could develop the J Thomson brand in the north-east. It was a fairly open brief, which was nice. It was also handy to have the office here because in this area it’s very much a perception thing: if customers think you just float in and out of an area they might not be as interested in working with us. But when we opened the Aberdeen office, they knew we actually lived here, which helped business and made the company feel a lot more at home in Aberdeen. It was a case of also reconnecting with previous contacts that I’d worked with, absolutely. That helped form the base up here as well and allowed me to take better care of those customers since I was in Aberdeen. Plus the scope at J Thomson was so much wider, the services etc. that we could offer, so that was very attractive to all my old customers.
Do you have any favourite jobs or clients that you've had over the years?
Allan: There was a travel symposium held in the SEC for all over the world, and we had people coming here from the US to print a newsletter and other bits and pieces that went into a polythene bag and would be hung on the delegates doors every morning. That was before true digital photography hit printing. I had to organise a photographic printing house to come and collect their films, process them and pick up the prints. Then the prints would come over here, we’d scan them in, put in all the copy and put it all together. That week I think I was coming in around lunchtime and then would work until about 1am just because that’s when it was all happening. I actually got a letter from one of the guys who was running it, talking about how great the whole process was. It was a great experience for them through J Thomson and it all just worked perfectly. That job had everything! We had to deal in-part with customs because we were getting materials from Glasgow Airport that had been flown in and I suddenly had to organise clearance for all sorts of stuff coming into the country. Lots of different aspects in producing a bag of stuff to go onto door handles!
Christine: It’s hard to say as most of my clients now are good friends, I’ve worked with them for years and years. I mean you get one or two oddballs, but everyone gets that. A lot of them have become more friends than clients. But I do have a soft spot for the likes of Foyer Graphics, for example, because they are a social enterprise and I see the work they do for young people. I mean some of the work they do for these kids, some of whom have absolutely nothing, it’s heart-breaking. People like that, they are great to deal with and they are organised and know exactly what they want.
How will your respective departments be reorganised or adjusted after your retirement?
Allan: Well, Scott McNair will be my replacement (who recently completed the J Thomson Management Training Programme). As I pointed to him, the technical stuff you learn to work around, some of the hardest parts of the job are people because they have all their own personal problems, or they’re not well and can’t come in etc. Keeping everyone flowing along and making sure you're chatting to everyone and making sure they are okay. Over the years I’ve noticed if these guys are happy going into work and are enjoying it, the whole process just works and flows a lot better. Scott did the management training and I really just thought I’d let them go with it. He has a bit to learn, you can see. Not technically, on the mac he’s unbelievable. Most of this job is actually just people management and problem-solving, my technical ability isn’t really important. But he'll have the support he needs around him and the department is one of the best in the industry.
Christine: David is going to take over all my customers and probably the likes of Mike and Beth - who are customer services and production team members - will become more involved, and they already are to a certain extent. So it’s a really natural change actually. Almost all of my customers know the other members of the team that we work with. David also knows and lives in the area so our presence in Aberdeen will always be strong.
And finally, what are your plans for retirement?
Christine: A holiday to Japan for 3 weeks! When I was younger, no one took gap years and I feel like I’ve missed out so I’m just having a wee gap. We’re going to do a cruise, which goes around the coast of Japan before going to Korea. Then we’re back to Tokyo before heading to Kyoto. We might just be a bit late for the Cherry Blossom season, but we’re hoping we see some. It’s funny because our family think it’s ridiculous, I’m going with my sister and they are all saying ‘You two get lost in Edinburgh, never mind Tokyo!’, but we’ll see what happens. Then get myself home and get organised! I’m going to look into doing a college course or something because I’ve never had time to do that before and I still want to learn some new skills. I've also been working for a local charity for about 5 years now so that’s more of an ongoing thing. It’s just once a month and it’s not particularly time-consuming. It's great fun and lovely to help them out.
Allan: To do exactly what I want without any time constraints! No grand plans so much. We’ll do holidays, but I don’t have any great bursting desire to do a big world tour and spend a lot of time in an aeroplane. I think I’m going to take motorsport a bit further and my son is a self-employed joiner so he’ll probably ask for a hand either at work or at home with my two grandkids, so there is plenty for me to be doing!
But I've truly enjoyed my career and time with J Thomson's. I've never driven into work here thinking, "I don't want to be here, or I'm not enjoying this".
Of all the places to be working in this trade, this is the place. That, for me, is probably luck more than anything else, but there isn't anywhere better!