How 50 years of experience and an infusion of new blood is securing the long-term future of Ancient House.
With the dust now settled on the recent sale of Ancient House Printing Group (AHP) to the investment conglomerate RDCP, Allison Berry and Mike Underdown explain the thinking behind the sale of the firm that’s been in the family for over 50 years – and why they’re staying put to run the business. They also introduce new owner, Sameer Rizvi, and reveal what attracted this high-flying young financier to a such a traditional, long-established business.
Whenever a big sale of a big company takes place, questions always abound as to what’s been sold, who bought it and for how much. Staff, suppliers and customers, however, are often left in the dark as to why the sale was necessary and, more importantly, what it means to them moving forward. That’s why, after a period of reflection since the sale in May 2021, AHP co-managing directors, Allison Berry and Mike Underdown, felt it was time to share what pre-empted the sale, what the new owners have planned, and what it all means for AHP and its numerous stakeholders.
“AHP is a family business,” says Allison. “Mike and I are brother and sister, and there simply wasn’t a next generation that was truly passionate about taking the business forward.”
In addition, according to Allison and Mike, the business had grown to a level that would require ongoing investment to remain efficient and competitive and, as Mike suggests, that comes at a price. “You’re not talking about a few thousand pounds, you’re talking millions. You get to a point where you want to be able to rest easy at night.”
Allison elaborates, “What the business needs in the oncoming years is further investment. Whether that be in people, plant equipment or other add-on businesses. You need an appetite for that kind of risk, which is one area where youth and energy often trumps age and experience.”
With collectively nearly 90 years working for the business, Allison and Mike certainly didn’t lack the experience to run and grow AHP. But, faced with the knowledge that significant investment and personal energy would be required to do so, the sibling directors began to consider their next steps – a process somewhat accelerated by the intervention of their accountants…
“Over the course of time, we’d had numerous approaches to buy the company, but dismissed them all.” Remembers Allison. “In 2019, we had our end of year meeting with our accountants, and they asked, ‘What’s your exit strategy?’ We said we didn’t have one but mentioned the offers that we hadn’t taken seriously. They told us we should start taking them very seriously.”
“There are members of staff who have given their lives to the business and neither of us felt we could leave them high and dry.”Mike Underdown
With the idea of the sale seeded, the dilemma of to whom to sell arose – and it quickly became apparent that any rival print firm coming in, would likely strip the assets and drastically reduce the headcount.
“There are members of staff who have given their lives to the business,” says Mike, “and neither of us felt we could leave them high and dry.”
Allison expands, “Mike and I were both passionate about wanting the business to continue and for it to remain in Ipswich. We wanted all the staff to be employed and our clients to be serviced to the standard they’d come to expect. These factors were vitally important to us.”
“We wanted all the staff to be employed and our clients to be serviced to the standard they’d come to expect. These factors were vitally important to us.”Allison Berry
With this criteria in place, a sales and acquisitions expert was instructed to take the company to market – and, within just a few weeks he’d found a potential buyer in the shape of London-based fledgling investment conglomerate, RDCP Group. But then everything changed.
Covid-19 hit, and it hit the print industry hard, remembers Allison, “We dealt with it by looking at what clients we thought were going to carry on using print, what the sales projections might be, and we cut our costs accordingly to fit a reduced level of sales.”
Meanwhile, Mike says the company resisted the temptation to take on extra borrowing through Government loans and only relied on the furlough scheme to support a small proportion of their 100+ employees.
Any thoughts of the sale vanished while Mike and Allison attempted to keep the company afloat. But, throughout this tumultuous period, the prospective new owner kept an eye on the business and its leadership team to gauge how they all fared in a crisis. By all accounts the powers that be at RDCP were impressed.
“Mike and Allison made a lot of great decisions as the pandemic was unfolding – and this effectively, resulted in them still making healthy profits… That is not the case for a lot of competitors.”Sameer Rizvi, RDCP Group
“I’d say the commercial printing sector, in particular during Covid, has gone through a lot of turmoil,” claims RDCP founder and chief executive officer Sameer Rizvi. “But AHP really stood out. Their management team of Mike and Allison made a lot of great decisions as the pandemic was unfolding – and this effectively, resulted in them still making healthy profits despite a temporarily reduced turnover and order book. That is not the case for a lot of competitors.”
RDCP was founded just six years ago by Sameer Rizvi and his now wife, Iryna Dubylovska, whom he met when they were both investment bankers at the Royal Bank of Scotland. RDCP’s business model is simple. It buys up established companies that are profitable and ploughs the surplus profits into complementary acquisitions. When required, it also injects capital expenditure into the individual companies. RDCP is not though, in the business of micromanaging and an existing strong leadership team is an imperative of any purchase.
“The reason our model works really well,” claims Sameer, “is we give a lot of autonomy to each CEO, and we’re absolutely there if they need any strategic support… AHP is a standalone business, and it hasn’t required any support from us, but if it does, there’s a balance sheet here and access to wider resources.”
“We’ve not suddenly become a safe pair of hands because someone’s put some money into the business. We were already that safe pair of hands.”Allison Berry
So, what of the future… RDCP’s modus operandi is business as usual with benefits and Allison and Mike are – for the time being – staying on in their roles as co-managing directors.
“The consensus is to hold our current position for the first 12 months,” says Mike. “We’ll certainly then be looking to make new investments.”
Meanwhile Allison suggests that there may be further print related acquisitions on the horizon, “Ancient House is RDCP’s entry point into the print industry and the industry is certainly intrigued about Sameer.”
Covid-19 may have provided AHP with a full-bodied opportunity to prove its resilience and tenacity – and the sale will certainly secure the company’s immediate future – but Allison simply attributes such wins to the staff, suppliers and customers who have stuck with the company over the past five decades… “We’ve not suddenly become a safe pair of hands because someone’s put some money into the business. We were already that safe pair of hands.”
Copy and photos: Andy Stone of Adventures in Content