Philip Blackwell’s liquidity moment was a longer time coming than it is for most business owners. The Blackwell Group, the publishing and bookshop business, had been owned and run by family members since it was founded in 1879 by Benjamin Henry Blackwell, son of Oxford’s first city librarian.
But by the early part of this century it had become obvious to many family members that it was time for the publishing business to buy another company or be taken over itself.
At the time, the publishing arm, Blackwell Publishing, was sitting on a cash pile of £70m, which it was prepared to use for acquisitions, Blackwell notes. However, all the target companies were looking to be bought at much higher multiples than the board thought reasonable.
“We were finding it increasingly difficult to utilise this building mountain of cash,” he recalls.
“At the same time there were enormous economies of scale to be gained by leveraging the platform to enable the delivery of electronic content. We either had to eat others for lunch or be lunch ourselves.”
Eventually, the Blackwell Publishing board chose to sell in a deal with John Wiley & Sons in 2006. It was then that Philip Blackwell left the business. “For me, it was a perfect storm,” he says.
“Sometimes things can look good on paper and it can be the wrong time for shareholders. But we were ready to sell.”
Although his head knew it was the right idea, it was still extremely hard to do, Blackwell admits.
“It was a bit like a death in the family. From my perspective, I don’t recall a single moment of elation. It was a very rational decision.”
Many of Blackwell’s cousins were in their 60s and were pleased to have realised the wealth from the business for their retirement. However, Blackwell, 55, looked into creating his own venture. “Call it the Calvinist work ethic,” he says. “It has been fantastic to have an opportunity to reinvent oneself.”
Blackwell, along with other family members who worked outside the core business, had already acted as angel investors in some private equity deals. The extra wealth they gained from the Blackwell Publishing sale meant they could increase this work.
Philip created Blackwell Ventures to invest in other companies, but he was also keen to keep one foot in the book trade. In 2008, he created The Ultimate Library, which supplies luxury libraries for private clients. But for each of these, the company will supply a community library to promote literacy.
To date, The Ultimate Library has built libraries for about 60 clients worldwide, including private homes in London, a Kenyan game reserve and a luxury hotel in North Korea.
“In these markets, there is often tension between the hotel coming in and the local community, so the owners set up an outreach programme,” Blackwell says. “If you can support that by providing a library, it is really a win-win.”
It is a niche market, Blackwell admits, with revenues for The Ultimate Library in the hundreds of thousands. The Ultimate Library is now a part of an expanded business, set up by Blackwell, called Bookbank, which includes online book selling and whose revenues are running at about £5.5m.
Blackwell shows no intention of giving up entrepreneurship. “I am very much driven by the need for security. I might be alive for another 40 or 50 years, so it is inconceivable that I could stop working at this stage.”
It is also clearly something in the Blackwell genes. “My grandfather died at the age of 94, still working four days a week in the office. My father is 84 and still goes to his office two or three times a week, so I don’t think there is a snowball’s chance in hell that I will retire.”