Twenty miles off the coast of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands bobbed the body of one of the most controversial and larger-than-life press tycoons the world has ever seen. Ian Robert Maxwell floated naked for thirteen hours since the crew of his yacht, the lady Ghislaine last had contact with him. Was he pushed or simply fell overboard? No one can say for sure. Only hours later, the world’s press discovered his demise, and all hell broke loose, leading to the rapid collapse of the Maxwell Empire. The Mirror newspaper group`s employees and retirees were particularly shocked once news of Maxwell having pilfered their pension money was revealed. Robert Maxwell was only 68 when he died on 5 November 1991.
The saga of the rise and fall of Robert Maxwell has been written about extensively from various points of view; however, none exalts the magnificent genius of the man. His life begins as a breathtaking journey; he was born Ján Ludvik Hoch in 1923 to an impoverished Czechoslovak Hasidic Jewish family in the backwater town of Slatinské Doly, most notable for its salt mines and sheer medieval poverty.
Through Maxwell`s rise, he would own or substantially control a vast array of companies: among them Pergamon Press, The Mirror Group Newspapers, New York Daily News, Berlitz language Schools, 50% share in MTV-Europe, 27% share of Scitex Corporation, Collier Books, Prentice Hall, Macmillan Publishers, Nimbus Records, British Printing Corporation (BPC), Oxford United Football Club, 22 % share of Thomas De La Rue, 49% share of Donahue Inc. (a Quebec paper mill) and 50% share of Montreal Daily News (with Quebecor). A rather odd non-print holding in the English firm Hollis Bros & ESA plc was included in the vast array of print interests.
But there would be more bad news after audits uncovered shady dealings in other parts of Maxwell`s empire, including his pledging of Maxwell Communications shares to several big banks and promissory notes to repurchase them at much higher prices. Hollis was a failing engineering company best known for its 1985 unsuccessful rescue of Sir Clive Sinclair`s Sinclair Research business – designer of one of the world`s first portable personal computers.
“When I pass a belt, I can’t resist hitting below it.”
Robert Maxwell to a passing journalist in New York
Maxwell was much more than a fraudster; he was a brilliant strategist who used subterfuge to manipulate the financial markets (the City) to gain incredible advantages. Possessing a charm that could coax an oyster to open its shell while slurping its neighbour, Maxwell, who learned to speak nine languages, would reinvent himself to appear and sound like a London barrister, albeit with a slight, largely undefined tone most people missed. The City was not the only one taken in by his genius of self-promotion; so had the citizens of Buckingham (near London), who twice voted Maxwell to parliament as their Labour Party member of parliament in 1964 and 1966.
Arriving in England in 1940, not knowing a word of English, Maxwell quickly rose the ranks and entered the British army, ultimately ending the war as a decorated hero, with the honour of receiving the Military Cross from Field Marshall Montgomery. It was fortuitous that in 1946 he found himself with the rank of Captain and in charge of Berlin's Public Relations and Information Services Control section (PRISC).
Once hostilities had ended, a new “Cold War” began, and the defeated Germans required the allies’ permission to put on a play or publish a newspaper or book. All these requests would need to pass through Maxwell’s office. One meeting with Ferdinand Springer and Tönjes Lange, publisher of Der Telegraaf and, more notably, Springer-Verlag, Germany`s leading publisher of scientific books, would change Maxwell’s life and guide his future. Seeking more paper to print their books, Springer explained his company’s rich history, which paid low prices to scientific authors (who were only too glad to see their works published) but charged fat mark-ups to the vast clientele of Universities and libraries.
The Bouncing Czech
The Bouncing Czech was a moniker given to Robert Maxwell by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Only now, the war and its residual effects had disrupted trade, and Berlin was but a shattered shell with the allies holding the keys to exporting outside Germany. This chaos created unique opportunities, with Maxwell seeing everything in full colour while everyone else was colour-blind. Everyone in the scientific community wanted to know what was behind the Nazi-led discoveries (including chemistry and rocketry).
A partnership was quickly formed with Springer, and an office was set up in London to distribute back issues of the technical books to science-hungry colleges in the west. Maxwell also helped arrange for Springer’s Berlin headquarters to be relocated to Heidelberg, which was safe in the American sector. Maxwell figured out how to quickly transport train carloads out of the restricted zones and under darkness.
Trading became a second occupation for now decommissioned officer, and in London, he soon became acquainted with an equally skilled barterer in Kurt Wallersteiner. Together they would carry out some risky and daring schemes: one rather amusing tale involved a sale to the newly formed communist Chinese government. The Chinese needed blue indigo dye, but an official had mistakenly added an extra “0” to the purchase order turning what was to be one hundred tons into one thousand – essentially the whole world`s inventory! The partners managed to source every pound of the dye and completed the sale. It was only a few short months later, in 1950, when, during the Korean war, American soldiers spotted the Chinese wearing bright blue uniforms, which made picking them off easier. It was said that the Chinese had so much indigo-blue dye left over that for the next twenty-five years, almost everyone in China wore blue.
In 1951 Maxwell changed the name of his Butterworth-Springer Ltd. firm to Pergamon Press. In 1964 after a heated battle, Maxwell entered into print production with a rather hostile takeover of Britain’s largest printer: the British Printing Corporation (BPC). BPC was a merger of famed printers Hazell, Watson & Viney, Sun Printers, and Purnell Group. In 1982 they would be joined by another legendary stalwart: Odhams. Shortly after, BPC became BPCC (British Printing & Communications Corporation), followed in short order by another name change: Maxwell Communications.
Another story rarely written about and almost lost to memory: Maxwell`s takeover of the giant used printing machinery dealer Milthorp International. Milthorp traced its history to 1851 and was considered the world’s largest used printing machine provider, based in Wakefield in the heart of England. On October 1983, Maxwell had agreed to purchase Milthorp and positioned BPCC to take over the business in exchange for £750,000 (£2,230,000 today). Before closing, however, BPCC’s auditors discovered Milthorp was in worse shape than anticipated and withdrew their offer leaving Milthorp in limbo, and receivers called in to wind up the business. Just then, Maxwell reappeared and instructed Hollis, his engineering company, to buy the remnants of Milthorp.
David Hulme, the scion of the original Milthorp founders and the driving force, was chairman at the time of the Hollis takeover. Under Hulme’s stewardship, Milthorp was a trailblazer buying and selling a complete range of machinery from gravure and web to folding carton equipment and had the most extensive reach to all corners of the globe through sophisticated marketing unheard of at the time. Hulme was a bon vivant, larger-than-life personality who drove the business for decades. At one time, Hulme lived in a palatial estate surrounded by a moat his kids would waterski on. Hulme told me about his summons to Maxwell headquarters at Headington Hill Hall, Oxford. After staring at his shoelaces for what felt like hours, Hulme was ushered into Maxwell’s conference room, where Maxwell derided him for the duration and then suddenly told him to leave.
“The EGO has landed.”
A joke used by Mirror employees on Maxwell’s arrival by helicopter at Maxwell House headquarters
At the time, the novel idea of Maxwell buying a world leader in used printing equipment seemed obvious; BPCC’s growing surplus printing equipment, some suggesting £5 million at the time, could increase BPCC’s returns while dampening commissions and discounts associated with the conventional buy/sell used printing machinery trade. But the takeover didn’t last; Hulme and many of his colleagues were out, and so began the start-ups of over a dozen used machinery dealers, all thanks to Maxwell. Many ex-Milthorp employees went on to stellar careers in Britain and are still trading today. Robert Maxwell, although considered a villain and the father of the youngest of his nine children, Ghislaine, who currently has been in the news herself of late, was one extraordinary man. Someone who lost most of his family to the Holocaust and often renounced his Jewish faith only to find it later in life will never be forgotten or studied.
Just before his death, Canadian print giant Quebecor jumped at the opportunity to buy Maxwell’s commercial printing assets, putting them in position overnight to take on the world’s largest printer, R.R. Donnelley. Pergamon Press would be sold to Dutch publisher Elsevier, while the British conglomerate Reach plc now owns the Mirror Group. The remnants of the once mighty British Printing Corporation would be bundled with another old stalwart, Watmoughs, and resurface as Polestar, a business that managed to survive until 2016.
Meanwhile, the rumours of Maxwell being connected to and receiving financial support from the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service were never clarified. Maxwell was also purported to be the inspiration behind the villain, Elliot Carver, in the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies.” There were plenty of paradoxes too. Maxwell was a lifelong Labour supporter but was the first to crush the solid British Print Unions: years before Rupert Murdoch’s midnight dash to Wapping.
Maxwell’s life was never straight or without controversy. Hiding behind mysterious Lichtenstein “Trusts” made it incredibly opaque for anyone to know Maxwell’s financial standing, and these Trusts had much to do with the events that led to his death. There is much more to the story, or the Hoch and de Maurier legacy, as he went by all these names before settling on Maxwell. The most exemplary biography has to be Tom Bower’s exposé “Maxwell: The Outsider,” which Maxwell did his best to quash through the courts.
I somehow admire Robert Maxwell and his accomplishments in many ways and wish he had not flown close to the sun so often. Maxwell challenged those sometimes better equipped and won with a stubborn ruthlessness uncommon for a British business tycoon. In the world of used machinery, Maxwell may have held onto the most advanced and forward-thinking used machinery dealer the industry has ever produced: Milthorp. Maxwell’s loss was the rest of the machinery businesses’ gain, so we have that to be thankful for.
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