Why I turned down a move Down Under...  and stayed in Norfolk

View of Sydney skyline as seen from across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the right side of the image.

Paul Thomas turned down a move to Sydney in the 1980s to stay in Norfolk - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Nearly 20 years after Paul Thomas started his Norfolk PR firm, it had grown, as had his ambitions - and then came a big life choice of whether to move to the other side of the world...

By the mid-80s, my life was changing – my business was growing, I was married, had a new home, a first daughter – life for wife Mary and me was going well as my PR company, Publicity Plus Ltd, was booming. 

And as ever looking for new opportunities, I met Peter Gummer, a distinguished gentleman running a PR company he had started a few years after I had mine.

From that meeting grew a new future. Capped off by an offer to take my family to the other side of the world, live in Sydney, Australia, expand a business there, a whole new opportunity. But I turned it down. For good old Norfolk!

So what happened? Peter Gummer had grown his Shandwick PR Ltd in London, faster and larger than I had PPL. Peter was the new age… a couple of years younger than me too! 

Later he became Lord Chadlington for his achievements, not only in global PR.

In 1985 he entertained me to lunch at Harry’s Bar in Mayfair and I was impressed.

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He told me he planned to float his business, including growing a PLC by acquisition of other PR companies worldwide – and in the UK regions. Could I help? UK, even international expansion from our Norwich and London offices was very much on my list of ambitions and, naturally financial success was another aim.

Should I sell? Over the next few weeks my consideration got warm, then warmer – and we agreed a merger before Shandwick went public.

We had both explored other companies contemplating major growth. I had had discussions with a new name, Martin Sorrell, who was starting an advertising agency to be called WPP – initials then standing for Wire and Plastic Products.

Potential entrepreneur Martin Sorrell prepared an offer, a complicated, algabraic computation which, remarkably, after I had spent hours working it out, was a similar sum to what Peter and I had worked through – on a plain piece of A4 paper. Now, 35 years on WPP is vast, Sorrell has left. What would have happened if I’d chosen his route?

But Peter Gummer was a PR man… like me! There were a lot of opportunities if we were to join Shandwick, grow it internationally, also the regional network – including acquisitions. I told Peter we’d sell after he went public. 

As soon as Shandwick floated there were the implications of a massive amount of paper money, which then aided acquisitions. 

Three months later they bought us for £750,000 half cash and half paper to be paid over three years. I was the majority PPL shareholder, some of our team had shares too – so benefited as well. 

I joined the Shandwick PLC board responsible for development of the regional network, which we named the Shandwick Network.

Meantime the paper price grew, and grew.

Paul, back row, centre, with Publicity Plus colleagues at a recent reunion

Paul, back row, centre, with Publicity Plus colleagues at a recent reunion - Credit: Paul Thomas

That triggered a number of rapid global acquisitions which Peter had had up his sleeve.

I went to work on the Shandwick Network and we acquired companies in Manchester and Birmingham, then Scotland. I had also introduced people from Bristol, the South and Yorkshire but the deals were not done because Shandwick was growing so fast internationally.

I liked the global scene – indeed Peter, on buying an Australian agency, asked me to MD the businesses on the other side of the world. Wife Mary and I liked Sydney but decided against… we had two young daughters by then, aged parents – and Norfolk! What would have happened if we had gone?

Meantime Publicity Plus Norwich was slowing in growth, PP London had gone into Shandwick Communications. A year or two on, I began to question business - because the regions were less important than the world. I was frustrated with the way that the City was operating - vulture-like City analysts. I decided we wanted out.

Shandwick had just given me a new contract so I offered it back in return for Publicity Plus Norwich. While it wasn’t quite as easy as that, it was what we did.

We staged a management buy-out … remained as a regional affiliate but were barred from opening again in London for three years.

I was relieved to be free of City stockbrokers who were intent only on making profits! I wanted to do PR, not just make money

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When we had started in 1967 PR consultancies were few, but those who were maintained agreed standards and charged fair fees. By the late 80s the scene had changed. Some journalists - retired and young, and those who just felt it was a job they could do, set up PR businesses, charged low rates.

By then vice-chairman of the Public Relations Consultants Association, responsible for much guidance of the industry, I could see how life was changing. Some regional PRCA members were no longer growing - we knew of a number which had died in East Anglia. Even print media found itself in financial danger a decade or two later.

We had to redress the PPL we bought back and dreamed up The Publicity Plus Partnership, a collection of marketing services companies... The Partnership also acquired two Norfolk PR companies, one part of a failed advertising agency but with excellent staff. It worked well.

We started new services which were successful too. But PR was becoming more and more competitive – and something called the worldwide web was dawning.

PPL did continue well – and our team and many competitors noticed the growing implications in the early 1990s of the worldwide web, scorned though it was by some communications experts. Little did they know!

Meanwhile Shandwick progressed to become the world’s largest PR group – for a while. Subsequently Peter Gummer, by now Lord Chadlington, sold it. He knew when the time was right. 

Today we still meet in London – to talk about those good old days which we had enjoyed… and learned a lot. But business, which must be fun, moves on. Where next for my team, Norfolk and life? Read more soon…

Paul’s biography, My Life, My Way, telling much of Norfolk business growth over two thirds of a century, is available from £10.75 including post and packing from: paul@paulgwynthomas.co.uk