Out with the old, in with the new – the end of an era

Mike Willis on an emotional handover after 17 years at IMI Europe

I remember watching a TV programme many years ago where an amateur writer was caught drafting his Desert Island Disc selections before he had even finished his first novel. Strange as it might seem, negotiations had only just begun with my chosen successor to take over IMI Europe, yet the first thing I began considering was how and when it should be announced to the world.

And so last Wednesday 2nd December, 2015 I stood up at the start of the final IMI Europe Ink Jet Conference that I would organise, made a few jokes, explained that it was time for me to hand over the baton to someone younger, and introduced the new Managing Director and owner of IMI Europe, Dr Tim Phillips.

IMG_3964I’m sure the audience noticed it was an emotional moment for me. The conference was held in Amsterdam, in exactly the same hotel where IMI Europe began 17 years ago! This was actually not by design; when seeking a suitable venue the Novotel was the only one with the right space, at the right price and at the right time. It felt like coming home, travelling a full circle. I had previously taken the Ink Jet Conference south, due to the dark, damp weather in Northern Europe late in the year. I was reminded of this whilst struggling with a suitcase against the wind on the walk from the train station to the hotel when I arrived.

IMI Europe formed out of IMI Inc., with friend and business partner Al Keene. I convinced him we should set up in Europe to exploit a different kind of ink jet industry. In the 1990’s the US was heavily into desktop and wide format printing, with many local manufacturers. In Europe there were clusters of ink jet expertise, including around my home base of Cambridge, UK. I’d been working within the ink jet industry, as I still do, and had been one of the founders of Xaar.

The future in my mind was with non-office applications of ink jet, and quickly we established new events covering Digital Commercial and Packaging Printing (1999) and Digital Industrial and Decorative Printing (2001), years ahead of their time. The first Industrial Ink Jet Technology Showcase was held in 2002, where suppliers to the industry could present their products and services to the emerging development community. The first Ink Jet Summer School was held in Cambridge in 1999, attracting delegates from around the world. Together with Dr Alan Hudd we began the Ink Jet Academy course which has been a phenomenal success, with over 3,000 having attended over 17 years.

We’re pretty sure that these events have helped inspire, educate and train the emerging industrial applications for ink jet, particularly in Europe. We’ve found that some delegates came from companies we had previously never heard of, yet 18 months later revolutionary new products would be launched.

But the flagship event of IMI Europe has always been the annual European Ink Jet Conference, and therefore this had to be my finale. And what a conference it was this year! Registrations kept coming in right up until the last minute. We had zero no-shows; everyone came. The speaker programme was so strong that 85% of the audience were still there in the last couple of hours of the final morning. The level of speakers was outstanding, with several CEOs and Executives presenting. Delegate after delegate told me that all of the presentations were top quality, not a poor one amongst them. The feedback we received on our evaluations forms confirmed this. The atmosphere was superb!

IMG_6113So why the handover? Well over the past few years I have been increasingly frustrated. I still have the enthusiasm to do more, to launch new events in new locations around the world. My brilliant team are also keen to take the company forward to new heights. But I’m getting old and tired, and also have another company to manage – Pivotal Resources.

I also now regret, like many others I’m sure, that I spent my most productive years growing a business but neglected spending enough time with my children as they grew up. I’m not going to make the same mistake with my grandchildren.

So that’s why it was time to find someone younger with the right skills and expertise to continue with IMI Europe. But you haven’t seen the last of me. I’ll still be around as Chairman of IMI Europe for at least the next few years, and will be continuing with the Ink Jet Academy course and Pivotal Resources.

Over the past two decades with IMI Europe I’ve made so many friends within the industry, which has built up into a close-knit community, and I’ve had a fantastic time. I wish you all continued success and hope you will continue your loyalty with Tim in the future.

Where did 25 years go?

Mike Willis, Managing Director of IMI Europe, reminisces about the beginnings of a leading ink jet printhead manufacturer

You’d think that, like the day you get married, your children are born or your cat dies, you’d remember the day you set up a company. But the problem is founding a company can be a long drawn out process. When do you count from? The day official documents were signed? The day you got funding? Opened bank accounts? Moved into the premises? Probably joining the payroll is what most employees would remember.

But sometime in early May, as best as I can remember, 25 years ago, four of us with two investors and the help of Cambridge Consultants formed a yet to be named company. The name came a month or so later.  We couldn’t come up with a name internally and so the lead investor got a marketing consultancy to come up with one. Xaar.  None of us liked it. The concept was that it sounded like something Russian – perestroika was big news at the time – and it was spelt like it was from California. We learned to like it more when told that without a name there would be no bank accounts and therefore no pay at the end of the month. And we joked that it was short for ‘biz-xaar’.

The Xaar team one year from start. from the left David Paton 3rd, Steve Temple 5th, Mike Willis 7th and Mark Shepherd 11th.
The Xaar team one year from start. from the left David Paton 3rd, Steve Temple 6th, Mike Willis 7th and Mark Shepherd 11th.

Xaar was set up to exploit a new ink jet printhead technology developed at Cambridge Consultants in 1986. Two of the inventors joined Xaar, David Paton (sadly no longer with us) and Steve Temple, who for 20 years served as Technical Director. Mark Shepherd had joined the team in the early days of the CCL development as an experienced process technician and quickly rose through the ranks of the new company. I’d project managed the development at CCL, leaving the others to concentrate on the technology. Once an MD had been appointed to Xaar I adopted a business development role and sold the first licence to Japanese company Brother.

You have to remember that ink jet was still in its infancy at the time. In 1990 we had trouble convincing manufacturers of impact dot matrix printers that ink jet would soon wipe them out. I’d also been ridiculed by an expert from one of the investors for predicting that the sub-$1,000 laser printer was just a few years away!

Mark Shepherd blows out the candle on Xaar's 1st birthday
Mark Shepherd blows out the candle on Xaar’s 1st birthday

The focus was very much on office printing as that’s where the action seemed to be. The same was true of other developers of ink jet printheads. US company Spectra, now known as Dimatix and owned by Fujifilm, was the main competitor. They were developing a colour printer for Apple, but then had to downsize when the contract was pulled.

It seemed to me that the way forward for Xaar was to licence the technology for mass markets, like the office, and to develop and manufacture printheads for graphics and industrial applications. Sadly the investors didn’t agree with my view, nor many of my other ideas, disagreements leading to my leaving within 18 months of the start. For some reason I still remember that day very clearly!

As with many changes in life, with hindsight the move was positive. I’ve spent the last 25 years advising most of the major players in the business around the world, and many smaller ones too.  Through IMI Europe I’ve been organising conferences and courses for 15 years, contributing to the leading position that European companies have in commercialising industrial ink jet. Amazingly our Ink Jet Academy course, run in partnership with Dr Alan Hudd, has had over 3,000 attend from over 800 companies. And Xaar has managed without me just fine, becoming one of the leading printhead manufacturers and a major local employer.

 The next Ink Jet Academy course will be held at the IMI Europe Ink Jet Summer School 2015, Munich June 22-23. You can also get the latest information on industrial ink jet printing at the upcoming IMI Europe Industrial Ink Jet Technology Showcase, Munich June 24-25, 2015. Details on both at www.imieurope.com.