Clifford Burt, paper supplier's story
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( CLIFFORD BURT, PAPER SUPPLIER )

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INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPTS

THE INTERVIEW

My name is Clifford Burt. I grew up mainly in Sevenoaks, Kent, and I went to school there as well.

When did you start working in the family business?

I started working for R.K.Burt & Company in London in 1986. I’m Managing Director and run the business with my brother, Richard Burt. It was started in 1892 by my grandfather and at the time was primarily involved in the sale of printing paper for magazine publishers. In the 1960s the business changed slightly and included the development of specialty papers, importing artist papers from the main manufacturers in Europe, bringing them into England, and introducing them for watercolours, printmaking, pastels and fine-art printing. These are supplied to retail shops, colleges and fine-art printers. It’s a very niche area, and now it’s a major part of what we do. We also buy from Kathmandu in Nepal, from Japan, and from paper mills in Britain as well. But increasingly, less and less of those exist.

"My first job for the family business was driving a forklift truck, I worked in the warehouse and made deliveries to printers around London. Then I started working in the office in ’86, in sales, purchasing, stuff like that. But as with all small businesses, you get involved in every aspect; we don’t have specific roles that people stick to!"

Were you quite happy to get involved in the family business?

Well, I didn’t do that straightaway, which I think is quite important because if the family business as your first job, then there’s no move from there. I was in the Royal Air Force as a pilot for eight years before I decided to do something more ‘normal’ and joined the business. But my father never put any pressure on me to do so; there was no expectation or assumption. Both my brother and I came here out of choice, rather than obligation, which is by far the best way to join a family business.

What was your first memory of the South Bank?

Well, it was a pretty tough area. There was some very rough housing close by and the general condition of the neighbourhood was bad. And little details; like there were no waste bins on the streets, so the litter was appalling. It was shocking. Now, compared with the 1970s or even mid-80s, there’s been a huge amount of gentrification, which has its implications for established businesses that are slightly more industrial and not always appreciated by Southwark Council. And there’s a massive tendency for town planners to be basically middle class, with middle-class aspirations of a working area, and many of the changes they make don’t actually take into account the requirements of the locals at all.

What sounds and smells do you associate with the area?

Well, being so close to the railway line, the continual rumble of trains, which you can probably hear in the background now. Smells… Well, Borough Market can be pretty strong in the summer and not altogether pleasant.

What’s the history behind the building we’re in now?

It’s quite interesting: we believe that the warehouse at the back – where we currently store paper – used to be where perfume was manufactured. In the 1970s, when my father was acquiring the building, he met an elderly lady who was the daughter of the vicar of the church just up the road. She recalled, in her very early years, probably around the turn of the 20th century, of a wonderful smell of perfume [in the area] and in fact there are documents in Southwark Library that confirm that this building was connected with perfume production. But those are long gone. I’m afraid it’s all pretty much ordinary around here now.

Can you tell me a bit about your first job in London?

I drove a forklift truck, worked in the warehouse and made deliveries to printers around London when I was a student. Then I started working in the office in ’86, in sales, purchasing, stuff like that. But as with all small businesses, you get involved in every aspect; we don’t have specific roles that people stick to, although obviously people have different strengths and therefore tend to specialize in certain things. But a ‘generalist’, I think would be the description of my role.

"When I was a student, I managed to overturn a couple of pallets of paper that were stacked on top of each other, stepping aside as they fell to the floor with a mighty crash. I got a certain amount of stick from everyone else in the office, particularly as I was going off to fly jets in the Royal Air Force. They didn’t think that was a particular good idea…"

From what walks of life are your colleagues?

Well, we’ve got people who have been in the paper industry for most of their working lives. There’s quite a depth of experience, combined with some younger people who’ve come here straight from university. There are a lot of graduates, so as one would expect, there is a high level of service to customers with flexibility of thought and decision-making. The specialty papers that we’re known for means that the breadth of knowledge has to be considerable, therefore the ability to learn and apply that learning to different customer requirements, queries and problems is an important part of working in a company like this.

Could you describe your most vivid memory from your working life?

When I was a student, I managed to overturn a couple of pallets of paper that were stacked on top of each other, stepping aside as they fell to the floor with a mighty crash. I got a certain amount of stick from everyone else in the office, as you can imagine – particularly as I was going off to fly jets in the Royal Air Force. They didn’t think that was a particular good idea…

What has been the biggest change in the South Bank area in the last 30 years?

There are more people around and a lot of the old warehouse buildings have been knocked down – in fact, the warehouse we used to have was knocked down in order to form the Jubilee Line extension. But generally what’s happened is that large old buildings have been converted into offices and flats. The council spent an inordinate amount of money 11 years ago, about a million pounds, doing up Union Street, taking out the well-worn granite kerb stands and putting new ones in. I think it was described as “improving the pavementorial experience” – one of those aspects of expenditure that seemed completely ludicrous, considering the real issues of this part of London are education, housing, alcohol and drug abuse, and homelessness. Then about three years ago they spent a further half a million doing up Flat Iron Square. [Again], one of those insane projects where government departments have money that they have to spend, but because it’s in a budget, it can’t be spent on real issues.

How has the change affected your working life?

When they put benches in down the road, it meant that we had rough sleepers here, and some of the young ladies found that quite intimidating. But I think that’s probably a fact of life in London these days and they get moved around from place to place. [The council] also removed an area where the courier bike riders used to be, next to a café, because they thought it was unsightly, but London requires documents to be moved around by guys on motorbikes. So I think it just becomes more and more difficult for the people on lower incomes to survive in an area like this. Indeed, there used to be large, old warehouse buildings converted into artist studios, so there was quite a thriving community of artists who effectively got forced out by the gentrification. There was a suddenly a higher value to the properties they were in and they were told to get out.

Do you feel that being in the South Bank area is important to your business?

My father located the business here because of the proximity to the mainline stations; it gives us access to a large part of the population. Plus, the people who work here commute into London, and the quality of staff is the most important part of any business. So if we were to move to an industrial site in Dartford or somewhere, we’d lose almost all of our staff, it would be catastrophic.

A lot of [businesses] talk about staff being important, but very often they don’t mean it. The reality is that in our day-to-day dealings, in particular with big companies, there is a very low quality of staff and the service you get is absolutely appalling. We’ve all come to accept that as normal, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s one of the reasons why in the paper industry – a tough industry that has huge problems – we’ve managed to survive, where most haven’t. It’s all about service.

What do you think it would be like if you were to start your working life today?

I think it would be considerably more difficult, because now people have academic qualifications that create an expectation of a certain type of work, which are often inadequate. I give a maths and English test to everybody who works here, or applies to work here, including warehouse staff. And one of the most frightening things I find is that a grade C GCSE in maths is virtually worthless. If that’s the limit of your capability with arithmetic or mathematics, you’re virtually unemployable. I went to a job centre a few years ago and said I had a part-time warehouse job for a school leaver, and they actually asked me if I wanted someone who is literate or numerate. If that’s the level of education that is coming out of local schools, then that is really quite worrying for the future.

The echo of Tony Blair’s words when he was first elected was that it’s all about education, education, education. He was absolutely right, but he failed massively to implement policies that make local education actually worthwhile and meaningful. And quite apart from education, also instilling a work ethic – fifty percent of the people who are getting job seeker’s allowance don’t actually turn up for interviews because, really, they don’t want the job, they just want an interview or an appointment in order to prove they’re entitled to the allowance. So it’s a bit scary that literacy and numeracy and the desire to get a job aren’t common in this area, which is why we now have Polish warehouse men who are educated and intelligent, and if anyone says they’re taking the jobs from the locals, it’s absolutely not true. They are saving companies like ours from having staff who don’t want to be there, who don’t want to work, and are incapable of working. I can’t employ people who are not literate. And I think that’s probably true for most people.

What do you hope for the future of the South Bank?

As far as the South Bank area is concerned, I think the main thing that has to be tackled is transport – that’s uppermost in most people’s minds when they work or live here. The London Development Agency used to contact me occasionally with questionnaires and yet they never asked a single question about transportation. Obviously the Jubilee Line has helped the area because it’s made the connection through from the west to east; it makes business better if people can get around easily. In the ’70s and ’80s [the area] was a bit cut off because the Northern Line was very dubious in quality and it didn’t really go to many places.

Also, improvement to local schools is fundamental in every respect because the people who come out of those schools will be paying the taxes to provide for the current generation’s pensions. And if they’re unemployable when they leave school, then they won’t be paying tax, and therefore future pension, health and social service provisions will diminish. It’s simple mathematics. So looking after every aspect of society is important, rather than spending money on new pavements.

And what do you hope for your business?

Well, we’re in a fortunate position in that business continues to be strong. My responsibilities are with the people I employ and I can still continue to provide them with a good living and an acceptable working environment. I hope we continue to stay flexible and develop along with changes in the market, providing the right products to the right people. We’ve seen a lot of changes in terms of the types of papers we supply, where we source them, and whom we sell to. Being technologically up to that and maintaining that capability is vital for any business.