Leonard Stall


A letter from our parting Chairman

It seems remarkable, even to me, that ACE has been a constant throughout my adult life, and my entire career, despite the ever-changing world of publishing.


I was initially co-opted to the Governing Committee (GC) as Press Officer in 1991, meaning that I have served the organisation in one role or another for over 30 years. That, in itself, is hard for me to accept, as—in my head—I am still in my thirties!


In 1991, I was editor of a weekly trade magazine called Progressive Newsagent, ultimately owned and published by newspaper wholesaler and retailer Johnsons News – of which I was also a Director.


A former Circulation Director of the Evening News and a doyen of the newstrade, Jock Oram, persuaded me to join the GC as his successor, but it didn’t take much. In 1987-88, my father, Mike, had been the proud Chairman of ACE, one of the highlights of his lifelong stint in press circulation and distribution. He’s pictured, toasting ACE on the day he took over as chair, wearing his ACE tie featuring Sisyphus from Greek mythology, the central figure on the association logo from the inception of ACE, in 1951, until less than a decade ago.


Sisyphus was the founder and king of Ephyra. Hades punished him for cheating death twice by forcing him to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity.


The ‘founding fathers’ of ACE, all men at the time, thought that he perfectly represented the struggle of the newspaper and magazine circulation directors who conceived ACE and made up the entire paid membership of the organisation.


When my dad took over as chair, everyone he most respected in the business had chaired ACE at one time or another, so he was immensely proud to take on the role, and to uphold what ACE stood for in those days—community, brotherhood, support, and friendship beyond business. It knitted together the ‘Fleet Street family’ and went hand-in-hand with a commitment to our sector charity Old Ben, now NewstrAid.


The circulation directors who made up the ACE membership in the period from 1951 to circa 1990 were considered among the most senior of all publishing executives, and were ‘kingmakers’, especially for wholesalers as they were critical to their ongoing wealth and survival.


It was those wholesalers, together with key retailers and publication owners, who made up the guest list at the prestigious monthly ACE lunches held at the Connaught Rooms and then, for a short time, at Simpsons in the Strand, where typically 200+ sat down for lunch and speeches, and then went on to while away the afternoons wheeling and dealing in between the laughter and friendship. Make no mistake, while a lot of alcohol was consumed, this was frequently how, and where, a great deal of the real business was done pre-email.


ACE was also where people forged lifelong friendships and it provided an important support network: it was where you learned of someone’s new job or promotion, the passing of a retired colleague, and—in a world without social media—how you kept up with the industry news, and gossip.


It should be noted that ACE was still largely a male domain back then. It was an age where only a handful of women occupied important publishing and distribution roles and were also involved in ACE. I well remember National Magazine Co (now Hearst) Circulation Director Mary Bottaro being on the GC, a lone female voice in what was a male-dominated world. She paved the way for Sharon Douglas (in the same role), Condé Nast Circulation Director Vivien Matthews, and Future Publishing Circulation Director Sue Hartley who went on to become the first female Chair of ACE in the 90s. Today, happily, it’s a very different sector reflected by this association.

In my father’s year in office, the monthly luncheon guests ranged from Daily Mail foreign correspondent and best-selling author at the time, Noel Barber, to the mind and spoon-bending phenomenon Uri Geller, MP Jonathan Aitken, acclaimed editor Max Hastings, Associated Newspapers’ boss ‘Duke’ Hussey (who went on to chair the BBC), and ex-England cricketer Godfrey Evans.


When I joined the GC, I found out that every single Prime Minister of the period had spoken at an ACE luncheon at some time or other, often in their former Cabinet role as Chancellor or Foreign Minister. These included Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, and Margaret Thatcher. The last PM to take the stage at ACE was only a few years ago, when Boris Johnson, then the jovial, entertaining editor of the Spectator, addressed us at the Press Awards.


Politicians, editors, and columnists clearly felt that ACE audiences were highly influential, and they were. We welcomed the sporting stars of the day from Jimmy Greaves and George Best to Frank Bruno, Geoff Boycott and ‘Dickie’ Bird, politicians and publishers turned authors like Jeffrey Archer and Nicholas Coleridge, and notable publishers and editors from David English, Max Hastings (already referenced) and Eddy Shah to Alan Coren and Ian Hislop.


ACE also raised sports and other teams, playing golf at Dulwich, cricket at the WH Smith ground at Milton Hill and against Johnsons in Bath, and added considerable numbers to the ACE/trade charity’s fishing festival in Poole. Note: the fish were rarely in any danger.


However, as I moved into the role of ACE Press Officer, there was a move away from the traditional heartland of Fleet Street alongside wholesale rationalisation, job cuts, a more fluid job market where people no longer stayed put and rose gradually up ‘the company ladder’, and the onset of the computer and then the digital age: changes in the world of work that impacted the fortunes of the association, as well as everyone in the sector, in not much more than the blink of an eye.


ACE began to try and embrace change. The membership criteria eased to be inclusive of wholesalers, retailers, and others in the supply chain, and it soon became free. While the monthly lunches dwindled in terms of audience, and then ceased, we dipped our toes into awards, forums, and sector education. But every year started to be a slog, and survival became harder: taking time out of the office for ACE events became less acceptable, and entertainment and other expenses were more closely scrutinised.


Indeed, during those tumultuous years of rationalisation and swingeing job cuts—which many of you will argue have not waned since—we lost two ACE chairs during their years in office, and the bank account fell perilously close to zero.


I remember one GC meeting where it was just the ACE chairman, Jon Atkins of then wholesaler Palmers of Canterbury, myself, and association secretary Trevor Collier – who worked for Jon. The situation had become so challenging that Jon and I even discussed putting personal funds into ACE to keep it alive. It had become a Sisyphean task to keep the organisation afloat.


Happily, ACE recovered strongly with those who could rallying around to support it and its values and, despite continued turmoil in the press and declining sales of print, we have found a way to stay solvent and relevant in this much changed world.


I recall interviewing the long-time Circulation director of Express Newspapers, Les McKenzie, in the paper’s ‘Black Lubyanka’ HQ in Fleet Street— some years before I joined the ACE committee—where he told me that ACE must embrace education in the sector and that it would be central to our role in the future. He was ahead of the game but spot on.


Some 15 years later ACE launched a management programme in conjunction with Ashridge Management College and, although that extensive course no longer exists, our Empower programme is a beacon of excellence for our industry and stronger and more popular than ever. I continue to love the fraternity among ACE Empower delegates, past and present, which exemplifies the long-held values of the association: an opportunity to meet, discuss, and learn from the wisdom of generous colleagues, and to forge friendships and build a support network in the too often disconnected world of work.


The Press Awards remains a wonderful evening to celebrate success in our ever-changing industry. And the epic ACE Christmas lunch still survives and prospers. In the early 2000s we welcomed 1,250 in the Great Room one year, with the Grosvenor House packed to the rafters and table hosts even happy to entertain their guests on the balcony. Today, the number at lunch is around 450, more akin to the audiences we used to have a long time ago in the Connaught Rooms, where the ongoing joke was that you needed to wear your oldest clothes to lunch because the shaky serving staff would inevitably pour gravy over your shoulder.


For my part I soon moved from being the press officer of ACE in the 90s to becoming a permanent member of the GC, holding the values, traditions, and knowledge of what had been done (to whom and when!), and then to becoming a trustee when we first introduced the role sometime around 2005. This is a governance and not a management role, and it involves supporting the Chairman—or COO these days—and the Governing Committee, and also overseeing proper and wise use of our funds. It’s about continuity and support, without getting in the way.


I love ACE, and—as it was for my father—it has been an important thread throughout my long career in publishing. Like him, I am proud to have played a role in the association, and, like him, ACE has gifted me lifelong friendships.


At the AGM in 2023 I will step down as Chairman of the Trustees and hand over to Carola York who will be a brilliant leader of the trustees, who continue to work unseen in the background with the health, wealth, and well-being of your association top of mind. These are of course unpaid roles. She will be supported by a superb, engaged, and passionate GC. Rarely have we had such a terrific group looking after ACE and its interests, again unpaid. Carola will also support our exceptional ACE COO, James Beardow, to whom we should all add thanks.


I will continue to serve as a trustee for the time being but am delighted to hand over the reins of the association with ACE in really good shape. How pleased my father would be to know that Sisyphus is alive and well, and continuing to push the boulder uphill….even though it never gets any smaller or easier!

© Ace 2024