Athol Campbell and David Robinson did well financially by selling out of newspapers, though they would also have done well if they had stayed in – because both Argus (later Independent Newspapers) and TML profits zoomed.
But they had made their decision, and acted on it. Now they had to decide what to do with the profits they had made. Campbell said the profits were distributed to the Robinson company. “We decided that the route for Robinson was actually to asset-strip it. And once we had sold out of Natal Newspapers, the Robinsons – David and John – sold out to me, so that Robinson was wholly-owned by me, which by then was just Robprint.”
At first an attempt was made to make a go of Robprint, building up the Homefinder also as a vehicle for property advertisements. But Campbell eventually felt that the capital investment required did not work out favourably for him. He explained: “The problem with the sheet-fed business is that your capital investment required does not warrant it. You can’t get your returns on your assets, basically. At Robprint we had four big Heidelberg four-colours across the front of the factory. The first cost us about R350 000, but the last cost us R3,6-million. And they did the same job. It was Deutschmark to Rand. We were looking at putting in a five-colour, which they now have done. And that was going to cost R6-million. So how can a R6-million machine or a R5-million machine (which was the new price of a four-colour) compete with a 10- or 15-year-old machine that had cost them, when written off, only R350 000?”
The problem was the same in newspapers. A Goss metroliner would possibly cost R70- or R80-million, possibly more, depending on currency fluctuations. “Now how can you make money out of that? You can’t. You kill your business. And sheet-fed is the same.”
So Campbell decided to sell Robprint to Hurt and Carter in 1993. Hurt and Carter, being a repro house, had a different customer base, but wanted to diversify down into print, because they had a contract with Pick ’n Pay, Spar and Beares.
Campbell, thus out of Robprint, went back to a remnant of Sage where he had worked before – Pangbourne Properties, a “loan-stock” business – of which he had been a board member. He became executive chairman, travelling from Durban to Johannesburg for two days a week (sometimes more) to fulfil his obligations there.
In addition, he is in partnership with Tony Richards, also an executive with Pangbourne, in a Midlands cattle-farming venture. Richards was previously on the Daily News and had become a marketing director of Argus, having worked earlier in Rhodesia and later as assistant manager to Peter McLean in Durban. Richards eventually left Argus to join Hunt Leuchars, and had come onto the board of Robinson, because of his newspaper experience.
Campbell and Richards then both chose to live in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands, but kept an office in Durban to attend to Pangbourne and other business matters of theirs, including their investments. They bought two farms jointly, running about 1 300 head of cattle. “Basically, we are enjoying life,” Campbell says. “Living in the Midlands and having the intellectual stimulation of a business and the pleasures of farming, works well for us. Tony and I have realised there is more to life than making money.”
As for David Robinson, he decided to move to a farm outside Nottingham Road, also in the Midlands, after selling out of Natal Newspapers and selling his share of Robinson to Campbell.
A particular wrench for him was to see the Mercury building go into other hands. He decided that Campbell’s visions for Robinson were not his, and decided to go his own ways. “Campbell made me an offer I couldn’t really refuse.”
David Robinson admits he misses the life in newspapers. “It was a very exciting period. Once you have got it in your blood, it is very difficult to put it aside. But I don’t regret in any way the merger. The fact we sold the Mercury was a wise thing to do at that time. In my personal situation, I miss that sort of lifestyle, especially the lifestyle we had during the Mercury era, when we were independent. It was very rewarding. It was a happy team. It really was.”
But David Robinson says that, by selling out of Natal Newspapers and Robinson, he actually did better than he would have done if he had kept those investments. He now regards himself as a “farmer with business interests”.
Unlike Campbell, whose family had been in sugar farming, David Robinson was going into farming for the first time. “I have got a small beef farm, and I do some sheep and also asparagus. But asparagus is a three-month wonder each year, a short spurt.” He thought, however, that the most successful venture since moving to the Midlands had been one run by his wife – a decorating-cum-gift shop, which turned into a very good business. He puts his involvement this way: “I help out on the admin side. I do all the accounts and the running around.”
And altogether he finds a “very happy life”.
At first it was a shock finding himself out of the mainstream. For two years he had felt almost guilty about what he was doing, but the family had settled into a new lifestyle that was very pleasant. They retained a flat in Durban, which they used often for visiting friends there.
“I very nearly stayed in Durban. I was looking at a printing business at the time. Then I sat back and took a 10-year long-term view of South Africa, and just felt it wasn’t time to invest in another business at that stage. The idea – one of the ideas – of going to the Midlands was simply to sit on things for a couple of years before making a final decision as to which way I wanted to go.”
The result of that period of reflection was that the family was now into a new lifestyle. “I can’t see us changing it, quite frankly. We have a nice environment, a nice community to be involved in. We have friends up here. Not only that, but our Durban friends like coming up here.” The other reason they chose the Nottingham Road area was because of the good schools in the neighbourhood. It as also very convenient to both Pietermaritzburg and Durban, taking little more than an hour to drive down to Durban’s Berea. He had one son at Clifton, in Nottingham Road, who would go on to Michaelhouse later.
From this interview, it was clear that leaving newspapers was only temporarily difficult for David Robinson, and that he adjusted well to his new life. His family had been in newspapers for five generations in Natal. The Mercury was very much part of Natal society, and the name Robinson was entrenched. The Robinsons surely qualified as an ODF (old Durban family), which to many in the city is the inside track to power and influence. In five years of crucial decision-making, David Robinson gave up that place in Durban society and took himself and his family away from it all. He did so in the end with few lasting regrets, and a strong feeling that sensible investment of the proceeds of the sale of his business interests in the newspaper and printing industry have set him and this family up for a different and rewarding life that suits his personality and his needs, and those of his wife and family, as well as anything they might have had if he had kept control of the Mercury – perhaps even better.
It makes one question the value of dynasties. Though the reason why dynasties develop is readily apparent, they put pressure on descendants to perform to criteria set before they even came on the scene. It takes rigid discipline and even the restriction of certain personal development to conform to the tradition of a dynasty.
While some may think of David Robinson as possibly a victim of circumstances, or maybe even as someone not strong enough to overcome the adverse conditions he had to meet in the 1980s, others will agree with him that he took the wisest road that could be taken out of a difficult situation, and that he has been strong enough to throw aside the shackles of family tradition to make his own way in the world.
The Mercury, the product of Robinson endeavour over more than 130 years, still lives on. By the end of the 20th century it was close to 150 years old, the second oldest daily paper (after the Natal Witness) in the country. Its financial predicament is as difficult as ever, but it is in a company which acts as a buffer against some of that insecurity.
Even with ownership changing from Robinson to Argus to Independent Newspapers, it has survived. And the Robinson connection is engraved in its history, a tribute to a family that is well remembered and respected in the province of Natal they served so long. That respect is felt as much for David Robinson as his predecessors, a respect undented by the upheavals brought on by apartheid’s death throes, which in the end caused the Robinsons to leave newspapers for another life.
And David’s father, John Robinson, who was loved as the last family member to edit the Mercury as well as controlling it financially, watched in retirement as the empire he inherited became subsumed in the endeavours of other newspaper and printing interests.
He died early in the 1990s at the age of 84 when the paper was soon to be taken over by Irishman Tony O’Reilly’s Independent Newspapers. John Robinson’s funeral was a touching and memorable event in Durban, underlining the significance of his own and his family’s contribution to Natal society. A huge crowd of sympathisers attended the funeral on the Berea in Durban, and warm and sincere tributes were paid at this last farewell.