Seven over 70: Robert McMillan

This article was first published in the November 2020 issue of Australian Printer magazine

No real introduction is required for Robert McMillan, aged 77, who grew his family business of JS McMillan Printing into one of the stronger companies in Sydney until finally being bought out by Blue Star (now IVE).

JS McMillan Printing began with Stewart McMillan (Robert’s father) who was a solo operator. Robert McMillan began his career at the tender age of just 14, when he entered the industry doing an apprenticeship.

“My father had a printing business and back in the day, I went to a selective high school but I wasn’t allowed to go on and further my studies because he had arranged for me to become an apprentice printer. That’s how it was in those days – your parents make the decisions for you,” Robert said.

He then went on to serve his apprenticeship as a letterpress printer at Kenmure Press (Offset Alpine) for five years.

“Back in those days, it involved a lot of hard work. It was a big printery – probably one of the biggest printeries in Australia – and involved leading-edge technologies. It was very interesting for me, as an apprentice, to explore all these new technologies,” he said.

From there, Robert joined his father and brother at JS McMillan Printing, which was operating out of Sydney’s western suburbs.

“That was 70 years ago when I joined them in the business. My father was very old-fashioned in his approach and I was very anxious to grow the company. So, in 1973, I did my first takeover – I bought a company named William Andrews Printing Company, which was one of the oldest printing companies in Sydney at that time. That business was bigger than ours but I was persistent,” he mentioned.

With a desire to expand the business across Australia, he went on to acquire about 30 companies, mostly in the Western district of Sydney. All of those businesses were combined into one.

“I wanted to grow the business by acquisition and learnt to do it; I had very good advisors that helped me. There were a lot of failures in the printing industry and I had worked out how to buy those companies and amalgamate them into ours and keep growing,” he said.

As the business grew, Robert invested in real estate to house all the acquired businesses.   

“I also sidelined into the nursery business for a while, and also bought a famous chain of music shops called Edels but then got rid of those and concentrated more on the printing company,” Robert said.

Shortly after, he launched a takeover bid for a company in Queensland, Inprint, but got thwarted in that takeover by Michael Hannan, who was the executive chairman of IPMG (now a part of Ovato).

“I did a full takeover bid for that company and did all the paperwork but Michael came in over the top and outbid me at the last moment,” he said.

Investigating new horizons, Robert then became instrumental in moving the business towards and pioneering in the printer-led model of print management.

“We were bidding on contracts to grow that side of the business and by chance, we bid with Spicers on the paper side of a big contract. And Andrew Price, who saw our ideas, went off and started brokerage company Stream,” Robert said.

“I used to encourage other printers to go into print management but nobody really understood it so the brokerage side of thigs started to get a hold. And these brokerages messed things up for the traditional printing and manufacturing companies.”

Leading on from that, Robert bought a 50 per cent share in Scanlan Printing in Queensland and a 50 per cent share in 50 Piries in Canberra.

His daughter, Julie-Anne, then joined the business and they forged ahead in the eCommerce space having seen the potential of the Internet.

The company continued its growth with Robert at the helm until about 15 years ago when he had to have a liver transplant. Robert then decided that it was best for his health to retire and put his business up for sale.

“We had four people bidding for the business and it got sold to Champ Equity that also owned Blue Star. This happened in 2007, just six weeks before the stock market crashed,” Robert added.

Since retiring, Robert has been involved in his real-estate portfolio and mentoring a number of younger people in business. He also sits on the board of not-for-profit integrated cancer treatment centre, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, which he helped raise money to build.

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