Gyr King: Online art sales made my fortune

Neither a warehouse fire nor the threat posed by the internet was enough to halt entrepreneur Gyr King's business ambitions in the art world.

During a chance visit to an art gallery, economics student Gyr King "realised that I much preferred looking at art than reading economics textbooks". So he switched courses. A decade later, while teaching Art History at Sussex University, he decided to start a silkscreen printing business with his two brothers.

The plan was that two of the brothers, Quentin and Perry, would design images that would then be made into upmarket posters or pictures. Gyr would find customers. In 1983 his brothers started making images while he travelled to art fairs. "Back then, there were a lot of independent art galleries and small boutique shops, so there was a lot of demand for the work."

Gyr also licensed some of the most popular images to greeting card companies. "Other people in the art world looked down on the process but licensing is one of the purest forms of business. You receive royalties and cut your overheads." By 1989 King Posters was making annual sales of £2m.

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Then disaster struck. Gyr had travelled to Birmingham for one of the year's biggest trade shows, but on the morning of the show he received a phone call telling him that his warehouse had burnt down. The firm lost stock worth around £3m now and his insurance company refused to pay up because the firm had been sharing its warehouse with another company.

It was a sink or swim situation. Luckily, one American supplier, Bruce McGaw, replaced some of the missing stock free of charge. "It was a very kind gesture" and one that triggered a business deal. "My brothers wanted to go their own way and I decided to merge with Bruce."

In 1990 King & McGaw was formed. King & McGaw focused on supplying upmarket department stores with pictures and posters. It also began to use more designs from other artists. Contracts were signed with John Lewis, Next and Debenhams, while the business also grew in America and Europe. The firm began working with galleries and museums, making reprints of famous paintings to sell in onsite shops. By 2000 sales hit $35m a year.

But then a new threat emerged the internet. "It took away a lot of the barriers to entry. You didn't need to print a run of 3,000 copies to make an image affordable and you didn't need to pay for a big warehouse. It meant an artist could design an image on a Mac in his bedroom and sell it himself." It also affected demand. "People started shopping online and expected much more variety than they would have got in a shop."

King had to move fast. His network of trucks and warehouses were replaced with a sophisticated IT system that could store and send data-heavy images. He kept retailers happy by offering to deliver posters that customers bought online. "Instead of sending a 40-foot trailer full of pictures to John Lewis we started to send out individual purchases to customers."

Two years ago, King sold the American side of the business. He then split the European operations into two parts. One is a consumer-facing website which has since merged with, an online art retailer. The other is a business-to-business site, which handles art demand for customers such as John Lewis. Combined group sales were £10m last year. King, 60, believes the key to his success is "adapting to change".

James McKeigue

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a certificate in journalism from the NCTJ. James has worked as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries.He also had a spell at ITV, as welll as wring for Television Business International and covering the European equity markets for the London bureau. James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.