Mark Getty: “I’m one of those people everyone hates”

Mark Getty © Getty images
Mark Getty: building businesses is his thing

Mark Getty, grandson of oil baron Jean Paul, transformed a small picture library in Camden into a global $3bn business. He remains excited by its prospects. Jane Lewis reports.

Mark Getty describes the most important moment of his working life as the sale of Getty Oil in 1984 – “it freed me from the need to feel that I had to join the family business”. Instead, he chose to build one of the world’s biggest and best-known photographic agencies, says The Times. “If there’s something vaguely newsworthy happening in the world, the chances are that Getty Images will be there.” Its vast archive of picture libraries is legendary.

Nearly 25 years after Getty, 58, and his partner Jonathan Klein, launched the outfit from a small office in Camden, annual revenues at the privately held company are put at around $800m. Clearly, the grandson of oil billionaire Jean Paul Getty has made “a decent fist” of showing “there’s much more to him than his famous relative”.

A normal upbringing for a Getty

Founded on the wealth accrued by his grandfather, the Getty dynasty “has its roots in the oilfields of Oklahoma and latterly the country houses of Britain”. But Italy – where his father, Sir Paul Getty, ran a division of the family business – was Mark’s nursery, and Italian was his first language. Although his parents divorced in 1964, he enjoyed a rambling early childhood, divided between Rome and a country house outside Siena.

But the mafia kidnapping of his older brother Paul in 1973, when Mark was 13, was a traumatic event. All the more so when J Paul Getty refused to pay the ransom. “I have 14 grandchildren,” he said. “If I pay one penny now, then I will have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

The old man only relented when the kidnappers cut off the teenager’s right ear. “The Gettys have suffered more than most from scandal, illness and infighting,” says The Sunday Times. But Mark insists he had a “normal” upbringing. As he told the newspaper in 2003, “I am one of those people whom everyone hates because I had an idyllic childhood. There are no skeletons in the closet. I even loved boarding school.”

Storming a new market

After reading politics and philosophy at Oxford, Getty became an investment banker. He was working for Hambros in London when he and Klein stumbled upon the idea of a picture agency. In 1994, he persuaded his father, two uncles and several cousins to back his new venture, Getty Images. The new company stormed into the market “with a string of acquisitions”, says The Sunday Times. In 1996, the founding duo took it public – turbo-charging its journey from a relatively small photo library into a money-spinning “digital image archive”.

The cash thrown off by the licensing business soon had private-equity firms sniffing around, says the FT. After being snapped up by Hellman & Friedman in 2008, the business was bought by Carlyle four years later. The private-equity experience wasn’t entirely a success – Getty argues the company’s “bread and butter work” took a back seat for a decade, causing the business to lose “a significant amount of ground… We used to operate in this industry as the only real player. We’re now in troika with Shutterstock and Adobe Stock.”

Last September, the Getty family grabbed the company back in a deal valuing it at around $3bn. Thanks to the explosion of mobile and social-media communication, he’s “excited by its market position”. “Every family has someone who wants to rule the world and someone who wants to walk the dog,” Getty observed in 2003. He takes after his grandfather in being the former. “I’m not saying that my grandfather didn’t live a grand life – he did – but he was much more interested in building the business. That was his thing, and it’s mine.”