Thursday, August 20, 1987

KBOO 20 August 1987

How many creative ideas are lost to the world because our minds are cluttered with unhelpful input or clouded with preoccupations which could be got rid of? I thought about this when I considered the story of a friend in Liverpool.

Fifteen years ago Jim Sharp was a partner in a small commercial artists’ firm doing distinctive work of high quality. But his marriage of ten years was coming apart and he was, as his wife Rita says, ‘a martyr to the booze.’ Today Jim hasn’t touched a drop for some ten years, employs 70 people in a city desperately needing jobs and has developed a new way of getting high definition in printing which has caught the attention of the printing industry around the world.

He believes that God who told him to stop drinking also gave him the idea for this new printing process. The story began in 1973 when Rita accepted an invitation to attend a theatrical production about Moral Re-Armament in London. She didn’t expect her husband to come with her as there would be no drink at the weekend. She had become accustomed to making her own life, having fostered about 40 children over the years. But he rather aggressively told her he could do without the drink and would come. ‘I wore a purple suit and long hair,’ he says. I was trying to establish my identity, put my stamp on the world.’

A basic principle of Moral Re-Armament to which the Sharps were introduced in London and in subsequent meetings in Liverpool was the idea that if an individual took time in quiet to listen to God he or she might get thoughts that would be helpful to their lives and to the world. After one quiet time Jim had the distinct thought to give up drinking. ‘I used to be a boozer,’ he says. ‘I’d come home sloshed but I said it was all part of my work, keeping the customers happy.’ Rita was skeptical at first. ‘I hadn’t much faith, I expected him to lapse, ‘she recalls. But Jim persisted. It was obvious, for one thing, that he was taking a new interest in his family as a result. He began to spend more time at home in the evenings.

‘Rita noticed a slight change,’ says Jim. ‘Slight!’ exclaims Rita. ‘It was like Jekyll and Hyde. I’m deeply grateful. Jim’s change saved our marriage. I still don’t find faith in God easy but he’s the first person I call on when I’m in trouble.’

As a commercial artist Jim had often felt frustrated by the poor quality of reproduction when his designs appeared in newspapers. One night Jim got the inspiration for a process which could create a crisper image. ‘In his drinking days he would have been flat out,’ says Rita. He talked it over with her through the night – and the next morning went straight to the patent office. ‘It was a gift from God,’ he says.

The new process, Schafline, brought fresh business, but there were still problems, work pressures and personality conflicts. Again, however, however, he felt God was giving him clear direction, this time to leave the company. ‘I felt a different man once I had done it but I didn’t know where to go next,’ he says. For six months before the decision, Rita says, he was aggressive and horrible. Once he made it he went back to being his normal, cheerful self.

He offered to sell his half of the company to his former partner but the offer was refused and Jim decided to buy him out. Without Jim the company had been going downhill fast and he felt he shouldn’t let the staff down. It took him days on the phone to recover clients but since then the company has not looked back. From 25 employees at that point it has grown to 70, work had increased 20 to 40% each year, advertisements processed by Schafline increasingly appear in Britain’s national press, and franchises have been negotiated with companies in Canada and the United States.

As well as giving up drink, he says, he has also learned to accept absolute honesty as a principle for operating his business, refusing to give unofficial commissions or look for opportunities to fiddle. ‘It means,’ he says, ‘that you get a much clearer voice ahead of how to plan for yourself and your company, you can justify your prices with vigor and look your customer straight in the eye.’

Working also on the basis of ‘what’s right not who’s right’ has reduced personality clashes at the company. ‘You don’t have a winner or a loser,’ he says, ‘and you get all the brains working together on the problem.’ There are regular meetings of the production staff and they know they can always talk with him. A good relationship has been established with the trade union, the National Graphical Association. At the end of the year a hunk of profits goes into staff bonuses amounting to almost eight percent of their annual income. ‘If someone is doing sub-standard work,’ Jim says, ‘Fellow workers keep him up to the mark, not management, as their part of the bargain.’ He believes in training others to do the job better than himself. So though he occasionally puts in an 18-hour day – over half of Schafline’s work has to be completed within 24 hours – he still is able to take plenty of time with his family.

The company name is well known and the work pours in and, to Rita’s continual surprise, not one of Jim’s clients has he met in a pub. Jim’s American associate, John Schaedler, had earlier failed to negotiate an agreement with the company before Jim owned it and had gone ahead and developed a similar process. Three years ago Jim visited him in New York. Schaedler’s company magazine, ‘Pinwheel Pages’ ,’wrote, ‘Expecting to be punched in the nose, Schaedler found Sharp, on the contrary, to be quite agreeable, conciliatory, and in fact rather a delightful fellow. The meeting ended with a handshake and both agreed to help each other expand their respective businesses.’