Hadham Hall-based communications agency Ignition, which has clients including Toyota, Renault and L'Oreal, celebrates 40th anniversary
An ingenious piece of quick thinking helped Peter Forsyth land his first big contract with Ford after setting up his own business in 1979.
And the company he formed is still in his family's hands, with the third generation now involved, and this year celebrated its 40th anniversary.
Ignition, based at Hadham Hall, provides training and events for globally-recognised automotive and hospitality brands. The communications agency specialises in bespoke learning journeys through events, e-learning, online, digital and print solutions.
Working primarily within the automotive industry, it has expanded its expertise to include retail, hospitality and cosmetics, with clients including Toyota, Renault, L'Oreal and the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group.
It all began four decades ago when Peter started his own business, called Marketing International, from his garage at his Great Dunmow home. He had worked for Ford in their marketing department and lived out in America for eight years while he was with Ford Tractor.
The family – wife Bridget and sons Rob and Martin – came back to these shores in 1972 to live in Great Dunmow and Peter left Ford shortly afterwards to do his own thing, before securing a contract with his former employer in 1979.
It was initially a fairly small contract, but when a bigger one was up for grabs, representatives from Ford decided to come to see him and his infrastructure.
Mainly dealing with printed material at that time and working in humble surroundings, he used a London agency that employed about 40 artists. He decided to hold the Ford meeting there, taking down the agency's signage and replacing it with his own for the day before putting everything back to normal having impressed the car giants.
The company was still working almost exclusively with Ford when Rob joined in 1994. With Peter, who will celebrate his 90th birthday next year, looking to retire and sell up, Rob instead took over the reigns and has been managing director ever since.
"In the mid 90s we were probably a £700,000 turnover business, exclusively dealing with Ford on product training. We were training on commercial vehicles and the car side, and the car contract was that second one he [Peter] pulled in," said Rob, 56.
"I came on board having spent 10 years in the haulage and transport industry. I'd got a bit frustrated with it as an industry because it's very low margin and not very exciting – the only way you can really make a difference is by making your price cheaper.
"My father was looking to retire and sell the business, so I made him a bit of a cheeky offer and the rest is history."
The business went on to acquire other customers and began working with Mazda in the late 90s and Toyota in the early 2000s.
Having had premises in Bishop's Stortford and Stansted, the agency took up residence in The Gatehouse at Hadham Hall in 2004.
And having developed a second brand, Acumotive, when it started dealing with Toyota in Belgium, the decision was made to adopt the single identity of Ignition in 2007.
It now has 17 staff at Hadham Hall as well as three at an office in Brussels and two working from Krakow, Poland. There is also a team of freelancers, with the firm having 115 people working simultaneously at one point last year.
"We're still doing essentially the same automotive marketing. We've expanded a little from just doing training work, but that's at the heart of what we do," said Rob.
"We do about £7million a year turnover now. As they always say 'turnover is vanity, profit is sanity', so the good thing is we're profitable too.
"We're cash positive which is the key to any business I think, making sure cash is in the bank. We're running very strongly at the moment."
Rob, who was a trustee and chairman of the Essex and Herts Air Ambulance Trust for 12 years having helped to get it started, is married to Amanda and the couple have two grown-up children, Abbi, 28, and Richard, 26. Rob's brother Martin is also an Ignition shareholder.
Abbi is a doctor specialising in mountain medicine – she recently escorted a trekking team to Everest Base Camp – but Richard has ensured the third Forsyth generation is involved with the business.
"I think it was important, especially in the early days, that he didn't work for me directly and built his reputation based on what he did rather than being part of the Forsyth family, and that continues to this day," said Rob.
Richard has been with the business for three years having freelanced for about a year before that, working with events manager Georgie Herlihy. He became account manager in early 2017, with Renault being the main client he looks after.
"I sort of fell into the freelancing for Georgie and enjoyed it. I got the opportunity to join and I'm grateful for it," said Richard, who went to Bishop's Stortford College before studying film and TV at the University of Northampton.
"It's a bit of a strange feeling as some of the older members of Ignition still tell me stories about when my grandfather was part of the business. It's always funny to hear other people's perspective of someone that I just know as Grandad. He was obviously quite a character back in the day."
Rob said Peter is pleased with how the business he began 40 years ago has grown. Prestigious accolades such as a Golden Bridge Trade and Export Award, for companies operating in the Belgian market, have been achieved and the company has grown organically to be able to operate globally.
"I think he recognised he'd taken it as far as he could at that point in time," said Rob.
"For a lot of people from his generation, technology was probably not a requirement for running a business. I remember the first time I got a laptop computer, which was a huge thing like a couple of bricks sewn together, and he was looking at it thinking 'I don't understand this'.
"If he was writing copy for an article, for example, he'd be writing it on a piece of paper and handing it to his secretary who was typing it out.
"The world has moved on in so many ways from that point. He's obviously very pleased with the fact the business has continued to grow and metamorphosed into something much more substantial and much more successful."
To mark its 40th anniversary, Ignition is implementing a 40th ident, refreshed website and year-long communications plan.
Rob is not looking too far ahead into the future – "I think with an organisation like this you have to be flexible in terms of your outlook" – but Ignition is well placed to continue making a real difference to big-name brands in the years to come.
"The business has become much more about the application of technology over the years and I think one of the reasons we've been successful is that we haven't just stuck to one particular way of doing things," said Rob. "It's all about adopting new technologies and using them in interesting ways that benefit our customers.
"We're constantly looking to innovate. Even though we've got lots of history behind us, we like to think of ourselves as progressive and forward-looking rather than backward-looking.
"It's all about making sure we're fit for purpose for today and tomorrow, rather than resting on our laurels and history."
More by this authorMichael Vaughton