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Not many start-ups are born out of rail strikes. But the 1994 national rail strike drew two professionals at The Observer newspaper into an unlikely partnership that ended up creating CPL.
Jonathan Wilson, then chief business sub-editor, was also the Father of Chapel – newspaper terminology for the union shop steward. Mark Rosselli, the assistant editor responsible for news, had been brought in by the new owner, the Guardian Media Group, to ‘sort out’ the newsroom – newspaper terminology for cutting costs by firing lots of people.
So it was Mark’s job to pick targets for redundancy, and it was Jonathan’s job to either fight those redundancies, or ensure that his union members won the highest-possible redundancy payments. Relations between the two were, unsurprisingly, somewhat frosty.
However, the two shared a common home town – Cambridge – and when the National Union of Railwaymen called a national train strike that summer, the newspaper ordered those with company cars (like Mark) to offer lifts to staff living nearby on each of the 19 strike days. Forced into close proximity for up to four hours a day by the strike-day commutes, they found they actually saw eye-to-eye on most topics.
Two years later, The Observer was not a happy place, and Mark and Jonathan decided to create their own contract publishing company, called Cambridge Publishers Ltd. The company was started up in the downstairs bathroom of Mark’s house; out went the loo and handbasin, in came a fax machine, a 33.6k modem, and a shining new Windows 95 computer. Mark could touch all four walls of the office while sitting at his desk.
It was nine months before the company won its first work, launching a new magazine for a membership body called the Institute of Administrative Management.
Twenty years on, the company has 47 employees who create award-winning products for a portfolio of more than 20 clients. Among those employees is managing director Mike Sewell, who worked with CPL as a freelance before joining the company in 2007 as editorial director.
“The last two decades have seen CPL change and grow in ways its founders never imagined when they set up the company,” Mike says. “We’ve developed from being a straightforward contract publisher delivering print magazines into a complex, full stack communications agency, offering media sales, digital products, video and social media. Our client list includes chartered institutes, FTSE 100 companies, multinational corporates and global brands.
“What has never changed – and, arguably, the main reason we have succeeded – is our constant focus on service, and our willingness to go the extra mile for all our clients, whether large or small. Jonathan and Mark prided themselves on top-quality service from the very beginning, and that ethos is baked into the company’s DNA.”
Mark, now chairman of CPL, adds: “Jonathan and I quit Fleet Street because, as we phrased it, we ‘wanted to stop working for bastards’.
“We never intended to employ anybody but ourselves – so that bit didn’t quite go according to plan. But both of us know for a fact that our lives and our company have been massively enriched by the dozens of talented, hard-working and likeable people who have joined CPL over the years, not to mention the clients… We couldn’t have done it without them, and we will both be eternally grateful for the opportunity to build up a business that is not just successful, but also a really fun place to work.”