Brian Gibson, CEO of the supplier of the ubiquitous supply chain system commonly referred to as Vista, died on April 22 after a 14-month fight against cancer. Most people in publishing will probably not know of Brian, but his impact on the industry over the past 30 years, in both the U.K. and the U.S., was profound.
I first met Brian 27 years ago when I was a customer, and he gave me the clear impression that he wished this rather annoying 23-year-old would leave him alone. Fortunately for me, when I was later offered a job at Vista, my youthful nervousness about working for this quiet man was trumped by Vista having offices in Soho Square in central London, and I made probably my best professional decision and entered the “sphere” of Brian.
Whilst Brian’s business achievements were considerable, his lasting legacy will be the vision he brought to publishing and his ability to create a unique, dedicated ethos. He managed to create an atmosphere of endeavor, hard work, and commitment to the customer that brought the best out of people, and by embodying it himself, generated tremendous loyalty to a level I am unlikely to ever experience again.
People wanted to do right by Brian (despite his steely-eyed stares), and Brian was always generous toward them, pushing people to their own triumphs whilst never diminishing them by mentioning his part in making those triumphs happen. It was only many years afterwards that I discovered that in my early years, Lesley, his wife, who I was working with a lot at the time, told me that she had him fix all my programming mistakes overnight so that I continued to think “I’m doing rather well here.” When I mentioned this to Brian over a glass of his favorite tipple, he just grinned.
One of Brian’s biggest achievements was saving Vista from closure in 1992. By chance, Vista had come to be owned by the press baron Robert Maxwell. When Maxwell died, somewhat mysteriously, in the mid-Atlantic, Vista, like all his businesses, was in deep trouble. It was the cool heads of Brian and Denis Bennett (then CEO of Vista) that saved the company and, most extraordinarily of all, without the loss of a single job. Quite typically of Brian, he never mentioned it, never sought credit for it, and never showed a sense of any entitlement for what was a very brave and loyal act.
Freed from the shackles of a troubled press baron, Vista set its sights on the U.S., and Brian moved to New Jersey to lead the fledgling business there, throwing himself into the biggest implementation undertaken by Vista to date at HarperCollins. In 1998, Bennett retired, Brian took over running Vista, and I joined Brian in the U.S.A., where I spent five very enjoyable years working with him.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Vista suffered from its dot-com-fueled investments in creating the PubEasy service. The shareholder venture capitalists who had insisted on these investments then forced replacement of Brian as CEO, and between 2004 and 2006 there was a period of turbulence that I like to think ended happily when Vista secured a new investor, and, with Brian’s support, I took over as CEO.
No longer the CEO and without any belatedly risk-averse shareholders, Brian seized the moment and set our sights on a vision of supporting digital publishing. While this may seem obvious now, at the time it was a brave vision. Vista merged with Ingenta to create Publishing Technology, a business with a blend of traditional and digital expertise, and Brian put forward a plan to create a replacement for Vista systems, called advance, a system designed from the ground up for the new content types and new business models publishing will continue to have to grab.
Brian’s legacy is a Vista system that still manages an immense percentage of paper-based publishing in the U.K. and U.S.—and a vision to go beyond the obvious, not to be drawn into copying competitors, to create something that we think will underpin new publishing models for many years.
I will miss my mentor, as will those in the publishing industry, many of whom may not have known him but benefited from his vision and his contribution to their success.
George Lossius is CEO of Publishing Technology PLC.