“Creativity is just connecting things.”
Steve Jobs

Go West, Young Man

Early in the 1970s, because of the recession caused by oil prices quadrupling, the increase on marginal taxation to 98 per cent that sent my mother and father to settle in France, the three-day week of Prime Minister Ted Heath, and the rain, I jumped on a plane to California. Arriving at San Francisco airport via LA, as there were no direct flights then, I wanted a fix, and sure enough, as I walked through the airport, briefcase in hand, wearing a smart blue blazer and gray trousers, a pretty American girl ran up to me and put a garland of flowers around my neck.

That was the start of my love affair with California, which, despite its problems, is truly the Golden State. Everything that was happening started in California, and I wanted to become part of it. Looking back over fifty years, I can see that it was the right decision then and remains so now. I took some time driving US Route 101, the freeway running down the peninsula, and watched the rise and fall of the tech companies much as a wave motion and, before long, had offices near El Camino Real and Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto, just south of San Francisco airport. A small band of new but experienced recruits joined me to work out how to build digital equipment for the US television industry.

During my spying trips on the 101, I had identified the key recruits to set up our first US office. They came from Ampex, the famous tape-recording company founded in 1944 by Alexander Poniatoff, and I was going into competition with them. Above all, we needed sales, and George Grasso knew sales inside-out. George, together with the Quantel products, was soon known throughout the US television industry. One of the nicest men one could have wished to meet, George took me in hand to teach me that America does not work the same way the UK does. We remained good friends for over forty years, until he passed away just a few years ago. It was George, more than anyone else, who shaped my life to fit California and encouraged me to take on projects and risks that have mostly turned out brilliantly. The most important, of course, the Peter Michael Winery.

Micro Consultants and Quantel were awarded a total of twelve Queen’s Awards for Technology and Exports between them. Pictured here (front row) are the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, Pete, and Prince Edward, Duke of Kent.

Television is an international business, and there is always at least one country that decides to update their TV studios to the latest digital equivalent—and there we were, willing and ready to provide just what they needed. I had managed to cause a bit of a stir during one of the international television conferences, this time in London. The great challenge was to find a way of broadcasting US programmes in the UK and vice versa, but the two standards are completely different, going back to the Baird and Edison controversy.

Lord Mountbatten was the guest of honour and speaker opening the proceedings by lauding the most recent BBC development of a standards converter that did a fine job but was the size of a double wardrobe. Meanwhile, Quantel had also developed equipment that did the job but was portable. As he and his entourage toured the show, I stepped out in front of him—not at all sure of myself—and drew him toward our demonstration. He knew nothing but was delighted to have something to talk about over dinner, and the scribes in his party were only too pleased to have something to write about. I heard a lot more of that story as the days went by and business developed.

“I had managed to cause a bit of a stir during one of the international television conferences, this time in London.”

Working from London opened relatively few opportunities; there were only two chains, ITV and BBC. The BBC had an annual income of £3 billion as a “licence” fee that funded both programming and their development organisation, thus discouraging private industry. ITV, on the other hand, had limited funds and was happy to have any external help they could find in the nascent digital television world. The United States, however, had a far healthier approach and a market many times that of the UK, so that is where the story of the development of a global enterprise started in earnest. Word had travelled, and the name of our new television company, Quantel (quantised television), was not altogether unknown. We had even made a few US sales through International Video Corporation (IVC).

The late Richard Taylor, who died much too young, and Pete hosted two royal visits at Quantel with Paintbox demonstrations for Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales (shown here) and Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent.

“Word had travelled, and the name of our new television company, Quantel (quantised television), was not altogether unknown.”

This was a manic and hugely stimulating period, with problems and solutions piling one on top of another. Not everything went smoothly, but somehow, we got away with it, and the shape of a successful technology business appeared out of the mist. Of all the amazing products that microelectronics made possible, in our small corner, the Quantel Paintbox (QPB) was the best known and the longest lasting.

Prince Edward, Duke of Kent visits Quantel.

Painting with Light

Introduced in 1981, the Paintbox was a custom-designed digital graphic workstation that included a pressure-sensitive stylus. The pen enabled artists to create in a familiar way, and because it required no in-depth computer knowledge, the digital studio became wildly popular and was an instant success.

Paintbox was quickly adopted by major television stations and networks, as it offered unprecedentedly fast production of images and animations for broadcast. Skilled operators, as the artists were called, could create a graphic in fifteen minutes that used to take two or more days. Early graphics debuted on broadcasts, including the 1984 Olympics, and branding images for MTV, the cutting-edge cable TV network famous for televising music videos. David Hockney was one of the first to use it.

The Quantel Paintbox, a custom-designed digital graphic workstation, included its popular pressure-sensitive stylus.

Until then, the art department of a TV studio comprised a pad of paper and crayons. You wanted a weather map, so you drew it and stuck it under a TV camera, illustration of a fire, then a photograph, etc. An annual art department budget might have been all of $2,000 at the most. But the end of that sort of operation was approaching, and producers were looking for something compatible with their new and shiny digital TV studio. The Quantel Paintbox was just that: a large screen, a pressure-sensitive stylus, and some clever software. The thing that made this different from other attempts was the elimination of any digital idiosyncrasy that had stalled earlier products, like a cogged sloping edge or a mess where colours overlapped. None of that existed with the QPB—it was just like painting with a brush and oils or watercolour.

“Producers were looking for something compatible with their new and shiny digital TV studio. The Quantel Paintbox was just that: a large screen, a pressure-sensitive stylus, and some clever software.”

The company growth had been spotted by a few bankers and other businesspeople, and whilst I had found it easy to say no to propositions for IPO at that stage, eventually the pressure to do something more than running a high-tech company became more attractive. With Maggie in favour, I weighed up the field and opted for a merger with an already-quoted business that included some companies that could stand alongside the star of Quantel.

After we got over the insulting valuations endemic in such settings, we landed on a fifty-fifty partnership, and I entered a new and dangerous world of public company management. I had the naive idea that running a diversified business twice the size of my existing operation would be simple; I had a great deal to learn. From thereon, difficulties arrived from every direction and landed on my desk without the compensating solutions. But overall, the business developed, the irrelevant companies were sold, and several strategic acquisitions sharpened the image. There were plenty of thrills as well as a few spills over the next years.

United Engineering Industries (UEI), the name of the quoted vehicle, became the most serious technology company on the London Stock Exchange, and we made the most of it. UEI acquired the most famous high-tech mechanical engineering company, Cosworth (high-performance engine design). In the friendly embrace of the development-minded new management, it immediately started signing deals with important car companies (e.g., Cosworth Ford), and we were able to find capital to expand production.

Meanwhile, digital electronic products were popping up from all the expanding group technology companies, and the shares did quite well as we negotiated the ever-present threat of UK economic mismanagement and recession. But the really important event was at the end of the decade, when an attractive bid came in from another larger quoted company, and after some haggling, we agreed to merge to become what was a $1.5 billion high-technology group, and I could see that I would have the opportunity to stop.

Within the next few months, my weight went up and my belt needed a couple more buckle holes. Apart from which, Maggie was getting fed up with me being at home for lunch. I needed to do something. It wasn’t long before an offer to take on a management buy-in (MBI) for a minor quoted company came along, and I found myself in harness for a ride on a new steed. Then Cray, an important UK telecommunications business, more or less fell into our hands, an acquisition that completely transformed the status of the public company from backwater to mainstream. The company’s headquarters was located in a beautiful Georgian manor in Hampshire, where fountains played and golden carp swam. When the acquisition went through, I negotiated for one of those beauties, Dowty, which lasted many years in our family hotel pond until a passing heron spotted it.

Pete presented a macaw named Chips to the development team at a celebration on an awards day.

Remembering The Forgotten Medium

In 1990, Margaret Thatcher introduced a new broadcasting act that included the creation of three national commercial radio licences. Up until then, radio was legally limited to local stations and relatively low power output, so coverage only included individual towns and communities. Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline, broadcast from a ship just outside territorial waters, were the slightly dodgy alternatives that the authorities tried hard to shut down and failed.

The new Bill was mostly about TV, but at the bottom it talked about three new radio transmission licences for rock, talk, and classical stations. They would cover the whole UK, and this sounded interesting. The BBC considered this to be the ultimate insult to their God-given right to be the only nationwide transmitter shaping and filtering the political messages delivered to the masses. The critical thing was technology, with only one FM channel available and two using AM, which is not suitable for classical music. When asked whether she had a preference in allocating the high-quality channel, the PM said they should give it to the most challenging genre, which is, of course, classical music. That decision gave us as close to a broadcasting monopoly as anything could be.

Radio stations are relatively low cost to run and cash generative, so competition to win the licence was going to be fierce. I was asked to join one of the consortia bidding for the classical music franchise. We put together what we thought was a sensibly priced proposition and promptly lost to a higher bid. A few weeks later, the government radio authority called back to say that the invaders had been unable to raise the cash within the specified timescale and asked if we could step into the breach. All hell broke loose as we scrabbled around for £6 million.

Another Maggie in Pete’s life! Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visits Quantel in 1983.

It’s essential to have the right combination of partners in any consortium if it’s going to win over the competition, and with eight strategic, relevant, and diversified skills around the table, we had that spot-on, including Time Warner as one very serious partner. Having won the licence to broadcast, we then had to make it happen. Predictions of failure were manifold—fifty calls to banks in the city to raise money failed, often with the rather downbeat comment that with Radio 3, the BBC classical music station, there wouldn’t be sufficient interest to make it a success. The printed media wasn’t much more optimistic, forecasting bankruptcy within the year.

Although it wasn’t my intention, somehow, I found myself as the largest shareholder and shortly chairman of Classic FM, the first commercial national radio station to get on air. The morning of September 7, 1992, the official start of transmissions at 06:00, had been well foreshadowed, and bets as to which music would be played as the number-one piece were on. They all got it wrong when the marvellous coronation anthem, Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” rang out in over a million homes.

Classic FM was successful from the start and rapidly grew its audience, which included soccer players and window cleaners as well as politicians and senior executives. It changed life for the better for those whose jobs entailed driving around the country listening to the car radio. It eventually topped eight million listeners and, more importantly, became the most profitable commercial radio station in the UK, with a market valuation of £1 billion before Google arrived to eventually dominate advertising and rain on our parade.

Are You Able To Kneel

Just before the Cray Electronics purchase was inked, I received a letter in an envelope embossed with the royal crest, or more correctly, Maggie received it, opened it, and immediately called me. I was sitting in the car just about to go into a lawyer’s office for a difficult meeting in the City when she gave me the astounding news—“You are going to be knighted.” It came out of the blue—I had absolutely no idea—but then I knew that from then on everything was going to be alright.

I hastened to accept, just in case the authorities found out they had made a terrible mistake and cancelled the offer. Then shortly after, a second letter arrived that said something to the effect that knighthoods are generally proffered to people senior in age and sometimes infirm. The procedure is to kneel in front of the sovereign and be dubbed (touched) on each shoulder with a sword. Then followed the question, “Are you able to kneel? YES/NO.” It never occurred to me to enquire just what happens if you can’t.

A high-resolution photo of the Knighthood medal, which was hand-finished at the College of Arms, is displayed amidst a nest of microelectronics and wine caps.

So, here I was at fifty, knighted, with a wife and family of two men approaching twenty about to go off to university or equivalent in international travel, and Maggie now officially Lady and endearingly called Lady M by the family and winery team, as the spouse of a “Knight”—she thought it a great improvement on “Maggie.” We were living in Hampshire and no longer having to scrape money together with the question…what’s next?

Pete received a letter after being informed that he was going to be knighted enquiring as to whether or not he could kneel during the proceedings.

The British honours and preferment system originally stemmed from the way kings and queens financed their escapades in foreign lands, and there is a suspicion that in a smaller way that still exists, although the sovereign has been replaced by prime ministers. Certainly, the prime minister has a very big say in who receives the top honours that are now lifetime peerages and knighthoods.

There are several things that might get you on the honours list that nearly always include some serious charity work or creation, doing something useful for government, and just doing something admirable in pretty much any discipline from art to industry. Simply making a fortune isn’t relevant. Unless you meet those three requirements it’s pretty unlikely that an honour will fall upon you, as it is controlled through a series of committees and departments that head up to the Honours Committee at Number Ten.

Competition for eventual success is huge, as there are many who would qualify on those criteria alone, and the short list that has been filtered down is still nearly one thousand people, long after various committees have made their selection. Anyway, I had all the qualifications, and then it came down to luck. There are some who fit all the criteria, but for one reason or another, will never receive an honour—quite why will remain a mystery.

“I’ve met many important people, but somehow being in the presence of the Queen, no matter how naturally she acted, certainly put my pulse rate up.”

Honours are awarded twice a year, and mine was to be on the official sovereign’s birthday—always the same date as June 17, which happens to be my own birthday—and the other is at New Year. I found it quite daunting, as those few of us to be knighted were confined to a room in the palace awaiting the event. I found myself in conversation with General Sir Peter de la Billière, who commanded troops in the Gulf War and who was knighted at the same time.

Equally daunting was meeting the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in a small, close lunch party. I’ve met many important people, but somehow being in the presence of the Queen, no matter how naturally she acted, certainly put my pulse rate up. It took a few such meetings to get used to the encounters and avoid saying something stupid. For one charity event, she had come to my office in Newbury on a day when it poured down, and inevitably the umbrellas failed to keep her dry. She joked, “I suppose it always rains in Newbury.” It didn’t reduce the stress.

Maggie, Pete, and Pete’s mother, Enid, in Buckingham Palace courtyard, 1989.