Entrepreneur who turned Filofax into the best-known accessory of the 1980s — and the icon of the yuppie
David Collischon knew he was leading a revolution in personal organisation when Harrods started stocking Filofaxes and Woody Allen admitted to having 14 of them.
The leather-bound personal organisers had been invented in Philadelphia in 1910, and were used by engineers, army officers and harassed clergymen, but never caught on with the public.
Collischon, a British marketing executive, bought the original company and made the Filofax perhaps the best-known must-have accessory for upwardly mobile aspirants in Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s and, more pejoratively perhaps, the icon of the yuppie. He trumpeted Filofaxes for their ability to hold credit cards, maps, tickets, pencils, sticky notes and much else. There were more than 100 accessories, many of which inspired the designs of today’s phones and apps. Deluxe versions cost £200; the Financial Times dismissed the Filofax as “a souped-up diary”.
Thousands of people made them the hub around which they led their lives. Losing one was worse than losing a phone today — few users had a back-up.
In the mid-1950s, Collischon, who was tall, silver-haired and fond of Prince of Wales check suits, walked into Chisholm’s, an old-fashioned stationery shop in Kingsway, London, where he saw a Filofax for the first time. He was fascinated. “I used to go in at lunchtime, borrow the shop’s book of samples, sit in a coffee bar and design my own version. It appealed to my sense of order, tidiness and capacity to store so much information in such a small and conveniently portable way.”
In 1921, a British company, the publisher orman & Hill, had begun importing the Lefax system from Philadelphia at the suggestion of a secretary, Grace Scurr (obituary, June 10, 1987), who coined the name Filofax — an abbreviation of “file of facts” — and became the company’s chairwoman.
Collischon began to turn an obsession into a business in 1974 when he and his wife, Lesley, ordered Filofaxes from Norman & Hill for their fledgeling mail-order business, Personal Systems. However, they abandoned the venture because of two disparate events, the death of his father and the introduction of VAT.
A year later, with a mortgage and two young children, Collischon feared he might be made redundant by his employer, Gower Press, part of Rank Xerox. Under the name Pocketfax, they tried again. The business was started with £500 left to Lesley by her Aunt Daisy — it was all they ever invested in the business.
The couple started by assembling their own mail shots. “We typed 1,000 envelopes addressed to companies and stuffed five smaller envelopes into each one for different executives, achieving 5,000 mailings for 1,000 postage stamps,” he said.
Working with a designer, Collischon gave the system a facelift, creating stylish binders in plain and exotic leathers and increasing the range of inserts to cover business needs, from personal expenses forms and year planners to time zones and graph paper. Demand soon stretched Norman & Hill’s resources and, in 1980, Collischon bought the firm for £8,577. “For that I got the name, the stock and £17 of assets,” he said.
The company just grew beyond his wildest expectations
The fashion designer Paul Smith put a Filofax on display in the window of his trendy Covent Garden shop, and began selling them as a fashion item. In four years, Collischon’s business went from 30 retail customers to 100,000. Harrods, Selfridges, Liberty and other leading department stores stocked Filofax. Collischon used three simultaneously. “It appeals to the man on the move,” he said.
On the wall of his office was a letter from a Captain Healy of the Royal Marines, who had just returned from the Falklands conflict, where his boat was sunk. The letter orders a replacement, adding: “I am keen to re-establish my system as soon as possible.”
At the peak of the Filofax’s popularity in 1987, Collischon floated the company on the stock market, valuing it at £17 million. He and his wife sold a slice of their shareholding for £2 million, and a few months later Collischon was awarded the President’s Medal by the Institute of Public Relations.
A year later, the company opened a flagship showroom in Mayfair and the shares soared from 120p to 200p. By then, though, doubts about what was essentially a one-product company were beginning to emerge.
Filofax shares fell to 60p in January 1989. In September of that year Collischon had to declare a loss. “The yuppie image has done us a lot of harm,” he claimed. “The time has now gone when anything with the Filofax name on it simply walked off the display stand.” The shares fell to 36p.
Collischon sold his remaining shares for £2.7 million in 1990 and stepped down as chief executive. “The company had grown beyond my wildest expectations,” he said, “but it had also outgrown my personal expertise. I was beginning to develop strong doubts in my own ability.”
In 2001, Filofax was merged with Charles Letts, the diary printer. The combined business is now owned by an American private-equity group.
Collischon admitted that he had paid the price for failing to diversify. Most devotees deserted Filofax for digital technology. It returned to being a product for the specialist user — and loyal fans who still cannot do without one.
Robert David Collischon was born in King George’s Hospital, Newbury Park, London, in 1937, the only child of Vera and Robert, general manager of a cardboard company that made jigsaws and paper doilies. His family had emigrated from Frankfurt and settled in London. The family flat in Walthamstow was destroyed in the Blitz.
After being expelled from two schools, Collischon went to Chigwell, where he was frequently caned and bullied. Not surprisingly, he hated it, regarding his school days as “a waste of time and irrelevant”, except for aero-modelling and producing a play.
He left school at 16 and, through a friend of his father, got a job as a warehouseman with Collins Publishers in Covent Garden. He worked his way up into the publicity department, where he showed early marketing flair. For Alistair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses, he made a model of the ship for display.
He spent National Service in the army in Malaya, rising to acting captain, and returned to Collins’s publicity department. He met his future wife, Lesley, at a Young Conservatives dance. “In every way, she was the girl I had been looking for,” he said, “and I made up my mind that evening that one day I would ask her to be my wife.” They married in 1965. After teaching physical education and history, she became Filofax’s personnel director. Later, she volunteered for the Samaritans and was a justice of the peace. They had three children: Lois is a social worker; Hayley is a teacher; and Adrian, a chef, is a director of Eden Caterers. They all attended the Davenant Foundation School, where Collischon was a governor. His wife and children survive him.
The chairman of the Davenant governors asked Collischon to chair the board of finance of the Chelmsford Church of England diocese. In recognition of his work, he was appointed an honorary lay canon.
In 1980, he joined the Worshipful Company of Marketors, a City of London livery company. He expanded the membership and became Master in 2003.
Collischon was also a skilled woodworker, who wrote a book on the subject for Collins’s pocket series, “How to Do It”. His main relaxation was sailing. “All our family holidays involved water,” Hayley said. They explored the many estuaries and rivers on the east coast and sailed to France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Channel Islands. Parkinson’s disease forced him to give up sailing.
Despite his marketing background, usually a sign of expansiveness, Collischon — a stickler for detail and a firm taskmaster — was proud of his ability to cut costs. He liked to tell of the American who visited Norman & Hill’s antiquated premises near Liverpool Street station and exclaimed: “Gee, this is straight out of Dickens, where’s Scrooge?” Pointing to Collischon, a senior executive said: “You just passed him.”