Apex - who are you?

This is the text of an article which appeared in 2004 in the stamp trade paper the "Philatelic Exporter"

Apex Philatelics are one of the bigger stamp firms you've never heard of. Run jointly by Tim Francis and Rick Warren they have developed a modest approvals business into a major international firm with a growing £2,000,000 turnover in very few years.

The approvals side was begun by Rick when he left B. Alan (best known for modern GB errors) in 1980. Rick had had experience with approvals in the 1970s whilst working at Eastamps/Omniphil in Chesham. There were relatively few firms offering approvals higher up the evolutionary scale than cto pictorials and if there wasn't an actual gap in the market, there was certainly room for another player. Tim came onto the scene whilst a director at the Royale Stamp Company, supplying Rick with lots and collections to turn into approvals. The financial difficulties of the Royale Stamp Co in the mid-1990s prompted Tim to look beyond his immediate employment and the idea of starting a postal auction was mooted.

Rick had an extensive database of names of collectors who were, or who had taken approvals from him and Tim could offer work time to preapre and describe material in a form suitable for auction. Some singles gleaned from Rick's stock, some re-worked lots and some new material bought in or borrowed in the trade and the first Apex sale - all 650 lots of it - was up and running in November 1995. With 125 bidders and sales of slightly over £20,000, it was not a huge success but it was certainly good enough to show that the concept was reasonable.

Sales 2, 3 and 4 confirmed the trend, without setting the world alight. For sale 5, they took the gamble of a near 50-page advert in Stamp Magazine to publish the entire sale before the magazine's full readership. It worked. The advert cost a fortune but sales were almost doubled and have continued to grow steadily ever since, so that, with sale 50 about to take place £200,000 sales per auction are quite literally "average." To get this into context, £200,000 sales are considered a reasonable result for a UK public sale: for a postbid sale, it is quite exceptional.

The engine for developing the auction was always the Rick Warren approvals service, today under the stewardship of Peter Elwood. Come hell or high water, there were always a few thousands going into the bank account every week - and sometimes the few were the many. Purchasing hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of stock on an overdraft can make the friendliest of bank managers nervous, and the comfort of £30-40,000 onto the account every month, without fail underpinned the devleopment. The approvals business remains a core operation, but is steadily taking more and more of a second place to the auctions.

By sale 20 the decision had been taken to stick a toe into the water and to "try" a public sale. Sale 20 coincided with the installation of a new, powerful and fully adaptable, bespoke computer program which would integrate all the aspects of the business. It was (almost) a simple matter to tweak the auction package so that it would handle a room sale as well as a purely postal one. The result is that on auction day we are, and always have been, fully computerised without any time lag between the lot being auctioned and its being "sold" on the system. The auction agent Mary Weeks kindly commented a while ago that it was the most sophisticated system she had seen in the UK. Apex now have 4 postal and 3 public sales per year, with the public sales taking place at Lingfield Park Racecourse. The top-to-bottom integration of the business means that Apex can offer something to collectors of most things and pretty well every level, from glory boxes up to rare singles at a few thousands of pounds each, on and off paper mixtures through to original and valuable collections.

Trading remains essentially postal. Apex are developing a presence on the web, though this remains relatively low key. There is a clear potential on the internet and this is one area Apex fully intend to explore in the future.

Like all stamp firms, Apex faces the difficulty of an aging and probably shrinking client base. They advertise extensively in the philatleic media and theirs is probably one of the larger accounts for both Gibbons and Link House. However, readership of both of these magazines has been falling steadily for some years now and new business is increasingly hard to attract. They have purchased the stock and client base of several companies in the past few years - notably Sanders of Southampton - which has provided a fresh impetus to the core activities. The challenge remains to tap into the undoubted tens of thousands of collectors who are not regular readers of the philatelic media.

For the future? Rick and Tim are always open to offers ... otherwise, on the basis that if it ain't broke, you don't fix it, expect more of the same. With luck, a lot more.

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