Nova – A potted history of a unique organisation

It’s 1983 and the world is changing. Barriers to trade are breaking down across the world and in industry, as in shoulder pads, big is always better. It’s a tough time for medium–sized companies battling against the big boys. What are your options when economies of scale and global presence are pushing smaller companies to the margins? The answer, it turns out, is to be quick, innovate and cooperate. Don’t hunker down and hope for the best, but lift your horizons and find partners in the same situation, willing to share ideas and technology to help keep you competitive.

This way of thinking didn’t appear overnight; it needed someone to spot the opportunity and see where it might take them. In the late 1970s, Peter Lovell worked with Michel Brasse at International Paint. Peter in the UK and Michel at French subsidiary Celomer. By the early 1980s, both men had moved on. Michel was now at the government-owned Ripolin Duco and Peter had taken up a position within the Kalon group at Hadfield Industrial Coatings. Ripolin Duco had an extraordinary R&D team at that point – over 200 chemists and researchers working at state-of-the-art facilities. Peter was keen to buy into some of the innovative products and systems which Ripolin Duco was developing. You could say this was where the idea for Nova took seed. Michel was talking to other organisations around the world, fully aware that the only way for smaller companies to succeed was to be smarter than the big guys.

Michel Brasse celebrates the birth of Nova
To begin, the focus was on industrial coatings – decorative didn’t get a look in for at least another decade, which is a sign of how much things have changed within Nova since its inception. Michel had drawn up a plan to bring together some of the non-competing companies he’d worked with and see what technology and ideas could be shared. The first meeting was planned for Cannes in May 1983. Alongside Michel, Ripolin Duco sent further representatives and some key executives from two subsidiaries. Also there were the chief executives (or nominated deputies) and technical directors from companies based in Portugal, the USA, Canada, India, Taiwan and the UK. It was here that Nova really began to take shape. The delegates agreed to establish the organisation in Geneva, Michel Brasse would take on the role of President – effectively a CEO position – and the members became the original board.

The first full meeting of the Nova Club was to take place in India the following year. But before then, Michel and Peter headed to Geneva to deal with the legalities. Only on the flight did Michel reveal that he had brought the members’ contributions with him in cash. Michel’s native French law took a rather dim view of such currency movement, and so Peter was tasked with carrying around US$30,000 into Switzerland. It was to his significant relief when the money was deposited into an account – safely and entirely legitimately – and Nova was officially incorporated, with an office on Rue d’Italie, close to spectacular Lake Geneva.

Michel Brasse and the pitfalls of the resignation game

Michel Brasse was a big man. Cigar or cigarette permanently wedged between his lips, he took his pleasures seriously. In business, he ploughed his own furrow as sales director of the French paint company, Celomer. No-one could question his ability as a salesman; his reputation as a dealmaker was matched only by his appetite for the finer things in life. But Michel had another foible, one which would shape his career and his role in the Nova Club in the most profound way. He had developed – during a turbulent spell at Celomer – a habit of resigning. Often on a Friday afternoon, reputably after a decent lunch and usually in the safe knowledge that it would be rejected by his boss. Perhaps unfamiliar with the tale of the big Frenchman who cried wolf, on one Friday in 1981, Michel’s routine resignation did not end up in his manager’s waste bin. For reasons lost to history, this particular letter found its way into the hands of the personnel department and, intended or otherwise, the wheels were set in motion. Michel was on his way out of Celomer and into Ripolin Duco, and the seed of an idea that was the Nova Paint Club received a little extra nourishment.

Old habits die hard, they say, and after a clash of vision for the Club in 1985, Michele once again offered up his resignation, this time as President of Nova. Perhaps he had convinced himself that, despite the hiccup at Celomer, his tried and tested tactic would bring the requisite rapprochement. Unfortunately for Michel, the board thought it best if they called his bluff and accepted. And so ended the founder’s formal connection with Nova. His legacy can’t be overstated and the group remains indebted to his early vision. Without Michel, the group would probably never have existed. Sadly, he passed away in 1996. We remember him with great fondness. And despite the parting of ways, it’s doubtful he was the kind of man to regret his passions – be it excellent red wine, or, it seems, handing in his notice.

The meeting in India, hosted by Jenson and Nicholson, set the tone for Nova meetings to come. Social, friendly and open to partners, the Nova founders were grateful recipients of some excellent hospitality. This included a chance to play tennis at the Patna Tennis Club, host of the Davis Cup a few weeks before and this time fully furnished with ball boys, line judges and drinks trays. The standard of tennis left something to be desired, but the occasion clearly inspired Leslie Silver – Chairman of Kalon and one-time Chairman of Leeds United FC – who announced his engagement at the end of the trip. The celebrations extended until dawn and friendships were forged that lasted a lifetime.

It was clear from the outset that, more than anything else, Nova was about its people. André Maheux, the representative from Sico in Canada, took unwell during the India meeting. It was with enormous sadness that the group learned of his suicide shortly afterwards. In tribute to a great friend and colleague, the Club created a special services award in André’s name. Michel Brasse and Peter Lovell received the honour at a meeting in Portugal in 1988; the same meeting was attended by the Portuguese President. Nova had expanded its scope and influence, but would never forget its friends.

The Nova Board meets in France, 1984
Although the group had agreed its general terms of reference, they weren’t finalised until a meeting in the autumn of 1984. Many of the early licensing agreements were with Ripolin Duco, but already the members were seeing the potential in sharing technology and ideas more widely. In 1985, the conflicting positions of Michel Brasse and the other Nova companies came to a head. Michel resigned and the remaining members agreed to restructure the group on more democratic grounds – limiting the power of the President and restricting him or her to a two-year term of office.

The first President under the new agreement was Wally Steele, from Pratt & Lambert in the USA. Peter Lovell was appointed Secretary, to assist with the administration of the Club. All agreed that the new, more flexible arrangement offered wider scope for success. There was a new approach, but the same commitment to hospitality. In 1986, the Nova Paint Club met in England, hosted a dinner at Harewood House – home to the Queen’s cousin – and concluded proceedings with a spectacular fireworks display. As JP Lortie, Chairman of Sico, said to Wally Steele: “Wally, you’ve got a lot to live up to!”

1987 was a breakthrough year for Nova; the the first non-founder company was considered for membership. Peter Lovell and João Serrenho, then director of CIN in Portugal, paid a visit to Tambour in Israel and were delighted to invite them to join later in the year. The annual meeting in 1987 was held in the USA, taking in Texas, Kansas and New York State. The group’s horizons were widening.

The same year brought a big change in the group as Peter Lovell left Kalon and therefore his position at Nova. João Serrenho stepped in as Secretary, but for a brief time in 1987, the Club was left without its two founding fathers. João was keen to keep Peter involved; he knew that his knowledge and experience could prove useful as the group continued to grow. So Peter was a guest speaker at the meetings in 1988 in Portugal and the following year in Taiwan, presenting alongside his old friend Michel Brasse. Although Michel wasn’t formally involved with the Club after this time, for Peter, the group he had helped to found became a major focus in his life. In 1992, Kalon resigned from the group, leaving the way open for Peter to return as Secretary General of Nova in 1993 – a new position reflecting the ambition of a more dynamic organisation. His brief was to organise and manage meetings, develop the group, control the finances and, importantly, to seek out and recruit new members. Peter remained as Secretary General of the Nova Paint Club until his retirement in 2014.

Arguably, 1993 was a turning point in the professionalisation of Nova. From a germ of an idea in the early 1980s, it had grown to become an internationally recognised and admired organisation – representing the very best of independent coatings companies across the world.

People move on, companies evolve and the market in which we operate is more dynamic and challenging than ever before. But through this, Nova has been smart and agile enough to stay relevant and remain in a place where innovation and inspiration can prosper. In one important way, we stay true to our founding principles – we’re an organisation of friends. The passion of people brought the Nova Paint Club into being, and the same passion and respect is what keeps it thriving now, nearly thirty-five years later.

Welcome to the Club.


On a wing and a prayer

Nova has always been a global organisation. The founding principle of the group was to bring together independent coatings companies from across the world to share ideas. Inevitably, making a success of this involved travelling to meet with members, to see how things were done in different markets. In the early days of Nova, technological limitations meant that this sharing could only work face-to-face. So flying became a fundamental part of Nova membership. And, more than once, it could have signalled the end of the organisation, were fate to have taken a different course.

The first official Nova meeting was hosted in 1984 in India by Jenson and Nicholson. It was arranged that most of the group would travel via London to the first destination in Delhi. The Club has always been about more than just business, and partners of the delegates have always been welcome on Nova trips. Unfortunately, the delegates and spouses from the US and Canada had failed to organise appropriate visas in time. Upon arrival in India, it seemed inevitable that some of our key people would be forced to turn around and return home, scuppering the first attempt to prove that the Nova concept could work. Until that is, Michel Brasse produced from his luggage a number of bottles of particularly excellent French wine. A diplomatic incident with immigration at Delhi airport was avoided and the trip went ahead as planned.

On a visit to the US in 1987, things nearly ended in a much less convivial way. The group was initially based in Dallas, and was due to take a short flight to Pratt & Lambert’s industrial centre in Wichita. What began as a smooth trip soon turned turbulent and the pilot advised passengers he was redirecting the plane to another airfield. Storms worsened and so the pilot was forced to abandon plan ‘b’ and try again at Wichita. “No problem, we have thirty minutes of fuel left”, was his reassurance to the anxious passengers. Twenty-five minutes later and the plane still hadn’t been cleared to land. Finally, with lightening flashing and the whole plane shaking in the storm, they touched down. Even the traditional golf event was cancelled that year, which surely proves quite how traumatic the conditions truly were.

The most serious incident of all came in 1991 when, with the meeting in India completed and the group heading to London, a routine check of the plane at Delhi airport uncovered a bomb in the galley of the cabin. Many Nova executives were among the passengers on that plane. Once again, good fortune intervened and since then our travel around the globe in the name of Nova has passed without major incident. Long may it continue that way.

What’s in a name?

Nova – a simple name, effective in many languages, easy to remember. And yet in the early days, what the group was to be called was a matter of great contention. Michel Brasse was determined that it be known as ‘Ripolin Duco Associates’. Of course, Ripolin Duco was the driving force behind the group, and Michel had just been elected its President, but this hardly captured the spirit of global partnership that it was hoped would define Nova. Up stepped Bill Nickell, a friend of Peter Lovell’s, and the man who handled communications for Hadfields. Bill was a casual observer at the first meeting in Cannes, until the furore over the name erupted. “Nova.” said Bill, “Why not the Nova Paint Club? There are nine companies, it’s an entirely new endeavour, fired with enthusiasm and novelty. Let’s call it Nova.”

Michel was unconvinced. The other eight delegates were delighted. For once, Michel was overruled and so the Nova Paint Club was born. Ripolin is now owned by PPG, one of the largest coatings company in the world, so it’s safe to say that Bill’s suggestion was certainly the right one as far as longevity went. Nova’s logo has changed since the original green text, also designed by Bill, but his influence lives on through the name. Bill continued to provide marketing and communications support to Nova for many years after that spark of inspiration in Cannes. Now 92, he’s another of the special group of people who helped to make us the organisation we are today.