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Finding new ways to be vital

How vital are you to your customers? If the answer is ‘not very’ or ‘less than before’, then you could be in trouble. That is why, as Air Business’s Adam Sherman tells James Evelegh, it’s important to keep asking the question.

By James Evelegh

Finding new ways to be vital
Tony Farrow: “Our aim is to take away the hassle for event organisers and exhibitors so that they can focus 100% of their attention on the show.”

What are the challenges publishers face today? I asked Adam Sherman, CEO of Air Business, a leading supplier of distribution and subscription management services to the publishing sector.

“Those publishers that had been heavily reliant on print sales are having to find new ways to be vital to their customers. There’s no getting away from the fact that print is in decline, a situation exacerbated by rising production costs and reduced discretionary spend,” he said; “Publishers are having to engage with customers in alternative, meaningful and monetisable ways.”

Adam Sherman: “It’s a question of good communications.”

And, it’s not just publishers that need to do that, he added, but suppliers like Air Business too.

I met with Adam in early March for a catch-up. It’s a challenging market, he acknowledged, with declines in print distribution and post-lockdown drop-offs in subscription numbers.

Air Business’s core market is, and will remain, publishing, but the company needs to increase the number of ways they can be useful to publishers, he said.

So, to address these declines and to carve out growth opportunities, Adam and his senior team have devised a six point strategy:

  1. Set up an event logistics division.
  2. Extend the reach of their subscription management services beyond their traditional B2C and B2B markets.
  3. Provide a ‘Destination Ireland’ hub for e-tailers serving customers in the Republic of Ireland (Air Business is owned by An Post, the Irish post office).
  4. Expand its global eCommerce offering.
  5. Make further acquisitions; after the lull in M&A activity caused by covid, Air Business is now back in the market for strategic acquisitions.
  6. Embed a transformation and technology-first mindset into its company culture.

“Even though every company talks about the need for transformation,” says Adam, “at many organisations, it’s often part of a number of different people’s jobs so tends not to get the attention it needs. Since 2021, we’ve had a full time dedicated strategy & transformation director, Lenka Booker, whose job it is to make sure that Air Business has the right shape, the right tech and right infrastructure, to deliver growth. Andy Haylar has joined Air Business as group IT director to support this ambition from a technology perspective. We see these roles as being fundamental to the future health of the company, supported by the rest of the already excellent senior team.”

What is the revenue potential of these new initiatives? I ask.

According to Adam, each has the potential to be a substantial business in its own right, to eventually form up to a quarter of Air Business’s total turnover.

During our chat, he was particularly keen to talk about two of the initiatives – their new event logistics division and the expansion of their eCommerce services.

Shipment stuck in customs? Aaaaaaaaagh!!!

As any event organiser or exhibitor will tell you, event materials not being where they need to be is hugely frustrating. Sorting out freight problems is time-consuming and stressful and, if not resolved, can lead to non-delivery of stand materials (or whole stands) which will have a material impact on the success of the show.

As Adam sees it, event organisers’ need for a safe-pair-of-hands event logistics partner is the big opportunity. Globally, events is a £2bn market with good long term prospects; one thing the covid lockdown experience demonstrated was the enduring need for in-person events.

There is a gap in the market, Adam thinks, between the very large freight companies that often struggle to provide the personal service needed and the small operators who lack the resources to provide a comprehensive service.

“We believe that with our passion and constant drive to deliver world class customer service, paired with our established global network and expertise, we are perfectly positioned to close that gap,” says Adam.

Event organisers need to be confident that the ‘official logistics partner’ they appoint will provide a best-in-class freight service for their exhibitors.

Being available to take and deal with distress calls (“my shipment is stuck in customs, can you sort it?”) and having on-site presence at the events, all the while keeping the customer informed, will be central to Air Business’s events offering.

“It’s a question of good communications,” says Adam; “when a problem arises, one thing everyone wants is to be kept informed, to know what is happening and to know that you are doing everything humanly possible to resolve it.”

This year, Air Business’s focus is on building up their infrastructure and capability. In February, they appointed Tony Farrow, who has a wealth of events experience, as head of event logistics. He said at the time: “Our aim is to take away the hassle for event organisers and exhibitors so that they can focus 100% of their attention on the show. We understand that happy exhibitors are crucial to successful events and this remains the primary focus for our team.”

Air Business is already providing freight services for three shows (including the recent kbb Birmingham event at the NEC, which describes itself as Europe’s largest dedicated kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms exhibition) with five more in the pipeline later this year.

Adam’s goal is to be the official logistics partner for fifty events a year in five years’ time.

(L-R): Lenka Booker, strategy & transformation director; Andy Haylar, group IT director; Tony Farrow, head of event logistics.


Another growth area for publishers – and their suppliers too – is eCommerce.

Publishers are successfully selling a range of items, including bookazines, gifts and merchandise. The range of eCommerce services publishers need, and which Air Business already provides, include ordering, customer service, storage, stock control, pick, pack and despatch.

The new string to their bow and which Adam expects to be the major growth driver of their eCommerce offering is their new shipping platform, Consero.

The challenge many publishers face is exercising proper management control over their eCommerce operations. This is especially the case with larger publishers with multiple brands, each with their own separate eCommerce arrangements.

Publishers can use Consero as a “control tower” to give them visibility and greater control over all their disparate eCommerce offerings.

According to Adam, the beauty of the Consero system that they’ve developed is its flexibility – it is not in any way proscriptive. The system can be easily plugged into publishers’ existing ecommerce arrangements, so there’s no need to change existing suppliers – but by using Consero, publishers can get a handle on all eCommerce activity across their brands and divisions.

For publishers that are looking for a full eCommerce management system, which will handle everything from order taking, warehouse management, optimal routing through to despatch, then Consero can offer that too. Publishers can use as much of the Consero platform as they need.

Royal Mail fraud

During our conversation, the recent Royal Mail fraud trial came up. In February, three directors of mailing company Packpost International were found guilty of defrauding Royal Mail out of over £70m.

As the trial judge explained: “The Royal Mail operated a self-declaration system for large customers. These three defendants took advantage of this weakness to persistently under-declare mail for almost a decade.”

During the trial, the prosecutor said: “it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that because the loss to Royal Mail was in excess of £70m, there must be a sum this large stashed away somewhere. Some of the gain obtained by defrauding Royal Mail and other postal operators was passed on to customers with lower prices.”

What did Adam make of all that?

“Sadly, fraud is not new in the mailing industry and it’s a huge frustration for those suppliers who run their businesses honestly. In 2005, it was another mailing company dumping hundreds of thousands of items in skips who were defrauding publishers, and, importantly, their subscribers, by not delivering the mail they’d been paid to deliver.”

“In this case the mail was being delivered, but Royal Mail was not being correctly compensated due to false declarations. As the prosecutor implied, it was not only Royal Mail that suffered, but also honest mailing operators like Air Business, who were unable to compete with these fraudulent and underpriced rates. It was clear something unscrupulous was going on.”

“The nature of the fraud put rates into the market that were literally ‘too good to be true’ and yet as the court case showed, Packpost did a lot of business. On occasion, over the period of a decade, we sought to highlight this anomaly, but as you might imagine it was just perceived as ‘sour grapes’.”

What are the lessons for the industry?, I ask.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to root out fraud because it weakens the whole publishing ecosystem. Ultimately, if a price seems too good to be true, that’s because it probably is! Mail fraud comes in many shapes and sizes, and we all need to be diligent.”

Embracing change

Is Adam upbeat about the future? Absolutely.

The focus on transformation and their new six-point plan has had, he says, an amplifying effect on the company’s ambition. There is continuing enthusiasm for serving the publishing market as it evolves and excitement about the growth opportunities identified.

Growth in event logistics and eCommerce is eminently deliverable because they are natural extensions of the services Air Business already provides and many of the likely customers of these new services are publishers with whom they already have a strong relationship with.

Adam is in the middle of a series of internal town hall meetings to explain the growth plan to staff and when we spoke in March, he had just got back from delivering one to the subscriptions division in Haywards Heath.

Over the last few years, Adam says he’s been inspired by the excellent creative and innovative work from publishers who have successfully pivoted their businesses. Those who had embraced change and found new ways to sweat their brands were flourishing.

Doing likewise is the future Adam envisages for Air Business – it’s all about staying vital.

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