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Jim Muttram - interview

RBI’s data services division has grown exponentially in the past six years, and now accounts for almost half the company’s total revenues. Meg Carter talks to MD Jim Muttram about the past, present and future of data services.

By Meg Carter

The availability of huge amounts of data and organisations' increasing ability to use it, is transforming many sectors within the business world and society beyond - from marketing to finance, from medicine to sport. So it comes as no surprise that, despite ongoing wider economic uncertainty, Reed Business Information, an early pioneer in data publishing, is currently enjoying what managing director Jim Muttram coyly describes as "double digit" revenue growth - a happy position the company has enjoyed for a number of years.

"Recession has certainly made it tougher in some cases in so far as it creates a risk in certain sectors of some of your customers going out of business. But our core data services have fared well throughout as they provide value to our customers," he says. "Which is why overall, our market is stable."

Up to a point. Because, in fact, the overall market for data and data services is growing, fast. And RBI is working hard to ensure it stays best-positioned to capitalise on this. With 1,500 employees worldwide, the company is growing rapidly through acquisition and it is fast developing markets for its services in rapidly-growing economies such as China, India, South America and Russia.

Estates Gazette Interactive

The first step to understanding how RBI reached this point is to re-visit the mid-nineties when RBI, a division of Reed Elsevier - the publisher and information provider set up in 1992 following the merger of UK trade publisher Reed International and Dutch science publisher Elsevier - launched Estates Gazette Interactive, an online property resource for property professionals spun out of the eponymous weekly business title's print edition which was launched in 1858.

"Though the internet was very young, we looked at the news in our magazines and saw the value to readers if we published that instantly," explains Muttram, an RBI stalwart since 1984 who oversaw EGI's launch. Then as soon as it had done so, RBI saw how certain types of content - in particular, the data behind the news - was of even greater value. "So we put more of this data out there and as soon as we did this, customers asked questions about that data so then we got into data analytics," he continues. "News to data to analytics - it's the path a number of businesses followed from the mid-nineties onwards."

After using the same approach to extend a number of its other print brands into digital and online data distribution, RBI's next step was to package data according to its understanding of what different types of customer did with it and add additional functions to make it even more useful to those customers' businesses. In this way, RBI began to integrate its services into its customers' workflows with the ultimate goal of eventually becoming totally embedded.

During this same period, a second type of data service provider emerged from within the particular industry - banking or aviation, for example - which it set out to serve. These businesses were specialist and niche and, after RBI had successfully grown its own data business organically over ten or twelve years, a focus on acquisition has fuelled the company's subsequent growth.

The acquisition road

For example in 2011, RBI secured majority ownership of Chinese petrochemical and energy information service CBI China - a move that strengthened its already-established chemical price data service ICIS' global position. It bought Ascend, an online fleet data and valuations service for the aviation industry, so enhancing and expanding its existing aerospace data and content service, Flightglobal. And it acquired Accuity, a US provider of online data solutions to the financial services sector which enables customers to maximise the accuracy of banking and payment transactions, integrating it into its existing Bankers' Almanac service to create BankersAccuity.

So today, at the heart of RBI's business sit data services ICIS, BankersAccuity and XpertHR; online portals such as aviation news and information website Flightglobal; and a streamlined portfolio of print magazines including Estates Gazette, Farmers Weekly and New Scientist.

It's worth noting that, like many, the company has divested itself in recent years of a number of non-core print titles including Variety magazine which it sold to the US' Penske Media Corporation for $25m just last autumn. Which is why data services now account for around 44% of RBI's annual revenue making up the lion's share of what the company calls 'paid content' which accounts for 75% of revenues. This is up from 14% and 45% respectively as recently as 2007.

Go online or divest

Print may be in RBI's blood, but the role it still plays in certain business sectors isn't dictated by nostalgia but customer demand, says Muttram, a former print journalist and one-time editor of Independent Retail News and SuperMarketing.

"In (magazine) publishing we always had farmers, estates, chemicals and bankers titles and in publishing terms these brands are big within the organisation," he explains. "But what we've said is that if we can make our (print) brands digital and online and paid for, then these brands will be invested in and if we can't then we will divest. Which is why you see today our consolidation around big brands in big markets."

For the time being, the main growth driver for RBI isn't breaking new business sectors - either in data or print - but further developing those in which it is already actively providing data and data services, Muttram adds.

"The main growth driver for data is markets that are global and complex and dynamic - for example, petrochemicals where prices are extremely volatile. This creates a clear need for the services we can provide. Even if petrochemical prices fall, our customers still need to know and access data services. It's the same in banking, which is why BankersAccuity hasn't missed a beat throughout the recession," he explains.

"Data becomes more important as markets grow more competitive and global which means those within them are exposed to new competitors potentially with better data and better systems, so the opportunities for us in big markets in terms of new product development are enormous."

The extent and range of services RBI provides varies by business sector. In some markets, it is close to realising its goal of having its data services embedded within its customers' daily workflows - in other words, as a permanent fixture on a customers' employee's desktop. In others, it is still working towards this. In every market, however, competition between data service providers is growing so fiercely that no one can afford to sit back and rest on their laurels.

Technology - or, at least - the rapid rate of technological change, is one reason why. The day to day logistical challenges of managing a global business across time zones is another. For example, considerable time is now spent by the data services business negotiating the various regulatory regimes of different territories as closer interest is paid in the data that informs stock market trading, Muttram reveals.

Then there's how your own business must constantly evolve as the market you are servicing matures, he points out: "As you move towards being embedded, getting closer to your customers and their business, you find there is greater need for professional services - consultants to define customers' needs and help them get the best out of their data, or training, which is another growing part of our mix."

One of the greatest challenges of all, however, is attracting and retaining the best staff. "It's still quite hard to find the right people with the right expertise in a particular area to take the business forward as so often you find yourself fishing in a narrow skills pool," Muttram admits. "Clearly you can always train your own, but that takes time."

The Big Data challenge

Despite being adept in handling significant quantities of data across a number of major, global business sectors, RBI identifies 'big data' as the next big challenge. The company expects a particular increase in the volume of data coming from certain industries in the very near future - power, for example, as smart metres take off - and challenges will lie in building new models capable of dealing with that.

At a time when a growing number of more traditionally-focused publishers - both business to business and business to consumer - are examining if and how to capitalise on the revolution in data availability and end user demand, Muttram has some essential, if back to basics, advice.

"More publishers will move into data - especially those in markets where data is already important to their customers. Yet often, people in magazine publishing don't recognise the elements of their content their readers value most highly," he believes.

"Looking back to the early days of Estates Gazette Interactive, the key was - and still is - to talk to your customers and figure out what problems they can solve using the data you have in your magazines." The next step? To understand the data your customers want that you don't have and consider ways you can provide it - either through partnership or even acquisition.

The message seems clear. Only by getting the basics right can any publishing company build the necessary groundwork for a commercially viable data business, whatever its scale.