Timing matters

There is never a good time for a pandemic to strike. For Western Business Media, it came three months after an MBO, and it could so easily have been a hammer blow. But, reports James Evelegh, they appear to have had rather a good year…

By James Evelegh

Timing matters
Raising a glass in December 2019 (L-R): Nineteen Group - Jonathan Lacey, CFO; Peter Jones, CEO; Alison Jackson, Group MD; Western Business Media - Danny Kosifou, COO; Mark Sennett, CEO; Keith Gabriel, MD; Tim Else, Nineteen Group.

In business, as with so much else in life, timing can be everything.

In December 2019, Mark Sennett, along with business partners Danny Kosifou and Keith Gabriel, successfully completed a management buyout of the magazines division of Western Business Exhibitions from Nineteen Group to form a new business, Western Business Media.

Within four months the pandemic had struck…

Despite what appears to be absolutely terrible timing, 2020 proved to be a “phenomenal” year for the business, says Mark, CEO of the new company; so good in fact that he’s yet to have an argument with either Danny or Keith.

Western Business Media (WBM), a B2B publisher based in East Grinstead, publishes a number of brands with the word ‘matters’ in the name, including Fire Safety Matters, Facilities Matters, Security Matters and Cleaning Matters.

So, as a new business owner, with a successful albeit pandemic affected first year under his belt, what is Mark’s business philosophy?

I think if you can come through this, modernise and turn a profit… you can probably come through anything.

Listening to him being interviewed by Ciar Byrne on one of our recent podcasts, I would characterise Mark’s approach as follows:

  • Create a sense of shared ownership: by being transparent with finances and profit and loss figures, you build trust. “We made our staff a promise about transparency; we tell them what the costs of the business are – everyone knows the P&L of their own products.”
  • Maintain high standards: a particular hobby horse of Mark’s is circulation auditing: “We’re passionate about ABC auditing and believe all publishers should do it so they can be independently verified and can prove their circulation.” Publishers that don’t, he says, “are not necessarily being truthful”.
  • Invest in the business: whilst some owners have their mind set on the big pay day and retiring to somewhere nice in the south of France, you mustn’t stop investing in the business.
  • Strict cost control: you need to know all your costs, right down to how much you spend on pencils. Are there areas of expenditure that you can cut without damaging your product?
  • Don’t do stuff just for the sake of doing it: Do you have a Facebook page that no one visits or a podcast than no one listens to? You have to be ruthless and cut out “frivolous” activities.
  • Focus on quality content: this might seem obvious, but, in the past, some B2B magazines were little more than product catalogues. Mark is introducing a more features-led approach for his titles.
  • Make your company a fun place to work in, where people feel valued: at WBM last year, working hours were reduced, a games room added (sadly not much used since March), an extended Christmas break introduced, a Christmas bonus given and a staff away day to Spain planned (currently on hold).
  • Plan for the future: For WBM, 51% of their revenues still come from print advertising. That’s worth holding onto, but not at the expense of developing new sources of income through webinars, podcasting, digital conferences et al.
  • Know your numbers: know your market, know your numbers inside out and set achievable budgets and targets.

So, as we start to emerge from the pandemic, is he optimistic?

“I see a lot of positives. This has been the most difficult year I’m ever going to have to face as a business owner… I think if you can come through this, modernise and turn a profit… you can probably come through anything and that fills me with optimism.”

Mark began the interview with the shock revelation that B2B was not what he aspired to on day 1 of his journalism course: “I don’t think anyone that gets into journalism or publishing, when starting out at university, says, ‘gosh, I want to be in B2B media.”

What does he think now?

“I passionately believe in the core principles of journalism… quality content is what excites me. Ultimately, you want to produce content that helps and informs people – that’s what B2B journalism is. You’re writing content that can make a material difference to people’s careers, lives and workplaces.”

And, that is exciting.

One year on from the MBO, Mark Sennett says he’s in it for the long run: “We want a job until we retire… we’ve bought the business and put everything into it because we believe in it… we’re not buying it to flip it, we’re buying it to grow it.”

Given that at 36, Mark is a long way from retirement, that bodes well for the employees of Western Business Media.

Ultimately, you want to produce content that helps and informs people – that’s what B2B journalism is.

You can hear Mark Sennett being interviewed by Ciar Byrne on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by AdvantageCS, a leading global provider of subscription and membership management software.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.