Me And My Partner: John Pfeil And Jim Brown
Wednesday 12 May 1999
which has an annual turnover of pounds 306m and more than 5,000 employees
JIM BROWN: John was financial controller at Reed Elsevier and we met at a conference. We came together by happenstance over lunch and chatted, and John impressed me as a particularly bright young chap with a very flexible mind. He also had an experience one doesn't always see in an accountant and a knowledge of world accounting.
Shortly afterwards, we lost the financial director of the newspaper side, so that gave me the opportunity to attract John. It was only a few weeks later that we found out Reed was prepared to sell the business and we got into a management buyout situation. John's knowledge of finance was worth its weight in gold, and we jointly said to Reed that we would try and buy.
John strikes you as totally focused and extremely bright. Underneath all that he's essentially nice. It was important that I could feel he could work with the rest of the team, because the business is very much a team job and he had to be a team player. I felt he would not only bring his skill, but also that he would be one of us.
John and I must have done hundreds of presentations during the buyout; there was a lot of reliance on each other and we built up a great deal of trust. From that, we had the confidence to go and buy out what was then Westminster Press (from Pearson) and to double the size of the company. That was a brilliant acquisition, and we were able to turn it round.
Since then, we've been doing all sorts of things in new media - we got the first regional newspaper on the Internet - and I think we've taken a UK leadership there.
John's office is two steps away from mine and we cross the corridor all day, talking through things. We have a similar approach to a complex business, running 180 titles, each one with a different set of problems.
Where there are any differences in our views, they're usually so narrow that by the time we've knocked it about, we find common ground. We're visiting centres two days a week so we pretty well get to the grassroots, and we have a chance to talk through any problems then.
At the weekend, John goes off and I go off and he spends time with his family and I spend time with mine: socially we don't see one another at all.
But at work, we have to have a close relationship - if we didn't get on then we would spend too much time knocking sparks around.
JOHN PFEIL: Jim and I had rubbed shoulders when I was at Reed Elsevier. I'd spent my life in an environment of finance, accountants and tax. Jim came from a different background, having ink in his veins, and that was very refreshing.
Six weeks after I started with Jim, the company was put up for sale. The management buyout was something four or five of us had discussed in the abstract but I was something of a Johnnie-Come-Lately. I was out of my depth in the sense that it was a new area - but a lot of it falls back to the finance person and I was able to contribute because of the experience I had had.
With the buyout, we were put under pressure and everything happened in a short period of time. There was a lot of stress, and you see how people react. What might have taken a year to cement took just weeks.
It puts a huge responsibility on you - you have not only yourself and your personal finances to consider, but there are also business responsibilities as well. The alternative to the buyout would probably have been that the company would be broken up and sold off to different bidders.
Jim did remarkably well, particularly for someone who was due to retire that year at 60. It's one thing to work in lots of different roles in the business, but another thing to lead a management buyout double the size of the business and then float it within a couple of years. The fact that we did that without too many things falling apart on the way is a tribute to the way Jim works.
He's used to very tight deadlines and to turning things round quickly. We're both impatient and always want to be getting on with things, not standing still. I think that's helped us to grab opportunities.
The Internet is moving incredibly rapidly and we've been more rapid than most because we've got very short lines of communication and decision- making. We don't go into big committees, we go out to the business and we spend a lot of time out there. That's what it's about, not sitting back here and telling people to do things.
The whole market is changing significantly and it's an interesting time to be in thisindustry. Its image has changed: in the last year it's been seen by the City as an attractive industry, rather than a sunset one, and we've played a part in that. All the companies are achieving particularly good results, and people can see that the brands and franchises we've got are terrific assets.
Jim and I have the same style: during one presentation, when Jim got caught up in traffic, I started to do his bit and I was desperate to get him to do my bit, but he got there just in time. We've got to the stage where we both know each other's lines; because we work so closely we are likely to say things in a similar way.
Finance is where my strength lies; Jim will come at it from his experience level and gut feeling and I will come at it from, "Does it make sense financially? What are the implications?" We complement each other well.
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