Centaur's ancient history is no bar to quiet revolution
Publishing group's boss hopes to beat the recession with a restructure
Nick Clark is the arts correspondent of The Independent. He joined the newspaper in June 2007, initially reporting on the stock markets. He has covered beats including the City, and technology, media and telecoms and made the switch to arts in December 2011. He has also contributed articles to the sports section.
Thursday 06 October 2011
Centaur Media is in the middle of "a quiet revolution" according to the analysts at Edison, and the man driving it is Geoff Wilmot, a 13-year veteran of the group.
The business-to-business publisher, whose titles include Marketing Week and The Lawyer, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Mr Wilmot says: "We used to describe ourselves as a federation of small businesses. Somebody once said: 'It's more like an archipelago of businesses with a lot of water in between'." But that is beginning to change, he adds.
The company was set up by Graham Sherren in 1981 after having worked in publishing as "man and boy", according to Mr Wilmot. The founder's fascination with mythology gave the company its name, after the half-horse, half-human creatures of Greek legend and even stretched to a subsidiary named after the wisest of the centaurs, Chiron.
The company was launched off the back of an opportunity Mr Sherren spotted in the advertising market. Mr Wilmot says: "There was a view that the purchasing power was moving from the advertising agency to the client direct, but there wasn't a magazine for the marketing director. So Marketing Week was born and very quickly become successful, the number one in its market."
Centaur, which is today based just off London's Oxford Street and has a site in the Midlands, followed a similar strategy for the next two decades. It searched out opportunities from shifts in a market, or looked for sectors that were not adequately covered by the existing business-to-business media titles. "It's a very entrepreneurial business," Mr Wilmot adds.
The print titles are essentially controlled circulation. "We're publishing the titles on behalf of the advertisers but maintaining editorial integrity," the company's chief explains. "Our revenues came from displayadvertising, classified adverts and recruitment." Its strengths are in marketing, engineering and the law.
By the turn of the century, Centaur had more than £50m of revenues coming in and had diversified theoperation, often into experimental sectors, including a stint owning language group Linguaphone.
But the shift towards digital changed the whole market, Mr Wilmot says. The print magazines had to shift from breaking newsstories, which would go online, to news analysis and case studies. Mr Wilmot says: "We started to expand off our strong brands into digital and events." It also launched its first digital-only publication Marketing, Advertising, Design (MAD) for the creative community in 1999.
The chief executive adds: "We had a different view from others – we saw that the web served a different function and should be seen as complementary; that it shouldexpand print's value rather than cannibalise it."
The land grab of the 1980s and 1990s slowed as Centaur looked to consolidate and prepare for the digital age. "Over the course of the past 10 years it has not been about getting into new markets but expanding the markets we are already in," Mr Wilmot explains. "The scale of the opportunity was big,because online gave us access to a much bigger market."
Mr Wilmot joined the company from the Thomson Corporation in 1998 as financial director. He had worked in a range of senior commercial and financial roles for companies including Scruttons, Dexion and Morgan Crucible. He replaced Mr Sherren as chief executive at the end of 2006, by which time the company had also gone public.
The company has repeatedly hit the headlines in the past year. The founder left the company completely, while Centaur was forced to fight off an opportunistic takeover approach from Critical Information Group. The biggest change came in July with the announcement of a company-wide restructuring. This followed a torrid time for the sector during the recession, a period during which Centaur's share price fell by an eye-watering 89 per cent.
Mr Wilmot believes the old structure of a series of small businesses "supported a strong entrepreneurial culture, but the downside of that was large parts of the company were not talking to each other, and not using each other's strengths".
The overhaul included selling off smaller operations, with Centaurrestructuring around businesspublishing, business information and exhibitions. Mr Wilmot says: "There are economies of scale and we areinvesting in people, in events management and marketing."
The company also brought in three new heads to run the different business lines. Paul Richards, a media analyst at Numis, says thecalibre of the hires bodes well for the future of a company that was following in the footsteps of successful rivals Euromoney and Informa. "This restructuring is a good thing," Mr Richards says. "Centaur is a strong UK player."
It also plans to invest in expanding its information and exhibition arms. Last month, pre-tax profits beatexpectations at £6.5m, and indicated the new year had started well. Numis expects that to hit £10m by 2013. The broker believes that operational changes will grow revenues and drive margins to 20 per cent within 18 months.
The restructuring has seen New Media Age and Design Week goonline-only this year and more could follow. Still, Mr Wilmot says: "Unlike a lot of our peers we haven't fallen out of love with print. We still see it generating decent levels of growth – it provides an anchor point for everything else we do."
Geoff Wilmot's CV
* Married with two children
* Studied French and German at Durham University
* ACA qualification at Binder Hamlyn
1982 to 1990 Morgan Crucible
1990 to 1995 Dexion Group
1995 to 1997 Scruttons
1997 to 1998 Thomson Corporation
Interests Spending time with his family. Skiing and playing squash and tennis.
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