Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Haymarket Media Group FD on redefining publishing

Brian Freeman’s career is notable not only because he has spent nearly all his working life at the heart of publishing group Haymarket. It is also fascinating because its founder is one of Britain’s most colourful politicians, Lord (Michael) Heseltine.

But although he started out in finance- in the consumer division of the group- Freeman has been able to take up a succession of commercial positions as the business evolved into new segments and geographies, before becoming group finance director in 2015. “I have been able to reinvent my role a number of different times across the business,” he says at the group’s offices in Twickenham, a suburb to the west of London.

Freeman’s career development happened over a period when the publishing industry experienced dramatic changes reflecting the impact of digitisation, rising costs and new business models. He joined Haymarket after attending grammar school in nearby Kingston and studying mathematics at Exeter University and then nearly three years at the forerunner of KPMG,  Thomson McLintock after finding audit “a bit dry and not exciting enough.”

At Haymarket’s offices, Freeman started work in 1989 in a sector that was thriving thanks to innovations in desk-top publishing that offered the chance to launch new products advertisers were keen to support. “Now we have to work so much harder to get the same level of revenue by diversifying revenue streams,” says Freeman.

Haymarket was launched in the 1950s under the name Cornmarket Press by Heseltine and Clive Labovitch who he had met at Oxford University. They started out with Directory of Opportunities for Graduates in 1957 and two years later launched the influential, if unprofitable consumer magazine Man About Town. They split in 1965 with Heseltine calling his half of the business Haymarket Press, which was renamed Haymarket Media Group in 2007.

The decision to move into the commercial world meant Freeman having to study in his own time to complete exams for the CIMA accountancy qualification. “If I have one regret it is that it would have probably have been easier if I had stayed on another year or so at KPMG as big firms are very generous in the way they provide exam study for their block release,” he reveals.

Armed with a management accounting qualification in a dynamic sector featuring an eclectic set of colleagues from salespeople to journalists, he says he found publishing “interesting and exciting. You’re talking about an industry that can change very quickly,” he adds.

Although Heseltine was the largest shareholder his day-to-day presence was limited given his political commitments, especially after 1992 when he became deputy prime minister under John Major following a surprise Conservative electoral victory. That would change five years later when Heseltine left the commons when New Labour swept into power and he became a key presence at Haymarket.

The Haymarket of 30 years ago was split 50-50 between consumer and business publishing, it’s a bigger business now with international reach but B2B titles such as Campaign and Management Today and consumer publications What Car? and AutoCar continuing. But the group has largely divested out of consumer with titles such as What Hi-Fi? and Practical Caravan being sold to rival Future a year ago as well.

Driving growth

In 1994 Freeman became a director of Haymarket consumer business around when it was ambitiously launching new titles, as new genres opened up and newsagents were willing to stock new titles that required limited marketing to take to market. He was supportive of the launching of football mag FourFourTwo, as a keen football fan (he supports Chelsea) although he says “you have to look at these things dispassionately”. He says: “We found a niche in that market that worked really well.”

Whether it was launching new titles or alternative strategies, such as acquiring consumer guide Stuff from Dennis Publishing and giving it a rebrand away from the lads mag culture that had mushroomed in the 1990s, the approach revolved around specialist sectors. “Looking for something mass market did look like more of a punt,” he says.

“Our model was very much trying to find brands where we could leverage high advertising page yields against a specialist audience, and building a family of brands around a core,” says Freeman. “This is where the role of the management accountant in the business really came to the fore, helping business leaders then called publishers and now brand directors, by embedding them as part of the decision-making process. We now refer to those roles as business partners,” he says.

This idea of village publishing- developing a cluster of products to protect a main brand- became the dominant strategy as new titles were launched in areas such as motoring where racing and classic motoring titles were added. In-depth sector expertise was harnessed to launch in 1996 content marketing business Haymarket Customer Publishing, now called Wonderly, for clients. On the back of FourFourTwo, programmes for Liverpool and Manchester United followed, ultimately led to mandate for delivering the programmes for London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

Another big leap forward was the decision to take the model overseas, that chimed with Heseltine’s return to the business. “Michael very much had the vision for global expansion, and I think his son Rupert (now executive chairman) was very much more a push towards digital expansion, the two helped position and guide the business to where we’ve got to now.”

The so-called ‘geo-cloning’ approach began in Hong Kong and New York, now the largest division, and was rolled out to other locations, with Freeman becoming the finance lead responsible for setting up the international business- which accounts for the majority of the group’s turnover.

As well as exporting titles such as PR Week to the US and developing in areas such as the medical/pharma market there, the opportunities afforded by the arrival of the digital revolution helped fuel the geographical expansion. Haymarket has since opened up in several markets  including India and Germany.

“It became clear to me from the outset that you couldn’t run the business as if someone is sat in the UK and knew everything about one particular market. Whatever territory it was in, we had to treat them all as individual markets,” he stresses.

“I was looking for finance directors who were going to manage not just the business partnering, but also the financial accounting and processing, because we had to collect cash, pay the staff, suppliers. My audit experience coupled with my managing accounting qualification and experience in industry meant I was best placed to find the right people for those jobs,” says Freeman.

The regional format involves centralised financial accounting teams, combined with business partners, reporting to Freeman- a structure that didn’t change after he was made the group’s chief operating officer in 2000. But in the following year an exit of some businesses such as a Malaysian joint venture and a Chinese business converting to a licencing agreement, was undertaken in response to a slowdown that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But what became apparent further into the 2000s was that a reappraisal was required as publishing margins were hammered by the impact of digital and rising costs of paper and print. The flipside has been a variety of tools for measuring such as google analytics for measuring lead and lag indicators to establish whether brands are being successful or not.

Measuring success

Freeman says that that the transformation of Haymarket into a media group away from a traditional publisher has involved a joined-up approach to strategy. “Each brand has a small number of clearly defined KPIs they’re operating to, which the finance team will collate and support and help define in order for the business to make the right business decisions,” he says.

“This helps determine how to build out brands. For example, with What Car?, we’ve developed a new car buying platform to help consumers and dealers connect, to transact and buy cars- so there’s a whole new set of metrics there. We’re interested in how many dealers we’ve got interacting with our site, and how many people are coming to look for a new model,” Freeman informs.

Finance business partners work closely with business leaders developing brand development plans, so each brand has a defined strategy within an overarching divisional strategy. Key to strategy has been transitioning brands to a content and live event combination- what Freeman refers to as a “known audience strategy”. “In this respect business media has got a defined and known audience that digital formats give you,” argues Freeman.

Fresh impetus to drive the business came in 2010, when Kevin Costello became CEO, says Freeman. “We went to a chosen market type strategy, where we thought we had decent positions, where we had leading brands or at least the top three brands in the market. We felt that was where we thought we should be concentrating our efforts,” he says.

The result was a greater focus on B2B media, content marketing and automotive technology.  “They’re now the three areas we concentrate on. Virtually everything we do fits into that. There is a lot more communication now about how that strategy needs to play out across the business,” says Freeman.

The reset of the business was also triggered by the global financial crisis which redefined banks’ attitude to lending. “Banks that would have lent money at leverage multiples of high single figures were getting uncomfortable at 3x leverage. They don’t want to be more than 2x, which is a lot more challenging for any company,” he says.

The banks’ changing risk appetite spelt danger for Haymarket which had accumulated debt in excess of £150m while profits had halved. “All of a sudden we could see our leverage looked like it was approaching double figures and that was a place we didn’t feel comfortable with, so we then started a deleveraging strategy,” he says.

When he became finance director of the group four years ago Freeman set in chain a process to cut the debt to zero. “We wanted to be masters of our own destiny, not just in regard to banks’ attitude to risk, but in this uncertain time with Brexit,” he says, reflecting Heseltine’s firmly anti-Brexit view, he says: “I think that has led to uncertainty everywhere. 30 years ago we’d happily produce 5 year plans for brands. Our medium-term planning around brand- which we refresh on an annual basis- only really looks forward three years now. I make sure that’s done on a rolling basis as brands can change so quickly in media now,” he says.

Since the last statutory accounts filed in June 2018 the group has been debt free. In those accounts the group produced a loss of £2.3m as a result of  losses attributed to disposals, compared to a pre-tax profit of £10.2m the previous year, on turnover that fell slightly to £85.5m.

“It’s a liberating feeling- a step change for the business,” says Freeman. He says proceeds from a series of divestments of property and publishing assets have been used to deleverage, including paying off the stakes owned by former directors Lindsay Masters an Simon Tindall, whilst using operating profits were used to invest in other parts of the business.

Although Freeman recognises the value of being a public company, a route he says Heseltine last considered in the 1970s, he says the “beauty of working in a private company is that decision-making can be very quick. Whenever there’s a decision to be made of any magnitude, its one phone call. Its great working with one family that owns the business,” he says.

Of his achievements, getting the group to a debt-free position, stands out, as does producing the Olympic and Paralymic programmes. “They felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he says. But Freeman’s favourite Haymarket product remains FourFourTwo. “When that was launched, I thought it was ground-breaking,” he adds.