That’ll Never Work
Sample Chapter from “That’ll Never Work” by Mercier Press (for KPMG)
I publish magazines. Some of them are owned by my company, Harmonia. Some we publish, on contract, for other people. The ones we own – called the ‘consumer brands’ – tend to be women’s magazines. Aimed at the younger market, we have U magazine, which is very funky. Irish Tatler is the oldest magazine in Ireland, launched in 1890. Finally, we have Woman’s Way, the grande dame of women’s publishing in this country. In addition to the women’s magazines, we have titles like Diarmuid Gavin’s Garden Designs (launched in 2007), Food&Wine Magazine,Auto Ireland, and Your New Baby. Essentially, we have a magazine for any stage in a reader’s life. For other companies, we do contract magazines, the most famous being Cara for Aer Lingus. We do The K Club’s Magazine. We do the Dundrum Shopping Centre magazine. We have a suite of employment titles for the HSE, An Post, Unilever, McDonalds, Cadburys, Dublin Bus and we have a website called iVenus.com. Harmonia, our overall company name, wouldn’t be widely known and recognised in the way the titles of the individual magazines are. Within the industry, however, Harmonia is seen as a company that produces high quality magazines for different sectors. We do all the work for our own branded magazines and for the contract magazines like Cara. Everything from editorial concept to commission and editing, sub editing, designing, photography, making it up, subcontracting to print and delivery. The only thing we don’t do ourselves is the printing of the publications which we subcontract to companies in Madrid, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, selecting which is the most competitive at a given time.. Harmonia’s core staff is relatively small: about 50 people. When we’re busy we bring in freelance designers and photographers. When we’re quiet we have our baseline staff. Not that there are quiet times, any more. It used to be that we’d have a quiet time in August and another in January. Now, however, the summer months are really busy. In fact, certain titles work especially well during the summer. Cara, for example, because of the number of passengers flying to their holiday destinations on Aer Lingus planes, requires more issues in the summer, with higher advertising and higher production costs, too. Food and Wine is a big summer title, not least because the restaurant awards happen in August when the restaurant trade is quiet. About the only period which is still a reasonably quite time for us is January, so that’s when I take my holidays every year. Growing up, I had no plans to own or run magazines. I had the strangest career path. I left Ireland when I was 17 to train as a nurse in Scotland. Off I went to wear broderie anglais on my head on the banks of Loch Lomond and succour the afflicted. I really had a great time.
The best grounding that anybody can be offered in life is being a nurse. Once you’ve done cardiac massage on somebody at 3 am on your own in a lonely ward, believe you me, you don’t dither about making business decisions. During my early years in nursing, I found that I had a great fear of burns victims. I don’t know why. When I was in Casualty on my own at night I used to dread the idea that somebody might come in with a burn. So, to confront it, I went to Bangower, just outside Edinburgh which is the home of plastic surgery – not to be confused with cosmetic surgery. There, I did a burns and plastic surgery course, confronting it because I was afraid of it. The strange outcome of overcoming my fear and developing that specialist skill was that it was ultimately the reason I ended up leaving nursing. Not immediately, though. I continued to nurse for a while, but now I was involved in a lot of the plastic surgery for children who had fallen into fires as babies and had facial disfigurements as a result. I could almost pinpoint the moment when I realised I’d never stay in nursing. It was a night when my patient was a wizened old Scottish guy. He was an alcoholic, living on his own. If you could call it living. He obviously didn’t think it was a life worth living, and decided he would top himself. He was frazzled with beer and wine when he made the decision. In his little one-bedroomed flat, he had a Super Ser gas heater. So he turned on the gas, but didn’t light it. He fell asleep, certain that this would be the end to his miseries. Except it wasn’t. He woke up some hours later. “Ah, sure to hell with it,” he thought. “I might as well live another day.” He lit a fag and the place blew up. It simply blew up around him, burning him grievously. The odd thing about burns victims is when they came in first they are very lucid, no matter how extensive the damage. The survivability of the damage is assessed by adding up the percentage of the body that’s burnt plus the age of the patient. That determines whether they live or die. Children nearly always live even if they’re got 90% burns, because their youth sustains them, whereas older people rarely do, even with lesser damage. The Super Ser explosion meant that this patient in his seventies was quite extensively burnt and had almost no possibility of survival. He was, nevertheless, very lucid. He chatted away to me for about two hours, telling a very sad story about losing his wife and becoming estranged from his children. Then he went into a coma and I specialed him for about three weeks at night times. Every night at 8.00 I went in for the night’s work with this silent tragic old man. I was only 22. The stench in that burns unit was just awful. I thought “I really can’t spend my life doing this.”
I moved to London to work for the Royal College of Nursing as a Special Officer, where I lowered the average age by about 20 years. Although they had a great twinset-and-pearls image, they also had a vibrant general secretary whose name was Trevor Clay, who took one look at me and decided “Oh, the public face of the Royal College is going to be you, you young thing.” I was trained to within an inch of my life. I had an intensive one week course in the BBC in television interviewing and I had radio training too, plus public speaking training, after which I went out to represent the RCM everywhere, making regular appearances on the equivalent, in BBC terms, of Prime Time and Scene around Six. I could talk on anything. I would just be briefed and wheeled into the studio. I found myself in this job which paid me three times more than nursing. I had a car and a secretary and didn’t know what to do with them. “What on earth am I going to do with my life?” I kept thinking. “I’m still only 25…” I went as a postgrad into the Journalism Programme at the National College for the Training of Journalists in the UK. I was writing a lot and many of my family are in media. My sister, for example, is a journalist. Looking back, I realise I was being drawn to the career in which I’ve ended up. I always feel that nursing was a little detour in my life but I enjoyed it. I loved working in Scotland, I gained wonderful experience, but I found my true calling when I started writing. That is surprising, in a way, given my background. I grew up in the Phoenix Park where my father was a ranger. My grandfather was active in 1916, together with his brother, and later interned at Frongoch. When he came back he got the job of tending the graves in Arbour Hill. He lived in a lodge in the Phoenix Park, died young after all that shell shock and misery of internment, and my father, who had been working for Guinness, took over from him. My father had a great love of writing and reading. In our house, growing up, it was always books. We never had anything other than books and so he gave us all a great love of the written word, which is my passion. After Journalism College, I went to work as a news reporter on the Nursing Standard, a weekly magazine for nurses. I was the only person in the whole of the United Kingdom with two such contrasting qualifications – nursing and journalism – which was fantastic for the magazine, because these kind of animals didn’t exist back then. It was fantastic for me, too, because I only lasted as a reporter about eight months before they made me news editor. Nine months later I was editor. I ended up being CEO of that company.
I was a complete workaholic. I didn’t just do my print journalism. I went on to do television and radio at Ealing. I was doing a PhD at the University of Wales. The magazine company recognised how hungry I was for education so they actually paid £24,000 for me to go to Ashridge Management College. £24,000 was a phenomenal amount of money at the time. It was during that course I really realised just how stupid I was. When you take over a managerial role first, you think you’re fantastic. You figure that because you are good at editing you must be great at managing. And of course you’re not. It was a real eye-opener for me and I absolutely loved it. I was surprised by how much I loved it. I really couldn’t believe that I could have a passion for the spreadsheets and the planning involved in business. Here I was in my twenties, a CEO getting a right kick out of the fact that I could launch a magazine and turn it around or make a business decision. It was a two year mentorship programme and part of it was residential. I fell in love with the place to such an extent that I went back to do another programme at Ashridge a couple of years later and am a lifelong Alumni member now. It was a real home from home. Two men there became strong mentors for me and, as my career went on, they were great, they were fantastic, they were always at the other end of the phone when I needed advice. I still talk to them. The University of Wales work was academic, selfcentred and all about me, whereas Ashridge was really about the business and very practical. You went in there to work on something that would have a meaningful result for you and your business. The Royal College of Nursing sent me to run the British Medical Journal, where, in toto, we had about 16 magazines, 110 books and and a massive conference programme. We also launched Evidence Based Practice, a world-wide standard-bearer in medicine with the University of Toronto and when I left it was translated into 19 languages. I stayed far too long because I really loved it. There was no limit to what you could do and it was hugely successful financially. I loved the mix of conferences and books and magazines and they all had different paces. I had to make a conscious decision, in 1997, to move on after eleven years, rather than wait and have to be prised out of it. I was so embedded that, to this day, if I turn up in the UK at a nursing conference, the same thing happens. “Oh God I know you,” someone will say. “You’re with the nursing and medical magazines.” For all sort of personal reasons I decided that I would move on and try something different with my life. I went for the Irish Post. I wanted to move into mainstream.
The personal reasons arose from the fact that I’d met a BBC broadcaster and married him. I was desperate for a child. It may be that I stayed so long in my previous job because, when you plan on having a baby, you want to be in a job you feel comfortable in. I knew I could run that company with my eyes closed and it had amazing maternity leave provisions. But the baby didn’t happen. I had to undergo IVF. Which led to one miscarriage after another. One after another. My last miscarriage was so sad and tragic… “That’s it,” I thought. “That’s it.” I went out and bought a bottle of brandy and my mother, myself and my husband, Richard, sat down. “I’m not being good anymore,” I told them. “I’m going to misbehave atrociously. Gimme 20 cigarettes and let me just do whatever I want to do. I need to get out of this job, I need to move on with my life, the world is not going to collapse if I do not have a child.” Around about the same time, somebody told me about the job at the Irish Post and told me I’d be perfect for it. “Why don’t you go for it?” “I don’t know anything about it.” “You’d be great, you have great general knowledge of the Irish over here.” I did two interviews and was offered the job. On the day I went to sign the contract I had very bad adominal pains. I went in to St Thomas’s Hospital. “Well, you will not believe this,” the professor told me. “Having had four years of IVF you are now naturally, normally, six weeks pregnant.” I felt honour-bound not to take up the Irish Post job without informing them. “Guys, you know what? I find myself in this embarassing situation,” I told the Irish Post people. “I have the smallest little scan of my child at six weeks. I may not be pregnant in six weeks’ time. But I should tell you that this is what’s happened to me.” They were great.
“We’re with you for the long term,” they said. “Come on in, see how you get on.” -6- I had a perfectly normal, natural, healthy pregnancy. Dara is now eight.
I was the only female CEO in Smurfits (which owned the Irish Post) for most of my time with them, arriving pregnant, but they did not discriminate against me. They promoted me three times in the first three years I was with them, seeing me as neither female nor male, but just saw me as somebody who delivered on figures. It was radical change on a number of fronts all at one. Of course I had doubts that I’d be able to do it, but from the start, I absolutely loved the Irish Post. I went in as an editor to start. Editing has always given me the best years in my life, yet I tend to move on quickly from that job. In the case of the Irish Post, that happened within a year, because the previous CEO had been planning to move on and did so. I was only back from maternity leave a few months when I took over as CEO. The funny thing I discovered about myself was that while I always had a fanciful notion that I wanted to be editor, actually I was chomping at the bit to be CEO again. When I was with the Irish Post I did all of the big Gerry Adams and David Trimbles interviews. I went in at an incredibly exciting time for Irish people in London. The Irish Post had a fine history of campaigning for the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. It had also gone through some pretty tough times. Of course, coming in at a good time didn’t mean readers were passive. They were anything but passive. My editorial stance was in the middle and not be overly republican. So, on the one hand, I would meet readers who agreed that you should be fair and honest in your reporting while on the other, the hard line readership did not enjoy what I was doing at all. I didn’t even please the UDA. I was sent some terrible hate mail, most of which had to go through Scotland Yard. Around about the time they had the nail bomber in London, I remember driving home from work, listening to the radio. The commissioner from the London Metropolitan Police was talking about a letter he had received that morning that was very threatening. I was on the phone to him within minutes to tell him I’d got that letter as well. The worst one for me came to my home. I could not believe it. My heart nearly stopped. I woke up one morning and there on the doormat was a letter, signed with a very well known psudonym used by a strong loyalist movement in Northern Ireland. That was scary. Some of the problems I had on the Irish Post I brought on myself, mainly out of naivete. Around that time, Cardinal Ratzinger, now the current pope, was firing off encyclicals all the time, one more right-wing than the last. He was leading the papal agenda because John Paul II was very ill. When he fired off this encyclical saying you would be damned and sent to hell if you had sex before marriage, I phoned commentator Ruth Dudley Edwards.
“This is completely out of touch with the real world,” I told her. “This is a great story for the Irish in Britain.” We ran with loads of comments from lots of different people, including Ruth. The headline on the front page was Pope out of Touch. I did not know that a sizeable portion of the Irish Post’s circulation was sold at the back of church on Sundays through a company called Cable Communications. On the Tuesday I got a call from their CEO to tell me they wouldn’t be putting the paper in the churches that weekend. “It’s rather like asking Cadburys to say chocolate is bad for you,” he pointed out. I learned the lesson: do nothing on religion in the Irish Post. We had this incredibly good period from 1999 to 2001 where the economy was good. Smurfits got involved in FAS roadshows to help recruit people back to Ireland. Our own buisness was really flying, so they asked me to run the Dublin one as well and I did it by commuting for a year and a half. Working for the Irish Post allowed me to have something to talk to my father about. From the time I left Ireland at seventeen, when I phoned home, my father would pick up the phone and say “Your mother wants to talk to you.” But he had a great interest in northern Ireland and once I became the leading light in the BBC Northern Ireland Affairs programmes, we would talk about northern Ireland and he would give out about the fact that people in London knew far more about Northern Ireland than people in Dublin. The commute was interesting. When it started, Dara was 18 months old. Richard worked in the BBC and literally, when he left in the morning, wouldn’t know if he was doing the 9.00 News so couldn’t be sure when he’d be home. I decided to commute but take Dara with me. We had a hilarious year where, at 4.00 every morning Dara and I got up and packed the nappies and everything else, got on the plane and he chatted up all the passengers. He was known by everybody in what was then Business Class on the Aer Lingus flights. We would arrive into Dublin at about 7.45. A driver would pick us up and drop Dara to the creche and me to work. Then, on Wednesday night we went back home again. Dara was dividing his time between a creche in London and one in Dublin. To him it was like getting on a bus. I look back and wonder at the whole episode. What I really loved about spending time in Dublin was getting to be with my family again. I got an apartment and had a great time rediscovering Dublin. It was, at the time, just the most extraordinary market to break into. Everybody would say “You must know him. He’s married to X. And he’s a brother of Y.” I remember making an appointment to meet someone in the Schoolhouse restaurant in Northumberland Road for lunch. As they walked in they were chatting to every table and I thought this must be a famous person, although in fact he was just a bank manager.
Of course, after about two months I found myself walking through the same room and doing precisely what he’d done. It’s a strange environment of intimacy and networking, compared to London. In London, you go in to do a meeting with your PowerPoint and your credentials. “I’m great, come and do business with me,” you’re saying. “I’ll do a great job for you.” They will say yes or no and that’s the end of the meeting. The first six months here I used to come out on a high, saying “I’ve got that business.” I realised six months later they were trying to be nice and they wouldn’t tell me to my face. They didn’t really want to see the PowerPoint. they wanted me to chat and get to know them. Four years later, I love that way of doing business and would find it hard to go back the other way. I’m in London every week and I have to consciously switch gear on the journey. At times the London way of doing business is very clinical whereas in Ireland somebody should write the book about the map of who is related to who and how you actually make connections with people. It helps, in Dublin, that I lived in the Phoenix Park. “Sure you’re not really a northsider,” southsiders would say to me. “You lived in the Phoenix Park.” Northsiders would say “You’re one of us.” So I couldn’t be put in a box. In addition to the magazines, I also inherited iVenus, a webbased company, at around the time of the downturn in the dot coms. Most of the magazines needed to be relaunched and refocused. Something had to give. We knew it and we worried fruitlessly at it for about six months before we woke up one morning and said “This can’t go on.” Richard gave up the BBC, took a sabbatical and worked for RTE for a while. He’d been the Health Correspondent with the BBC, so he did a ten part series here called The Truth about the Health Service. And then he did The Truth about Drugs and The Truth about Business. He loved the move to Dublin from day one. I was the one who had the transitional problems. Bear in mind that London market is 13 million. Ireland is ten per cent the size of the UK market. I love the fact that it’s quite small and focused and began to enjoy cutting my teeth in this particular area. In the early days, it was about finding a way of captivating a market that is divided into men and wmen, then divided again by the number of women over a certain age group and then divided even further by women who like magazines and women who don’t.
My greatest success was probably U magazine. When I came in first, U magazine was almost the same as Irish Tatler and Image. It was a poor sister, making a negative contribution to overhead – a very poor place for a magazine. It was probably the one we most talked about closing down, because it wasn’t a solid brand and really didn’t know where it was going. I felt Ireland was a price-sensitive market and was very taken with the idea that Heat had managed to launch in the UK and was trailblazing in the 18 – 27 sector, while a magazine called Donna had launched in Italy for one euro and had taken the whole market. We completely revamped U Magazine, doing as much qualitative and quantative research as we could. Then we ploughed a ton of money into it, threw it out for a euro. It was full of sex. I cannot tell you how many places in Mayo did not agree to put U Magazine on the shelves in the first year. (We still have problems in that regard.) But it was a tremendous success. We sold three times more in the first issue. I remember bringing an edition to a meeting in Smurfits. Mickey Mania! it said on the cover. “Please tell us that’s a new pop group,” they pleaded. It was quite different to anything that Ireland had ever produced before. Irish women’s magazines didn’t have sex in them at all because Irish girls didn’t have sex, so while our UK counterparts were virtually pornographic, we were all proper. This magazine was completely different: bright and vibrant and high gloss. Everybody said it wouldn’t work, that people wouldn’t buy it and that a euro was a throwaway. “You know,” I said at the time, “time and again people in publishing have proven that even if you charge 50p for something, they won’t buy it the following month if they think it’s trash.” The low price attracted young readers to try it out, but having tried it out, it was clear, within the first two or three issues, that a great deal of stickyness had built up: people were coming back in again and again. Before we knew it, we had outsold everybody else. The circulation went from 12,000 up to 50,000 in three issues. The price was the introductory factor, but what created the stickiness was great editorial. When I came in first, the editorial was probably the last thing people looked at internally. Indeed, many of the Irish magazines at the time were criticised for having poor editorial content. They bought most of the fashion in from London. They didn’t demonstrate their relevance to the local market. Because I came from an editorial background, my first thing was to rip the editorial apart, start looking at what the photography was like, who they were using, how they were spending their money, what they were investing in.
Whether 50,000 or 500,000 readers are buying a magazine they expect it to look high quality. The bar was raised by Cosmo and Marie Claire and you have to be in the same zone even though you don’t raise as much in advertising revenue. Very soon, the editorial was great, we had fantastic competitions and very colloquial language. In U Magazine, the language and the style and the tone is you and me chatting, unlike Vogue and Harpersand Queen where the tone is aloof – like the tone of a coffee table book. U Magazine, in contrast, offers total engagement: “Get your drinking tights on and get your buchall.” On the other hand, we have a very strong anti-diet policy in U Magazine. This is the era of anorexia so we don’t have any diets whatsoever, we stress all the way through it that you have to be comfortable with your body and your body shape. In the magazine business there is a constant turnover of staff. A lot of young people come into the business as a starting point in journalism. I had a fantastic editor who relaunched this with me and is now working for one of the newspapers – she’s brilliant. If you get a good editor, you’re set. Great design, a great editor, somebody who completely understands the marketing of the title. When we re-launched U Magazine, we didn’t spend a cent on telelvision and radio. This was all word of mouth. It proved that young Irish people had radically changed. We might have been coming off the back of an Ireland where people were worried about their pensionable jobs in the bank and the civil service, but this was a completely new generation with different expectations and attitudes. I turned U Magazine around. And then the silliest problem emerged. I found myself with this great magazine every advertiser wanted to be in. But I was turning advertising away because I had chosen to staple it, rather than have it “perfect bound” with that flat bit down the spine. The readers of young magazines prefer them stapled. The downside is that it limits the size of the publication. Once you go beyond a certain number of pages, the staples come undone. So here’s this fantastic magazine whose long term future is under threat because I can’t put more ads into it without it falling apart… I looked at the Glamour size, which is smaller, but quickly found out that younger readers don’t like that compact size. Then, going through the research, it struck me. 85% of copies were selling in the first two weeks of the month. Frequency was the issue. Instead of changing the size and keeping the frequency, the solution was to keep the size and increase the frequency. So I now bring it out once a fortnight, not once a month. Now, of course, we have had a few hairy moments. We distributed free condoms last year with the magazine. We stress safe sex. Every time we talk about sex we say “Smart girls carry a condom.” As part of our drive in this sort of territory, we distributed two free condoms during the height of the concert scene last year. It was July. It was our smart sex issue. Durex worked with us so we had two free condoms on the front. About five multiple retailers refused to carry it. I just phoned Joe Duffy immediately.
“Can I talk to you about something?” I said. “I’m just furious. You walk into any newsagent and you will see lads’ magazines there that are pornographic with lewd topless models. They’re just soft porn. Sitting at eye level. Yet these same retailers will not carry my smart sex issue that has two free condoms in it.” I didn’t name them, and all of them by the end of the day had reversed their policy. My point was not to embarrass people, it was to get them to change the way they thought. It was to get them to acknolwedge that it was a really good policy for us to be so concerned about. The fact is that it’s young women who carry the condoms. If you look at the incidence of sexually transmitted disease, let alone HIV infection, it’s young women who have the power to influence behaviour. After I did my rant on Joe Duffy, lots of people phoned the programme, some of whom said it was a disgrace giving away condoms but most of them saw the sense in it. It was great publicity, too, but that wasn’t the objective. The next big shift, the one that brought me into ownership, happened in 2004. The Jefferson Smurfit Group were bought by Madison Dearborn, the Chicago based American venture capital company. They were keen to divest themselves of non core activities. The magazines were definitely non core and I was very interested in them. I had a really good relationship with the Smurfit Group – really liked working with them. The fact is that, even before Madison Dearborn bought them, during the time when I was CEO, there was a constant undercurrent of doubt about them being in this business at all. Because the structure of the business was built around manufacturing, around packaging. A publishing division sat oddly in the middle of that. So divestment was always going to happen. It was tough enough, the lead-up to the buyout. The company needed an awful lot of work done to it in the first couple of years after I came back. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t actually want to buy the magazines, because they weren’t that stable and I had no doubt about the level of energy required to get them to where they could be. Even at the point of the MBO, I felt like the Minister in the old TV series Yes Ministerplayed by Paul Edington. Every time the Minister made a bad mistake, the senior civil servant, Sir Humphrey, would say “You made a very courageous decision, Minister” and it was immediately obvious that he’d made a boo boo. That’s all I got with the MBO. People telling me I was very courageous – with the subtext that I might be making a monumental boo boo. It helped that I am a totally financially-driven person. I hope I’m not being boastful about it but I could actually do the job of a finance director. I am totally financially driven. I do all my finance modules, I build my budget from zero, I do my own cash flow projections.
To get comfortable with the legalities, I read everything. I read everybody’s case histories. In the two years the MBO took, I learned an enormous amount from other people who had done it and got great advice. So by the time I did do the MBO I had a tiny team of people who knew what they were doing and I didn’t need to take professional advisers on board. I had worked with advisers previously and I really felt I had ended up doing all the work. “If you could be back here with your business plan tomorrow…” they’d say. “Oh I do that, do I?” I’d say. “And then we need a cash flowchart.” “Oh, I do that as well?” In this MBO, I felt very comfortable because I knew the business, I am a strong negotiator, I knew what I wanted to get out of it and how you must always leave something on the table in a negotiation. There’s no way that you go into these things believing it’s all going to be one-sided. It was a strange couple of years, though, because of the secrecy. It all had to be done in a very confidential way. I could be ten months worrying at elements of it, then going into the final four months of intensive make-or-break stuff, and nobody, but nobody in my business could know that I was doing it. Then suddenly I could say “I’m buying the business and at this set date in the future I’m going to own it.” Then suddenly I had to deal with all the staff, making sure they feel comfortable with me. It was steady as she goes in terms of me taking over, unlike the situation where an outside buyer acquires the business. It was important, also, to reinforce client relationships. I sort of exhausted myself then running around town making sure that I made everybody feel very comfortable about the fact that I wasn’t some two-it blow-in from somewhere, that I was a solid business person. I have never worked so hard. I didn’t take a holiday for eighteen minutes months after the deal. I threw everything I could into it. I’m a very methodical person
The great thing about running your own business is that, over time, you get to have all the right people in the right places. We have a great team. When I did the MBO there was really only me and I had a finance manager. As time went on, Smurfits didn’t replace managers who retired or left because they knew they were going to do an MBO so why bring in expensive people? That proved to be an advantage for me after the MBO, because I could recruit the right people for the right places. They’re all bedding in now this year. By the end of last year I wanted to have a full management team in place. I was fortunate because that finance manager who worked with me who is now my finance director became one of the best assets that I could possibly have. Our finance team is second to none. I meet other people in similar businesses, who have external accountants or half-time credit controllers whereas everything in our business is driven by finance so the finance function is invested in and valued. When I had everything consolidated, it was time to look at the possibility of bringing out new titles. I’ve spent a year planning a new gardening magazine with Dermot Gavin. Dermot and I have been talking about doing it for a long time. For me, the biggest thing is to find out first of all what everybody else is doing in the gardening sector, what they’re doing in America, what they’re doing in Australia, how much money is in it, how much advertising. Dermot has such a distinctive brand, I felt very comfortable that I had a niche and I’ll tell you the niche. It’s not aimed at gardeners so if you really get passionately about your petunias this is not the thing, this is entirely aimed at city dwellers who are probably in their first house in their early thirties, have a lovely garden out the back they don’t know what to do with and which they want to look as cool and contemporary as does the inside of their home. This magazine is about design, about adding the drama factor with plants and new materials. Our working title is Outdoor Room. As you can see, before I launch a new magazine or re-launch an existing one, I do quantitative and qualitative research and plan, plan, plan. Because I work in a sector which is beset by people who in their back room decided to launch a magazine. They’ve no knowledge and they’re gone two months later. Every second person I meet will tell me about a new magazine they think I ought to launch. I’m always very patient. I listen to every idea anybody offers me, but as CEO of Harmonia, I really need to set myself apart from them and make sure that if I’m going to do something I do it properly and not waste anybody’s time.
This year I’m going to enjoy doing Dermot Gavin’s magazine, because we’re launching in London as well and it’s my first little step back. I still stay very close to London and run fashion shows there. In addition, I’m a member of Ken Livingstone’s Olympic Committee and chair the Paddy’s Day Festival. About 25% of my revenue comes out of London in the shape of advertising from the big brands, the Louis Vuttons and Chanels. I stay really close to those big fashion brands. I’m doing a big thing at Bloomsday now in a club in Picadilly and I have all my clients coming and looking at Jimmy Nesbit and Amanda Burton doing the Bloomsday readings. It’s part of constantly setting yourself a little bit above the rest. They wouldn’t look at me – a small little insignificant publishing company in Ireland – unless I had a bit of a power base in London. One of my great mates in London is Ken Livingstone. I first met him when I chaired a public meeting in Camden Town in 1988 when he was a candidate in the first mayoral elections in London. Every guy in town got on to me beforehand. “You have to support Ken Livingstone,” they told me. “He was great to the Irish during the GLC days.” Of course, that was calculated to get my back up and I thought there’s no way he’s going to get an easy ride from me. So we were sitting on the panel and every time Ken sniffed they cheered. I kept asking him the most awkward questions and interrupting him and being generally a very difficult chair. He was in the middle of some thing about how great he was and I said “Yeah, we’ve all heard that, what are you going to do for the Irish in London? Come on. Give us some specifics.” He looked at me as though he was going to kill me. “OK,” he said. “I’m going to have the biggest St Patricks Day Festival that anybody has ever seen. It will rival New York. I’m going to close the Edgeware Road.” “And then, of course, the Evening Standard says ‘Red Ken goes green’ or ‘Barmy Ken closes London for the Paddys.’” Six months later I got this call asking me to go and see him and ended up running the parade. It is the most incredible achievement of my life. Remember, if you lived in London during all those years, you didn’t necessarily boast about your background. When there was a bombing in Hyde Park you kept your head down. Every bloody country had a Paddy’s Day Festival except for London, the city inhabited by the biggest first generation group of Irish. A tiny little sad group would show up in the rain every year with an Irish wolfhound and get pelted with eggs in Whitehall.
It just wasn’t acceptable, but it still took eighteen months of battle to persuade the Conservatives on Westminster Council to stop thinking that the St Patrick’s Day Parade should happen “up with your own crowd in Kilburn” and even allow us to start from Westminster Cathedral. They said they wouldn’t close the roads because we were just a small group of Irish people. Meanwhile, because Ken Livingstone’s office had jurisdiction over Trafalgar Square, we decided to put a big huge stage up there to attract ten to fifteen thousand people. The BBC in London became our partner. Capitol Radio and lots of really good people got involved. I remember I arrived in Trafalgar Square that morning and the place was obviously desolate, with people still putting up the last bits and pieces of the stand. I did a few interviews for BBC London and then went into the tent to sort out something. The next thing, when I looked outside, there was a throng of people waiting to get in. Before we knew it , we had 25,000 people in Trafalgar Square. Down at Westminster Cathedral where we were only supposed to have two thousand people, another thirty thousand had shown up. You couldn’t move. It was extraordinary. We upset every taxi driver in London by closing all of the roads because this huge big parade was coming towards Trafalgar Square. By two o’clock, we had 60,000 in Trafalgar Square. The emotion of that first year was unbelievable. I was standing there in Ken’s office with him, looking down at this enormous group of people coming towards us, flags everywhere. Even the police in London came out with green sashes. In Trafalgar Square, you couldn’t move for people and so the whole parade was sent to Buckingham Palace. It was a complete triumph, and the media coverage the next day was uniformly positive. In the six subsequent festivals, we have never had an arrest. It’s a totally family-orientated festival. We’ve now taken Leicester Square and Covent Garden as well as Trafalgar Square and the parade is properly organised from Park Lane all the way through the centre of London. But that first year is the one I will always remember, because I had never seen such emotion. It was just unbelievable. “You have done a lot of things but I’m most proud of you doing that,” is what my mother says to me about it. London continues to be a big part of my life. I have a great connection with that city and especially Irish people who live and work in the city. I just adore living between those two cities. London is superb at some things Dublin should do more of and Dublin is great at things London should do more of.
In relation to my own business, I could whinge forever about the fact that Ireland has VAT, whereas there is no VAT in the UK. Not only does Ireland have VAT, it has the highest VAT rate in Europe on magazine sales. Exacerbating the VAT situation is the fact that we live next to an English speaking neighbour who flood the market with their titles. No barriers to entry exist. The problem that poses is that even if a title sells only one copy, it’s going to take up the same shop space as mine. The economic climate is also influential on the magazines market. Cover sales go up during a recession. Women will buy more magazines. They can’t afford to go to the hairdresser but they’ll buy the magazine to have their little bit of luxury, of fantasy, of fun. That has been proven time and time again. On the other hand, the supply of advertising radically diminishes during tough economic times. That’s why I would pay so much attention to the economic forecasts, the indicators about inflation, about fewer start-ups in the construction industry. When a cluster of those come together, I get worried. Ireland is such a small market – c4 million in the south, plus 1.5 million in Northern Ireland, which is an important market for my publications. Each publication from Harmonia is exposed in a different way to a market downturn. Woman’s Way, for instance, is not that exposed on advertising because it earns its keep just on cover sales, whereas Irish Tatler, which would sell fewer copies, is very exposed on advertising because it attracts advertisers selling to the high end market. The fact that U Magazine has moved into coming out once a fortnight, as opposed to once a week makes it less exposed on advertising because cover sales are much higher. However, if I did feel that the Irish economy was headed for tough times over the next few years I would probably take some steps to try and soften that for us as a business. Which means going to another market. There’s definitely a whiff of a downturn and customer magazines are often the first to go. I’m slightly protected because I have a great suite of employment titles. Nobody other than Harmonia is in that unglamorous space. I love it because it’s about internal communications within a company, which matter and must be fostered even during a downturn in the economy. Our contracts are generally with people like the HSE and An Post. Those contracts are won through tenders and they last three years. Each is public sector and all blue chip so they are more protected against economic down turn than other areas of Harmonia’s business.
We have an €8 million annual turnover and the best way to grow that is through new product. I would love to grow through acquisition but there just simply isn’t anything around to buy. The slowest way to grow is to create your own. I am still a workaholic. We’re usually up about 6.30. Dara, our eight year old, goes to school in Merrion Square so I have until 8.30 with him before I drop him off. By contrast, evenings are really bad. I used to have it under control when I went home, put him to bed and then opened the computer again but in fact now I find my boundaries in the evening have gone. I need to do something about that. My problem is that I usually say yes to everything. At this particular moment in time I’m carrying two lots of proofs, I’ve to go back out to a big event this evening and sign off on a press release. A multitude of tasks and clients…. Sometimes I get a great kick out of it and I think ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life’ and other days I just drag myself out of bed and think ‘Oh my God, why don’t I go into flower arranging or something.?’” Richard, my husband, now edits one of our titles and says that he sleeps with the boss. We met at a media dinner after he had spent weeks covering the trial of Beverly Allen, the nurse who had Munchausen’s by proxy. He was absolutely completely exhausted and I thought incredibly funny. Then we spent a whole year pretending that the BBC and my company ought to be very close, which allowed us to have business lunches and meetings. We didn’t so much as touch or shake hands and then one fateful night he lunged for that kiss… Neither of us push Dara into anything. He is a relaxed child who is comfortable with himself. I just want him to have as happy childhood as I had. We all lived in the most incredible place that you could possibly want to live in and my father was there all the time. He wore a uniform with big brass buttons. He would be in at lunchtime when we would come home from school and he would be there, reading his books in the evening. My mother is still alive and she is the most amazing woman. If she’s not in New York, she’s in Paris, she’s flying around, enjoying her life enormously and still doing pilates every week. All of us would say that our parents didn’t force us to behave in any particular way, they just wanted us to be healthy and happy. If we are driven, it’s because we all drive ourselves.
From That’ll Never Work by Mercier Press (for KPMG)