Quick read. DC Thomson, the Scotland-based, family-owned media group, has acquired the UK specialist magazine publisher Aceville, which has more than 30 brands across crafts, gardening, health and food, together with a growing B2B portfolio.
The estimated £20m deal shines a light on a little-known publisher which has piled up impressive magazine sales and digital audiences over the past 15 years from its Colchester base, 60 miles from London. The company which employs 190 people (most of whom began their careers with the company) is believed to have revenues of almost £25m and has been privately owned, but managed since its launch by the quietly impressive managing director Matt Tudor.
The 113-year-old, much larger DC Thomson likes Aceville’s under-the-radar performance because its own success has so often been under-estimated by the London media market 500 miles from its headquarters in Dundee.
The city port’s economy was formerly branded as the three Js: journalism, jute and jam. Now, it may become even better known as the location of a spectacular offshoot of London’s celebrated Victoria & Albert design museum. But Dundee’s largest employer DC Thomson has long been one of the most profitable print-centric UK companies – and its financials give little clue to the media disruption everywhere else.
Last year, it made £38m of pre-tax profit on £127m of revenue (a stunning 30% margin) from a portfolio spanning historic Scottish newspapers (in Dundee and Aberdeen), quaint old-fashioned women’s magazines (The People’s Friend and My Weekly), online genealogy (Findmypast), Puzzler publications, books (27% of revenues), and the pioneering free weeklies Stylist and Shortlist which were acquired for £14m in 2016. Oh and there’s the legendary, 80-year-old British children’s comics Dandy and The Beano which has now spawned top-rated TV cartoons.
Some 30% of revenues are from outside the UK (half from the US), and 13% of all revenue is digital. One former insider says: “They have a rather old-fashioned air. People imagine they are provincial and narrow minded but the truth could not be more different. Look at the board of family members: Christopher Thomson is one of the brightest intellects and smartest investors you could ever meet. Richard Hall is an ex lawyer, charming and urbane but with a mind like a whip. David Thomson is young and ambitious, a future chairman in waiting. And current chairman Andrew Thomson is the elder statesman; calm, patient and a respected presence at the helm.”
Along the way, DC Thomson has been a shrewd and steady investor in almost every branch of UK media, and has been much more techie than you would ever guess. They are patient, measured and very consistent. Some investors are notorious for changing their minds about the health of a business they are investing in, according to last person they spoke to or something they have just read. But DC Thomson is calm, optimistic and really does seem to view short-term difficulties as long term opportunities.
The company has a reputation among a growing club of admirers (who have long since forgotten about the company’s once patchy reputation as an anti-union employer) for taking the longest view you can imagine. The Thomson family don’t panic, they follow their instincts and they back good people, even through bad times. But they don’t shout a lot about it.
The Aceville acquisition now makes it the UK’s fifth largest magazine publisher (with some 70 brands) at time when most companies are less keen to make any claims about print. But, then, DC Thomson and Aceville have both done wonderfully well – at opposite ends of the UK and the media scale – by not worrying too much about the rest of the world.