The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

AgriBriefing gets back to work

The UK-based food and farming media business AgriBriefing had hoped to complete an audacious three-way “merger” with Informa Agribusiness Intelligence (which was instead exchanged with IHS Markit) and Kynetec agri research – at the same time as switching its private equity backing. It has (for now) succeeded only in changing its funding partner. The company announced this week an MBO funded by New York-based Ares Management Corp, replacing its previous partner Horizon Capital, of the UK.

AgriBriefing was established in 2012 and has grown rapidly in the highly-fragmented agri information business since acquiring the UK weekly Farmers Guardian from UBM. It now employs some 200 people in the UK, Netherlands, France and the US.

In 2018, its £6.8m EBITDA was 48% up on 2017, with revenue of £27.4m (£19.2m). There was significant growth in both the France-based Global Data Systems (acquired in 2016) and Urner Barry, of the US (2017). The results showed how far AgriBriefing had moved from its starting position, six years before, as an advertising-dependant, 100% UK company. In 2018, more than 50% of revenue came from outside the UK, 35% from outside Europe, and some 50% of revenue was subscriptions. EBITDA profit margin is 25%, and the total audience comprises some 500k agribusiness professionals in 200 countries.

It’s predicting some £8.8m of EBITDA (30% growth) in 2019.

AgriBriefing’s assets include highly-valued commodity price reporting agencies (Feedinfo and Urner Barry), large exhibitions and conferences (LAMMA, CropTec, Feed Additives and the Global Protein Summit) and information services including Foreign Trade Data and Agrimoney.

It is more than a year since Horizon Capital (formerly Lyceum) hired advisers to find a buyer for its stake in AgriBriefing, which is a measure of the difficulties the company faced in chasing its dream combination.

The company had been launched as Briefing Media, by three experienced B2B executives: Neil Thackray (ex Reed, UBM) Rory Brown (Metal Bulletin, Incisive) and Rupert Levy (Haymarket, UBM). They eventually narrowed down to becoming a food-farming specialist after flirting with the medical and international media markets.

Their energetic strategy delivered, as the 175-year-old Farmers Guardian pushed up revenue by 57% in four years. Operating profits jumped 27%. The success was consolidated by acquisition of the 40-year-old LAMMA machinery show and the launch of CropTec for arable farming. Then came the climb up the value chain with data-rich acquisitions.

In 2014, AgriBriefing paid some £300k for the Agrimoney investment site which gave its first foothold in the international agribusiness and commodities market, where it claimed 70,000 users in 170 countries. Next came the complementary £13m acquisition of Global Data Systems, the France-based owner of FeedInfo, the pricing platform for global animal feed. In 2017, it plunged into the US market with the £17m acquisition of Urner Barry, the 160-year-old provider of news and prices in the poultry, egg, meat, and seafood segments of the food industry. That deal alone was said to have added more than 3,000 clients.

This year, the gutsy AgriBriefing seemed set for the leap into the big time which could have produced a £250m company and even the prospects of an IPO. But it all proved too hard: for some funders which under-valued the UK print assets (to say the least), for Informa whose belated reluctance to sell its £30m division was turned by the prospect of an appetising exchange with IHS Markit’s TMT operations, and by Kynetec (50% larger than AgriBriefing) that may just have been too expensive.

Meanwhile, AgriBriefing’s private equity ownership has shifted. In a deal which values the company at £123m, it is now jointly owned by Horizon and Ares Management, of the US, which (having noted the drag on the company’s valuation of the Farmers Guardian newspaper) may just want to do more than merely buy high-value data assets; it may want to sell out of print.

AgriBriefing has come a long way and was tantalised by the prospect of the three-way global deal. CEO Rory Brown must now lower his sights and resume the deal flow of medium-sized data businesses (especially in the US and Asia). What’s next?