The clues to Tony Robinson’s different kind of international exhibitions company are in his consistent profit margins, his production of classy magazines to complement events, sales teams that earn more than some of the UK industry’s CEOs, and the fact that you may never have heard of him.
UKI Media & Events (known as UKIP until the acronym was nabbed by the United Kingdom Independence Party) is the 29-year-old, UK-based company which has 17 exhibitions and 13 magazines focused on the transportation and related industries.
The company and its owner exude corporate pride about their place in the UK’s Sunday Times lists of fast-growing companies and a Business Magazine of the Year award back in 2000. But Tony Robinson, the all-action (motorsports and flying) founder-owner almost never gives interviews. Even though he’s upfront in many of his company’s events.
His success has come from organising technical exhibitions with great attention to the detail of providing on-site testing facilities, demonstrations and highly-rated conferences.
In 2018, the company generated £5.7m of PBT on revenue of £35m which was 27% up in the past two years. The revenue comes from: Continental Europe, principally Germany (54%), the UK (30%) with the US, China and South Korea accounting together for some 16%. A lot of UKI’s key people have worked with UKI for 10-15 years; people seldom leave.
In 2007, it sold the Aircraft Interiors Expo and related shows to Reed Exhibitions for £22.7m (about 10 x EBITDA). Last year, it sold 12 magazines to the Mark Allen Group for £6m (some 4 x EBITDA). UKI may be good at selling but it has never acquired any publications or events; everything is home-grown.
Its most profitable brand is the 22-year-old Automotive Testing Expo, a multi-destination event which takes place annually in Stuttgart, Shanghai and Detroit; and every two years in Chenai and Seoul. Alongside the core exhibition are complementary events including Automotive Interiors, Global Automotive Components & Suppliers, Autonomous Vehicle Technology, and conferences. It also publishes the quarterly Automotive Testing Technology International, a 15k-circulation, 190-page quarterly print and digital magazine.
The Automotive Testing portfolio is a UKI trademark of integration which began with the launch of its first event (now known as Parcel+Post Expo) in 1997 after six years as a B2B magazine publisher. A few years earlier, it had launched Tyre Technology International followed by the expo which, in February 2020, had 300 exhibitors. Other major brands include: Meteorological Technology World, Passenger Terminal Expo, Professional Motor Sport, and Electric & Hybrid Marine World.
The company was founded in 1991 as AutoIntermediates Ltd, before becoming UK & International Press. By 1997, it had moved into exhibitions. In 2000, it became UKIP and, in 2018, reverted to UKI.
The inspiration came from Robinson’s 15 sweet-and-sour years working for Sterling Publications, in London. He had joined in 1976, soon after university, when recession offered few job choices. He rose through the ranks to become sales director.
Sterling, which was variously private equity backed and a listed company, had a messy reputation in UK media before being absorbed into Mike Danson’s GlobalData Plc.
It had published glossy but content-light B2B sector yearbooks and quarterlies funded by advertising sold by telephone sales teams. The sales people were paid commission-only and were charged for the office phone bills if they failed to reach their targets. Yes.
There was little focus on the quality either of the content or the controlled circulation readership of publications. If you paid for a page of advertising, it could appear within some glowing editorial about your company. It was ‘advertorial’ at its most basic in the racy days before ‘content marketing’.
Just like the battery of young people who learned how to sell advertising at Sterling, it was the perfect business school for Tony Robinson. But he became increasingly critical of the company’s unwillingness to invest for the long-term.
Ultimately, he was fired in a boardroom row and became determined to start a B2B media company which would combine the strong sales culture of Sterling with a serious focus on the publishing essentials it had chosen to ignore. His new company was – from the start – focused on good content, thorough research and high-quality audience databases: the antithesis of Sterling.
As a non-engineer who loved engineering and “how things are made to work”, Robinson was drawn to publishing in technical niches, starting with his first magazine Tyre Technology International which remains a core UKI operation. Parcel+Post Expo was launched with a conference which is still supported by the UN’s Universal Postal Union.
He says: “We have consistently put people on the phones to research worldwide communities of specialist engineering and technical people. We don’t believe in buying-in data. We want to research it and verify it for ourselves.”
His high-quality magazines always had design that came straight from consumer publications. Then, he started launching exhibitions.
The events strategy saw him following a well-trodden path to European venues, especially in Germany where the exhibition halls are high-quality, reasonably priced and the local authority owners are especially welcoming. It all helps to explain how Europe’s largest economy is also home to so many international exhibitions, despite the UK-domicile of organisers. The fact that the German automotive and engineering industries are also Europe’s largest is a bonus for UKI.
Within 10 years, exhibitions had become UKI’s main business but magazines remained a vital part of the offering to advertisers and exhibitors, as reflected in the budgets: “It doesn’t matter if it costs more because it turns the magazine into a fabulously sustainable product”.
That’s salesmanship but UKI’s magazines do have better content and production values than might be necessary if the motivation was only to promote the exhibitions which, after all, generate most of the profit. But magazine production is not the only thing on which UKI spends lavishly.
The company’s revenue has been propelled by an extraordinary committment to rewarding its sales people, one of whom told me he had been earning a £12k basic salary (some years ago) but got 10% commission on all sales up to a target, 12.5% on all sales if he exceeded the target, and a corresponding jump to 15% beyond a super-target.
The result (then as now) was many UKI sales people earning more (some much more) than £300k year after year, not just for new exhibitions but also for repeated events which (you assume) might involve rather less sales effort.
Although the company has outgrown Robinson’s former policy of handing out cash bonuses on Friday before his people decamped to the pub to spend their winnings, he still pays the bonuses at the point of sale rather than when the invoice is actually paid.
He is far from apologetic about a pay policy that still enables UKI to make 15-20% pre-tax profit margins: “I like to create an environment where, if I am making a lot of money, some of my key people should be enjoying the fruits of success as well. We do pay sales people what some may say are exotic amounts of money. I have always believed in big incentives and fabulous commission packages.”
The result is that UKI has average remuneration across its 120 people of some £100k pa which is about double that of, say, Mack Brooks the the similar-sized company which was last year acquired by Reed Exhibitions for an estimated £200m.
Even in 2020, when UKI has had to cancel at least five exhibitions (which will push the company into its first-ever loss) it will not be taking back the commission already paid for exhibitions which will not now take place.
But that is only fraction of what troubles Tony Robinson as Covid-19 rolls on and may yet lead to the cancellation of most exhibitions for the rest of 2020 (although he is still hoping to resume in September). Some 90 of his people have been furloughed under a scheme where the UK government pays a large proportion of the employee costs for what might yet become the rest of this year.
It is tempting to think of the proceeds of the magazines sale to Mark Allen as being just about enough to make up for the lost profits of 2020. Although the the 1.20 x revenue price might seem distinctly pre-Covid, both sides are still happy with the deal. For Robinson, the almost £30m he has netted from his two disposals in the last 13 years are a reminder of continuing opportunities to make windfall gains without having to contemplate a sale of the whole business that (he says) he expects to be managing for many years yet.
The pre-Covid signs that UKI’s organic development continues unabated include the launch of Electric & Hybrid Marine World Expo, Electric & Hybrid Aerospace Conference & Exhibition, The Future of Transportation World Conference, and Industrial Vehicle Technology Design.
Tony Robinson will be hoping that things will be “normal” enough in 2021 to celebrate the company’s 30th anniversary.
Meanwhile, the almost-secret UKI is just the kind of integrated ‘narrow but deep’ B2B media company which many more exhibitions and publishing companies should imitate – even without the pay packets and racing cars.