Media Fortune Fame & Folly

And the winner is…

Here’s a surprising story. The UK publisher of one of the world’s oldest B2B magazines was founded 160 years ago, doubled its revenue in the first 20 years of the web, has maintained double-digit profit margins, and is under the same family ownership in its third century. This is the story of William Reed Business Media, publisher of The Grocer and an increasingly international provider of news, information and events for the food, drink and hospitality industries.

William Reed was a nineteenth century sugar merchant who launched The Grocer in 1862 and expanded the business with publications for brewing and drinks professionals.

In succeeding decades, The Grocer became one of the UK’s most profitable B2B magazines, stuffed (pre-internet) with recruitment classifieds and a low advertising yield that proved its best defence against envious rivals. Controlled circulation free magazines came and went, and WRBM acquired many of them before the pandemic finished off much of the print.

WRBM’s brands for butchers, convenience stores, bakers, bottle shops et al are still there as web sites. But The Grocer remains a highly successful magazine – in print and digital – with the industry’s most authoritative content and events. Its always been a bit more committed to data and original content than many other B2B magazines. It maintained its reputation for independent journalism even in the red-hot years when its readers were at war with each other: new-fangled supermarkets were fiercely competing with independent shopkeepers.

The Grocer probably still accounts for some £1-2m of WRBM profit. But the publisher now generates almost 80% of its total revenue from digital media and events.

The 2020 numbers (below) show revenue lost at the start of the pandemic, and the numbers for the year ended 31 March 2021 may have been some 30% down, with full recovery not expected until 2023. But WRBM’s financials reflect the underlying growth of a specialist media company which has doubled its revenue in 20 media-turbulent years:

£m Year ending 31 March202020192018
Revenue48.354.540.9
EBITDA profit 7.2 8.4 7.7
William Reed Business Media Ltd 2018-20

Today, WRBM under Charles Reed – great great grandson of the founder and only the fifth managing director in 160 years – has 300 employees in France, the US, Singapore, and its headquarters outside London. Some 40% of its 2020 revenue came from outside the UK.

The company has always been acquisitive, snapping up brands, talent and resources – but always staying close to its core. It’s the kind of single-sector, deep-dive, multi-channel specialist that is fashionable again. For all its longevity, WRBM has a strikingly modern portfolio with five principal pillars of profit:

Food & Ingredients – What is now the most profitable activity includes: Food Navigator (global feed industry), Nutra Ingredients (health and nutrition) and Probibiota (food and pharma events in the US)

Exhibitions – six co-located UK trade shows including FoodEx, Food & Drink Expo, Farm Shop & Deli Show, The National Convenience Show, The Ingredients Show, and The Forecourt Show. The company also organises The Restaurant Show.

Research – Lumina Intelligence research, special reports and consulting on food, drink and nutrition. It conducts syndicated research for hundreds of subscribers, and also has MCA insight, intelligence and events on eating and drinking out.

The Grocer – The 159-year-old UK weekly for food and drink retailers, distributors and manufacturers, with a paid circulation of some 30,000.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – This 19-year-old competition claims to be a tastemaker as much as a list-maker through its primary brand with ancillary competitions in Asia and Latin America. It originally appeared in the now-defunct Restaurant magazine, based on a poll of international chefs, restaurateurs, and food critics. In addition to the main ranking, the organisation awards the One To Watch, Lifetime Achievement, and Chefs’ Choice (based on votes from the 50 head chefs of the previous year’s winning restaurants).

It provides an unrivalled annual snapshot of the opinions and experiences of almost 1,000 international restaurant industry experts, and a gastronomic reference point for worldwide trends.

Awards ceremonies have mushroomed over the last 20 years, especially in B2B media where sponsorship and entry fees have partly compensated for lost revenue from advertising and copy sales. You may have lost count of the number of awards evenings described (without irony) as “the Oscars of the xxx industry..”. But, even among the high profile industries whose star players might resonate widely, few of these awards ceremonies have anything like the status of the BAFTAs, Emmies or Effies, let alone the Oscars.

One exception may be the Cannes Lions (owned by Ascential), universally prized by advertising agencies and widely regarded as a platform of learning throughout the creative industries. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants is fast achieving a similar status among restaurateurs and customers.

The list is said to have originated as a one-off stunt by the staff of Restaurant magazine who came up with the idea in a London pub in 2002, three years before it was acquired by WRBM.

The brand’s significance lies in its obvious potential to harvest the data. Like Cannes Lions, it could become an information-forecasting-networking blend of the World Economic Forum, the WGSN forecaster – and the Oscars. Even now, The World’s 50 Best has estimated revenues of £5-8m, mostly from sponsorship. In Singapore, there are reports that the city-state paid some £1m to sponsor the 2019 event. The annual profits of some £1-2m have already eclipsed the price WRBM paid for the Restaurant magazine and exhibition business of which the 50 Best was then a tiny part.

The World’s 50 Best could soon become William Reed’s most profitable brand.

That poses the obvious question for the future. At a time when Ascential’s WGSN is diversifying from its fashion and beauty core into tracking and forecasting trends in food and drink, the potential value of WRBM’s gilt-edged event might just tempt the family to sell.

Consider that post-pandemic profits may soon reach £3-5m, especially if it continues the Cannes Lions-like development of digital learning and case studies in-person and digitally. That – and the potential to broaden The World’s 50 Best beyond merely restaurants and bars – might tempt major consulting firms, among others, to value it at anything up to £100m.

Such a valuation might tempt even this most longterm of media companies to sell a brand it has owned for less than 20 years. You can, of course, never quite discount the possibility that the Reed family (whose shareholding is now controlled by just three people) will eventually choose to sell the whole company. The delightfully unstressed Charles Reed says no. But, until the time is right, everyone does.

William Reed Business Media