Tim McLoughlin has been CEO of the London-based PEI Group international investment information and events for 15 years. It’s not what he had expected to be doing. An applied chemist by training, he spent his early career managing B2B media and broadcast brands for the erstwhile EMAP, and at DMGT events. He “had zero experience of financial markets” when he was recruited by the founders of PEI, formed following their MBO from Euromoney.
McLoughlin led PEI’s own MBO in 2015, supported by LDC. Three years later, the then £19mn-revenue company was acquired by Bridgepoint private equity for a price rumoured to be £120mn (some 18x 2017 EBITDA of £6.5mn). By 2021, PEI had EBITDA of £16.6mn on revenue of £34.5mn – 29% above the 2019 pre-pandemic peak, divided 80:20 between publishing and conferences.
The company, which employs 400 people, generates more than 50% of its revenue from outside the UK / Europe. Its major brands include: PERE, Infrastructure Investor, Private Debt Investor, Private Equity International, Real Estate Capital, Private Funds Management, Agri Investor, Responsible Investor and Secondaries Investor. Its PEI 300 is an annual ranking of the “300 biggest private equity groups” based on capital raised for investment in the previous five years. During the past four years, PEI has made three acquisitions, including Argosy, of the US, for a reported £15.2mn.
What were your earliest ambitions?
Awkwardly, I can’t recall having any clear ambitions in early life. I was just a bit excited to be prancing around late 1990’s London with some self-earned cash in my pocket. I could fake it and say I had designs on a career in business media – because I saw a path from there towards connected digital information, active communities, and data services. But I was only really thinking of rent, rations, and recreation in the beginning. Some months, I could afford all three.
What was your first job in media?
My first job – one I think of very fondly – was EMAP: classified advertising telesales for trade weeklies. I discovered there were jobs people did in London, that I never knew were ‘needed’. That we could sometimes be paid really well but often hardly much at all. And that the difference came down to a blend of charisma, persistence, resilience, industriousness, and good luck. All in equal measure.
I learned the dark arts of DIPADA and AIDA and SPIN and other ‘spells’ (for those that know / remember). Of being well organised. Having clear objectives. Explaining things precisely. Seeing the world through lenses of ‘features, advantages, benefits’ and ‘matching customer needs’. All solid foundational stuff. We’re always in ‘sales’ aren’t we? The patterns and instincts picked up in those initial years are very ingrained in me.
I am one of those old EMAP-ers who rave about the young, energising, freewheeling, heyday of UK publishing. I worked with some fantastic people – some hugely inspiring personalities. The culture was loose but still strongly binding. Plans were clear and simple. Everyone understood their part in the game. That kind of loose yet binding culture – and setting of clear, simple plans – is very much alive at PEI.
Oh – and EMAP was famously parsimonious – I’ve never forgotten the merit of that. Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste other people’s time. Don’t waste money.
What were the milestones of your career at EMAP?
I had two great stints at EMAP (before its change into Ascential plc) – with a few intervening years in commercial management at the Daily Mail Group. I was asked back to EMAP in the heady times of what we now know was the dot-com bubble. Many of EMAP’s legacy assets were being pushed and prodded towards the internet. That was early noughties.
There was a marvellous commitment to change – transforming staid old brands into sparkly websites and alluring jobs boards. Some brands were more capable of that shift, than others. The public company was under enormous pressure by then to change: the fun of the 1990’s was replaced with the higher-pressure thrill of surviving and winning in ‘restart’ and ‘start-up’ modes.
The brands I led were actually rather pioneering – launching some of the first digital daily news websites, transforming digital editorial workflows, evolving print-media advertising models into new online formats. Some of that’s old hat or taken for granted now, of course. But, back then, these things stood out for innovation and upheaval. There was a lot of inertia and incumbency to overcome. Daily digital publishing (if the content is compelling) totally changed the pacing, impact, and influence of those brands, and catalysed their commercial models.
I was fortunate that the markets we served were international and still had a high requirement for information and market coverage in all forms. The job took me all around the world to wherever TV and Film industries convened (my division being B2B information for Film, Commercials and TV production). We ran events and conferences, partnered with international festivals, built critical databases, DRM catalogues: a fully format-agnostic range of activities that accepted both the primacy of ‘digital’, but also the enduring necessity of referenceable information and data.
EMAP was being compelled by shifting times to accelerate difficult change. But my interpretation of that was not ‘change: or die’ – it was that ‘growth is change: opportunity demands it’.
In PEI, I met two thoroughly inspiring co-founders who thought the same way.
What is PEI Group?
It’s a subscriber-focussed business intelligence company.
Our purpose is to inform and connect high-level professionals across global, specialised investment markets. We focus on high-growth ‘private assets’ investing and important related fields of ‘compliance’ and ‘sustainable investing’. Those are very robust, expanding industries – and great client sectors for us. Responsible and sustainable investment themes are something of a mission for PEI.
We’re a private equity backed company – and, of course, private equity is one of the key asset classes in the ‘alternative asset class mix’. So, we see our markets from an unusually well-informed position of being an ‘interlocutor’ in the market as well as an owned asset in a PE portfolio.
PEI Group was launched into a space that no one had spotted before. It has been multi-valent and media-agnostic from day one. We have remained excited about growth and confident in our capability – we have great belief that we can evolve and adapt, in all relevant ways, to ever-changing market needs.
If there’s an opportunity, we can understand it. We can do it. There isn’t anything we can’t do.
I don’t see another direct competitor for our group – the PEI platform of information brands and constituent parts is broadly and strongly established – but these customer markets do have wide and varied client needs and that supports a range of providers of other information services and datasets. Some of those are big and important. Some are small. We compete at the product brand level with a few of them – and we are ‘inspired’ by them all, to some extent.
What changed when you were acquired by private equity?
PEI Group is different now in almost every aspect – not directly because of the PE-ownership influence but mainly because we arduously pursued the market opportunities and have done what was necessary. PEI has grown its enterprise value more than 10x (and 6x in headcount) since our first MBO.
We have operations in London, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Toyko and more. Product management and digital product development sits at the heart all our thinking. Research and analytics – the gathering, organising and presenting of data – is a significant operating division alongside a redoubling journalistic resource. In supporting that business growth, we’ve been on the kind of journey you’d expect: building out customer data management, business analysis, scaling sales and marketing activities; investing confidently in the right business systems and infrastructure.
PEI’s private equity owners bring foresight and oversight and business experience. For PEI, that ownership also adds an ‘insider’ perspective on what’s happening in the PE market. The discipline, control, and intelligence of a PE-minded board, brought to bear on a super business, positioned in excellent markets really has been wonderful for PEI.
What’s special about PEI?
We have a culture which is loose but highly binding. Everyone here is vital and knows what we’re trying to do. Management hierarchy is not deep and we’re not so big yet that people won’t quickly find their place here. It’s not bureaucratic: we ask people to think it through, then take action. There is a long-standing ‘growth habit’ at PEI that is infectious – our markets are replete with opportunity, we can see what it takes to win, we have a built-capability and so we run with that.
Our progress continues to outpace a range of other organisations that we see at work in these markets. The quality of our editorial relationships, client understanding and the strength of our convening power in our chosen communities is second to none. The combination of market depth, apposite products and hard graft means our organic growth is also exceptional – good organic growth makes for great margins. Reliable margins make for good forward-planning foundations. We’ve never been able to lean on a bigger group structure or borrowed resourced, so we’ve done a good job at scaling up.
What is your own primary role?
I set the plan – where we are going, how we are going to get there, what will we need, who is going to come along. Its a job of amalgamation, configuration, (re)organisation. Listening, debating, choosing, ensuring action. And being ‘pig headed’ too, when necessary.
I don’t profess to be the key expert in our customer’s market activities – there’s great team of market-experts here at PEI who have been swimming in these rivers for a long time and I’ve been here “only” 15 years. So w’ere blessed with an expert panel of contributors to the rolling debates about how best to conduct our growth. But maybe I know enough. With all the facets we have and the opportunities we see, choice and focus is always the crucial issue. When there’s a surfeit of ideas and opinions of what to do next or what to do most – my job is to drive the consensus and narrow the focus. Maybe a cliché – but my job is to control the company’s attention and hold it to its promises.
What I’ve loved most (and continue to be excited by) is bringing out the great capabilities in our teams (and challenging my leadership team to do the same) and shaping the overall competency set we’re taking to the challenge. We’ve expedited some excellent people as we’ve grown – and we’ve brought in heft and expertise where we’ve needed it. Bulking up, pushing the pace, and practising good harmonies as we go along.
What is your vision for the company in, say, 2-3 years?
The pace of development at PEI is increasing. PEI will double in size again in the next three years – on an organic basis – at least. I expect us to develop a highly progressive cadence in continuous product development for existing customer types – and new products that build from our brand positions – and for that to increase addressability of PEI brands in their selected markets. These are big markets, they’re growing and we can win more.
This current growth chapter has not been a ‘buy and build’ for Bridgepoint/ PEI– but we have made some sensible acquisitions at proper scale that have advanced our strategy – accretive of course, but eminently strategic. Those have added a lot to the story and there is clear scope for more of that. We don’t see relevance in an ‘either/or’ idea that companies like PEI should be categorised as either ‘information’ or ‘data’ businesses. In our markets, there is an absolutely clear need for every kind of knowledge advantage – up-to-the-minute journalism, general market erudition, well-sourced critical data, analytics tools – and there is clear value in the socialisation/discursive consideration of such news, data, analysis and how that relates to or informs market-actors and activity.
PEI’s busy doing all that and detects the customer need for it. It is all necessary knowledge flow, organised and made available in ways that are such a long way from EMAP of 20+ years ago.
What are the best lessons you have learned?
The teachers of these lessons will know who they are:
- “There is no simple succession of media in business information markets.”
- “You need to know your numbers – or why would I need you?”
- “NPS is ornamental – churn rates don’t lie.”
- “There are no good ways to make difficult decisions. Take the decision, then make it good.”
- “Incentives don’t do ‘management’ for you.”
- “Beware walking at a rate of 10, but talking at a rate of 5.”
Which companies do you most admire?
Whatever is happening now with the breakup story, I am impressed with the evolution of EMAP into Ascential under Duncan Painter’s leadership. I see The Ship of Theseus reaching other shores. How the announced split will find full value remains to be seen – but the ruthless focus on replacing all the masts and planks (and thus escaping the legacy of a fairly leaden portfolio), has been a marvel to observe.
Another business story that I’ve been admiring is the acquisition of Pitchbook, by Morning Star. LTM revenue pre-acquisition was c$30m. Growing to $80m in the follow-on year and, according to the latest shareholder info, is now doing >$80m per quarter. That’s some remarkable uplift in value and a great example of Pitchbook driving revenue value and supporting pricing power by adding content value – and Morning Star seeing ways to sell more good stuff to a customer base it already largely owns.