The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

How I do it: James Tye, ex Dennis CEO

James Tye was CEO of Dennis Publishing, the transatlantic magazine-centric publisher launched 50 years ago by the late British entrepreneur Felix Dennis. Its major brands have included Computer Shopper, The Week, Maxim, PC Pro, Evo, Computeractive, AutoExpress, and The Week Junior. Tye started as a tech journalist and worked for Dennis for more than half of the company’s life, including 16 years as CEO.

The loud and legendary Felix Dennis died in 2014, aged 67, It was the tragic end of a career which had begun with the 1970s launch of Kung Fu Monthly. He followed-up with the opportunistic launch and acquisition of magazines on bikes, cars, music, computer games and gadgets in the UK and US. He rescued and transformed The Week and launched Maxim successfully on both sides of the Atlantic. He left most of his estate to a charity dedicated to growing a 20,000-acre forest near his home in “The Heart of England”.

Tye became CEO in 2006 and continued to manage the business after the founder’s death and under private equity, which acquired it for £167mn in 2018. Dennis Publishing was subsequently acquired by Future Plc for £300mn in 2021. He continues to work for the private equity former owners of Dennis, including as chair of the Autovia automotive business spun-out in 2021. He graduated in business studies and computing.

“Felix Dennis told me to make it a great place to work”

What were your earliest ambitions?

I never had that one, single idea of what I wanted to ‘be’ or do as a child or teenager. I had toyed with the idea of joining the armed forces – and had trained as an assistant chef too. I had always loved technology and computers, though, and could see how the humble PC was going to change our world and at breakneck pace. I was also an avid magazine reader and collector and had an early passion for the written word and language. These passions and skills led me to my very first editorial role on technology and computing magazines. The 1990’s were a boom time for the tech industry in the UK and US and a very exciting place to be. 

What was your first job in media?

I finished my degree in 1991 – at the tail end of a deep and scarring recession in the UK. There wasn’t a huge amount of opportunity for graduates at that time and I quickly realised that the world didn’t owe me a thing. Armed with an early IBM PC and basic printer, I sent a number of prominent tech magazines a review of myself, each time replicating (badly I expect, given my DTP skills) the format of the magazine reviews page. In a stroke of luck, this landed me a staff writer job on PC Today, at Europress, in Macclesfield, in England’s north-west.

I spent a year at Europress, learning the ‘magazine ropes’ and enjoying the unique buzz and teamwork of an editorial team and the thrill of a deadline. It wasn’t long before I was pitching ideas for new magazines, including an early idea for a Windows Magazine (Windows 3.0: remember that?). I could see how this strange, new ‘graphical user interface’ was taking the world by storm. But, sadly, Europress didn’t agree. What it did teach me, though, was the excitement of new and emerging markets and that I wanted to be creating new ideas and products. I learned a lot at Europress but the bright lights of London and its media scene was too tempting to resist. 

What were your highlights at Dennis Publishing?

I steered the company through three, very different phases of ownership – private ownership under maverick publisher and entrepreneur Felix Dennis, then a holding phase owned by his estate and trust and then, finally, under the stewardship of Exponent private equity.

I’m hugely proud of the fact Dennis grew and flourished, with the top and bottom line growing for 16 glorious years; through boom, bust and pandemic. It wasn’t easy navigating numerous market storms, industry changes and challenges over the years. But those challenges always provided us with opportunities if we were alert and nimble. 

Before Felix died, he made two requests. The first was to keep the company’s head office in London, no matter how tempting it might be to move. Secondly, to make Dennis a great place to work.

So, perhaps my proudest achievement was creating a company that, I believe, was a great place to work; a creative and compelling culture where everyone was able to contribute and succeed. Dennis was a business that genuinely cared about its people. 

What made the company successful? 

Ultimately, a company is only ever a wrapper and a loose wrapper at that. A name over the door. A company is nothing without great people who want to come to work and do their best work. At Dennis, we wanted to create a great place to work; a place where talented people worked hard to grow the business and their careers. A supportive, permissive and creative culture where they could have lots of fun along the way.

And that, I believe, is the Dennis legacy. Thousands of talented people walked through those doors over the years. They walked in, they decided to stay and they made us who we were. They made a difference to Dennis, they made a difference to our customers and readers and they made a difference to me.

What was it like working for Felix Dennis? 

It’s a cliche to say it was a privilege to work for a man like Felix Dennis, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it. Felix loved life and business and was a bundle of crackling energy and cackling laughter. All packaged up in this sharp, ribald, larger-than-life entrepreneur. He had a sixth sense for human beings and could read people so easily; so well, in fact, I sometimes wondered whether the Dennis office was bugged.

Felix was full of contradictions. For a man who talked so much – a meeting with Felix was often an audience with Felix – he listened and watched people intently. And very rarely missed a thing. He had an unerring ability to look around corners in business which made him a great manager and motivator of people. And a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur.

He taught me that it’s values that create a company; not processes or functions. He even wrote a poem about it called “The Bearded Dwarf”. He taught me humility and reflection. At least, I think – and hope – he did!

Felix would invite me to look in the mirror and be comfortable with myself, as a final check and balance on any strategic change or project we were about to undertake. Not a bad motto for everything we encounter in life.

What was it like selling ‘your’ company after 25 years? 

When Felix died in 2014, there was a lot of industry comment and concern that Dennis Publishing would die with him. I was absolutely determined to prove those naysayers wrong; for Felix, for the staff and of course, for me. 

Felix may have died but we hadn’t lost our spirit, determination or ambition to be the UK’s leading and most innovative media company. We stuck to our word and had a phenomenal year: we launched seven new products that year and made two acquisitions.

This relentless focus on growth and new products kept us agile, successful and ahead of the market. We were humbled by the numerous awards for our print and digital performance and market leading products. 

And, when the time came for Felix’s estate to sell Dennis to help fund his lasting legacy, the Heart of England Forest charity, the company attracted a huge amount of interest in what was a highly-contested and competitive sale process.

When we finally signed the deal with Exponent – in person and with real pens back in 2018 – I remember a sense of euphoria and relief. A sense of a new and exciting beginning and I believed very strongly that the pe firm was exactly the right owner for the business.

How different was managing under private equity? 

Exponent demonstrated great respect for the Dennis history, brands and culture and realised this was a fundamental part of the success. In that respect, little changed but elsewhere there was tremendous change and opportunity to grapple with. We quickly reunited Dennis UK and US into one company and created a single “superbrand” in The Week. Along with the launch of The Week Junior and the acquisition of the Kiplinger financial newsletters in the US, Dennis became a subscription powerhouse that helped us double our value in just three short years.

I learned and grew, working with the whip-smart, highly experienced and well-connected Exponent team who were respectful and generous with their time. It made our board a phenomenal team to work with. 

I would characterise that three-year period as the most challenging yet fulfilling and satisfying in my long career as CEO at Dennis.

Was the sale to Future (and your own exit) an emotional experience? 

When a business is owned by private equity, you know for sure where the journey will end, but never quite how long that journey will take – nor where the final destination will be. It’s an entrancing mix of certainty and ambiguity with which you quickly need to become comfortable.

My advice to anyone who asked about any sale timetable was to respond by saying ‘let’s just build a great business together and we will see where that gets us’. And we did exactly that; increasing revenues by 70% in three years and profit by nearly the same. We were all phenomenally proud of what we achieved; the rest, as they say, is history.

I did my very best to be open with all our people at all times. I like to hope this made the eventual sale of Dennis to Future an easier process for our people than it could have been.

As this was a remote, Docusign transaction during a pandemic, the sale of Dennis felt more detached and remote than all of the other deals I had been involved in over the years. It perhaps didn’t help that I fell ill with Covid just days after we announced the sale. The irony wasn’t wasted on me that, perhaps, this was my body’s way of telling me to take an enforced break; the pace and pressure of a £300m transaction isn’t for the faint hearted. 

What are the best lessons you have learned?

In times of trouble or when things hadn’t gone to plan, Felix would often say, “You know what, James? That could just be good luck disguised as bad luck.”

His words have always stuck with me and reminded me what resilience is – the ability to take a knock, pick yourself back up and look forward to the future.

On a more personal level, I am a huge believer in investing in yourself – emotionally, physically and to always keep learning. Remain curious, be kind, be honest and don’t be afraid of change. After all, if you can’t change, how can you reasonably expect your team and business to?

Which companies do you most admire?

Too many to mention! I’m a firm believer in looking outside your own company for great ideas and inspiration and the UK media sector is full of success stories and great people. 

Rather than be invidious and talent spot companies in my own sector, though, I’ll give a shout out to Games Workshop, a very British success story which thrived in the pandemic and has created some highly valuable IP. It continues to expand globally, with a market cap now of around £3bn, from very humble hobbyist beginnings.

Deep dive into its shareholder reports and the company talks about the importance of its workforce and how the company invests in its people, motivates and rewards them. Games Workshop seems to me to be a company which works very hard to give something back.

What’s next?

I’m working as Executive Chair at Autovia (the automotive business spun-out from Dennis) and loving it. I also work as non-executive Chair for Manageable, an exciting start-up in the coaching space. It takes a disruptive and novel approach to coaching in that, instead of relying on limited coaching for the very top executive layer – itself a highly congested and oversold space – it instead turns managers into great coaches themselves. 

As for me, I’ll do my best to retain my love of life, business and opportunity. If working with Felix Dennis taught me anything, it was to embrace life as a journey and never, ever look back.