B2B information. It is more than six months since the London-based Horizon Capital (formerly Lyceum) hired advisers to find a buyer for AgriBriefing. The increasingly international B2B specialist had been launched in 2010 as Briefing Media, by Neil Thackray. He had started out by selling UK recruitment advertising for Reed Business Information before becoming a CEO in B2B companies large and small, and an outspoken advocate of reinvention in traditional media. In 2010, he teamed with former marketing director Rory Brown (ex Metal Bulletin, EMAP and Incisive Media) and Rupert Levy (a finance director from Haymarket and UBM). It was a compelling mix of experience and ambition. Their new company Briefing Media started with errr Media Briefing which produced smart (but largely unprofitable) analysis of the digital media wars. It became a platform for profits from the British Media Awards and high-flying media-tech conferences including Digital Media Strategies (now in its eighth year and owned by Haymarket Media). In 2012, Kester private equity backed Briefing Media’s £10m acquisition of agriculture and medical publications from another of Thackray’s former employers, UBM. The medical magazine Pulse was divested in 2013 and the media industry activities were sold four years later as the company became a farming-food specialist. Its Farmers Guardian’s location in unfashionable, low-cost Preston (four hours from the London headquarters) had been one reason why the weekly had been neglected for so long by UBM – and also why it became a high-margin contributor to Thackray and Brown’s success. Their energetic strategy seemed to have five objectives:
- Grow digital revenues while maximising print
- Replace subscriptions and retail copy sales with a three-tier membership scheme
- Build strong exhibitions, conferences and awards events
- Acquire high-value data, especially ‘price reporting agencies’
- Go global
The energetic strategy delivered, as the 175-year-old Farmers Guardian pushed up revenue by 57% in four years. Operating profits jumped by 27% with members paying up to £138 annually for a package of offers including early access to classified ads, data services and insurance discounts. The success was consolidated by acquisition of the 40-year-old LAMMA agricultural machinery show, the launch of the CropTec exhibition for arable farming, and LAMMA Exchange machinery digital classifieds. Then came the rapid climb up the B2B value chain with well-targeted data-rich acquisitions. In 2014, they paid some £300k for the Agrimoney investment site which gave a 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. Last year, Briefing Media rebranded as AgriBriefing and CEO Neil Thackray became non-executive and handed over to co-founder Rory Brownin what has proved to be a smooth transition. The changes seemed to signal the maturing of the company which, just three years earlier, had revenues of £5.8m (100% from the UK). By 2018, its estimated £30m revenue came 50% from outside the UK, and included at least 50% from subscriptions. EBITDA profit margins are estimated to be some 30%, and the total audience is claimed to comprise some 500k agribusiness professionals in 200 countries. In 2015, Kester Capital had sold AgriBriefing on to Horizon/Lyceum for £37m. Having pushed up profits and spent some £30m on acquisitions, its valuation may now be more than £150m as it seeks to capitalise on the fragmentation of information services in global farming-food. Far from merely giving their latest private equity partner another good payday, the AgriBriefing founders may now be captivated by a perfect storm of UK-based M&A in their sector: Reed Business Information is believed to be selling Farmers Weekly, the flagship print-digital brand which has been successively bested by the upstart Farmers Guardian; Informa is selling its £30m-revenue Agribusiness Intelligence which operates in the US, Canada, Brazil, UK, Belgium, Germany, Hong Kong and Australia; and Inflexion private equity is ready to sell Kynetec, the £40m-revenue, 16-year-old farming market research specialist which had been divested by Frankfurt-based GfK in 2016. It has become a world leader following acquisition of an Ipsos subsidiary in North America and Market Probe in Continental Europe. By acquiring, say, Agribusiness Intelligence and Kynetec, AgriBriefing would move into the heart of global farming-food prices, research and consulting. The appetising combination could turn the one-time B2B startup into a truly international information specialist employing some 500 people, with £100m of revenue, perhaps £40m EBITDA and a valuation of more than £400m. AgriBriefing can then contemplate some yet larger US and Asian transactions – and an IPO. Wow.