Interview: Faversham's Amanda Barnes

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How did the management buyout come about? It is all tied up with the history of the company. Faversham House was founded by my father Vic Gould in the 1960s with his business partner Jack Pearce. They started with our first magazine, Heating and Ventilating Review. My father was in charge of sales and Jack was editorial. Things grew from there and it has been a family company for 50 years. Ownership eventually passed from my father to my brother John and I. My sisters are involved as well and my mum still works there. But my siblings are older and wanted to retire or do other things. That left the option of a trade sale or a management buyout. In February 2010, I decided to approach some investment people I knew to help with a buyout. What were you doing before Faversham? I did an English degree at Oxford, then credit training at Citibank, so I went from English to finance. I did that for six years and ended up being chief of staff at the corporate bank. But I have always been interested in how businesses work and business modelling, so I went off and did an MBA. I then had to decide whether to go back into banking or persuade the family to let me join Faversham House. I had to work quite hard on persuading them too, I can tell you. I love all parts of our business but I have a special place for exhibitions – I love being onsite, especially during buildup and then seeing the team’s faces when visitors start coming into the hall. How do you describe Faversham’s approach? We have a market focus as well as a media focus. We have been doing exhibitions since 1963, when my father saw an opportunity to launch a series of regional trade shows. The exhibitions have since grown and we’ve moved into national shows. Our market focus is heavily on water and environment, building services and then we have a home improvement division, which is mainly magazines and online. Our final category is visual communications, which culminates in our Sign and Digital events portfolio. We have tried to own a few key market segments. How do you choose your segments? Sometimes they’ve chosen us. We started with the building services side then did a number of launches and acquisitions in that area. The home improvement portfolio came through one gentleman who joined us and we’ve done acquisitions in that space as well. With visual communications, we were looking for another market to step into around 2000 and bought Sign and Digital when it was on its knees. We had to really prove our mettle and turn that show around. Our focus going forward is very much on our key markets but we are keen to expand our exhibitions and magazines. We have also been in online for 14 years and continue to build on that heritage. Our environmental portal edie.net [Environmental Data Interactive Exchange] for example, is a big focus. Have all the events stemmed from your existing publications portfolio? It has been a mixture. Sign and Digital UK was a purchase of a standalone exhibition. With Sustainability Live, it has been a mixture of launches and purchases which have come together over the past four years. We’ve done this because you need scale, but it also fits what’s happening in the market. In the past, companies would have an energy manager. Today, they have sustainability managers and environmental managers and they’re interested in all these different things. As a result, we have developed a mixture of horizontal and vertical markets within Sustainability Live. IWEX [International Water and Effluent Exhibition] is very much aimed at water professionals because that is their job, whereas NEMEX [National Energy Management Exhibition] could be people in any market sector – they could be in retail, engineering – but the common thread across all is energy management. Are you looking to acquire or launch? We are open to doing both. Alongside the management buyout last year, we acquired Utility Week from RBI. It wasn’t ideal timing but it was a perfect fit: There was a strong awards side, fantastic brand recognition and it perfectly complemented our portfolio. We will continue to look for things that complement what we already do and give us more depth and breadth in those markets. It’s fair to say we will always like face-to-face and exhibition acquisitions. What is the biggest challenge you face as an exhibition organiser? Because we are not a pure-play exhibition company, we look at things somewhat differently and that’s where the print side helps us as an exhibition organiser. We have such depth in our relationships on the print side and huge amounts of content. That helps when you also bring in online, and I would like to see exhibitions working more all year-round, not just as an isolated event. Our clients are looking at marketing as an integrated activity and want solutions that include exhibitions with print and online. Our challenge is to provide that and make sure all the products work together. We have an enormous amount of data and business relationships, we just need to use those more intelligently to give clients what they want. What does Faversham’s exhibition line-up include today? We are concentrating on our national events, so we recently sold our Road Expo portfolio to Brintex. They were great shows, but sat on their own and we need to concentrate on our key markets. Our portfolio now includes Sustainability Live, which is made up of several exhibitions including HEVAR, which came in this year and covers the heating and ventilation side. We are launching The ACR Show [air conditioning and refrigeration] next March as we’re very close to that market and our clients were telling us they wanted a standalone show in early Spring. Emap had the RAC Show in that market before but has chosen to move it to a different time of year [October]. We are also looking at a couple of launches. We do have quite a presence in Ireland in the environmental as well as print and visual communications sectors. That geography has been pretty badly hammered in the last couple of years. What potential inhibitors do you face? Finding the right opportunities is the inhibitor. Often, it comes down to getting enough good people and having the structure in place. Our first six months since the buyout have been spent tidying up and maintaining a tight focus on our core products. Over the next six months, we will work to get the structure of the company right. We have a talented senior management team with bags of experience and lots of enthusiasm, so the next step is about empowering them to think more strategically, rather than just as an exhibition organiser or magazine publisher. Will we see more people coming into the business? Since the buyout we have grown by 20 people, mainly in sales and business development. Aside from recruitment, we also need to make sure they’re selling right. For example, we’re looking for more integrated sales within our Sustainability Live shows. Do you see virtual events becoming part of Faversham’s offering? I have attended a few virtual events and didn’t find them stimulating or very good. But I will look at them again as the web is a natural extension for us. However, people like coming to exhibitions to see what’s on the market and what their competitors are up to. As the world moves more online, the need for human interaction is only going to continue to grow. Online can definitely work hand-in-hand with exhibitions, just like online can work well with print products. Everyone is moving more towards recognition of the overall brand. The advantage our magazines give us is huge credibility and trust. What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve been given? You need to give 110 per cent and whatever you turn your hand to, you need to be positive and look for the opportunity, even where there have been really big challenges. Last year was challenging for us with the buyout. When the recession hit in February 2008, our business declined by 40 per cent. It was a difficult time and we had to make people redundant, but we came through stronger and much more focused as a company. Is the industry over the downturn? I’ve seen good indicators in several areas but it’s still very patchy. And it’s patchy for our clients. Despite this, we have to look forward and stop gazing at our own navels. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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