Shaper: Mark Allen

Show aired on 30th April 2016

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Gregory Porter with Liquid Spirit; he’s on the front cover of Jazzwise, that’s the UKs biggest selling jazz magazine and the reason I mention it here on Jazz Shapers is because I am with my Business Shaper, Mark Allen. Good morning it is the time where you get to hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul along with their equivalents in the world of business and I am Elliot Moss, just in case you didn’t know and I get the chance to talk to these amazing people every Saturday and Mr Mark Allen is the founder of and in fact, the chairman of the Mark Allen Group and they are the people behind Jazzwise. They own Jazzwise along with sixty five other publications but they are not just a publications business, they are also an events business and they do exhibitions; they do all sorts of stuff. You are going to be hearing Mark’s fantastic story very shortly. In addition to hearing from Mark, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business and then there is some brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul including Nina Simone, blues man Albert King, new music from Robert Glasper – what a treat that is going to be and this from one of my favourite pianists, it’s Mr Neil Cowley with his Trio.

That was the Neil Cowley Trio with the fantastic Sparkling and watch out for the new album later in 2016. Mark Allen as I said, is my Business Shaper today. He is the chairman of the Mark Allen Group and if you don’t know who they are, you will do I promise, by 10.00am because the chances are you have probably read one of their many publications or even attended one of their exhibitions or been involved with them without realising. Now Mark, you have a fascinating story and it is always hard to know where to begin so we will try to begin at the beginning. Thank you so much for joining me firstly.

Mark Allen
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
You were a journalist and the journalist became an unintentional owner. Tell me about when things changed for you – way back when and then we will talk about the bumps along the way before you became this incredible head of an empire.

Mark Allen
Well thank you very much Elliot and it’s delightful to be here today. Yes I was a journalist, I worked on an evening newspaper in Sheffield after I left University. I did that for three years and then I kind of joined the Daily Express in Manchester. I was a kind of investigatory report and then a sub-editor and I was always sort of conflicted because when I was at University I was very kind of socially engaged. I was a, you know, a little bit left wing in those days and so I launched a kind of a charity which is involved in kind of a lot of voluntary work so being either a journalist or a social worker was always kind of in conflict but finally I elected to be a journalist, a newspaper journalist and then I… so I was in the Sheffield Star for three years, the Daily Express for three years and then I became an editor of a new social work magazine so my interests in journalism and social policy, social work coelest because I became an editor of Community Care back in the 70s. As the editor I was sort of a fairly young age and that was a seminal experience for me because I had never managed anyone before and suddenly I had to kind of launch a magazine and manage a group of people so I was very contented being a kind of editor and a journalist and then I did Community Care for a number of years. I then became the editor of a magazine called Nursing Mirror which became very successful. We won three different sort of awards. I became the Editor of the Year and we won the Magazine of the Year and we won the Campaign of the Year. We actually campaigned for nurses pay and so I was very contented going down the journalist track and then one day I was actually asked if I would become a publisher and you know, if you like a publisher is a mini managing director of a magazine or a group of magazines and I slightly shied at the idea because I always thought of myself as being simply a journalist and I had no real experience with the commercial world. Anyway I did that and enjoyed it – that was with Reed – because I found that I could be very creative in trying to get things going on the magazines and so I did that for three years and then suddenly I was head hunted by another company, Thomson who used to own The Times. It was a job that I turned down about three different times because I didn’t really trust them at the time as a company. They seemed to be bobbing in and out of different sort of sectors but finally I did join them and a year later they suddenly decided they wanted to get out of medical publishing, I was the head of this group and I was very cross about that and I went to the managing director, came to see me and said, ‘Look I am sorry but we are getting out of the medical world. We can offer you another job in our farm and meat group’ and I said, ‘No way but what I will do if you like is try to buy some of the publications’. So overnight, out of frustration, annoyance, I became an entrepreneur which is something I hadn’t really thought of before.

Elliot Moss
And that’s a pretty extraordinary way into ownership. How about that. You are going to hear lots more about the journalist turned rather successful entrepreneur because the story gets better. That’s my Business Shaper today, Mark Allen. Time for some music though right now, it’s the classic, it’s Mr Albert King with Kansas City.

The blues man Albert King with Kansas City. Mark Allen is my Business Shaper and as you were hearing he was a journalist and he got angry and he ended up being forced into buying a publication, a few publications actually. Now the story here at this point, you kind of, it’s interesting. You took some twists and turns on the way. Those first few years where you built, you couldn’t get the money, you eventually did get the money to buy these publications. You worked out a different model of doing things, subscription only publication which worked fantastically well. You had a terribly tough time in the Courts. You then emerged. Now just briefly that little thing that I just summarised. How long was that period of time before the business began as we now, as we look at the business now – you can trace it back to these super successful times – how long was that period where it wasn’t clear whether actually you were going to make it or not?

Mark Allen
Well I suppose for the first ten years or so of having the business I always felt I was on the back foot because I started out with no money. I actually bought these two magazines from Thomson but I had no money. I actually went to my local bank and asked if I could borrow £10,000 and the bank manager declined, said he would only lend me the money if my father would act as security. My father, this is down in Somerset, my father was dying of Parkinson’s disease at the time so I wasn’t going to bother him and so I also had a partner who was meant to be coming in with me and the partner at the last second decided to cry off, he thought it was far too much of a risk so I was left on my own with no money so I had to think very creatively and what I decided to do, one of our journals which is a journal for hospital doctors, went out to thirty five thousand hospital doctors free of charge and because I had no other strategy it was all or nothing, I decided to try and convert that into a subscription only title and… which I did and that was a great success and probably it was the best decision out of the whole of my career that I have made because what that meant was that we generated something like £234,000 of revenue which was enough to actually get the business up and running. So that was the good news. So the first year of having my own business went really well. The second year proved to be a disaster because I thought I could walk on water and that’s always a very dangerous thing to believe and the second year I was asked if I wanted to buy a magazine which was a health care magazine. I tried to buy it off a company called Home & Law which had this title but I couldn’t agree the deal with them and then they suddenly offered me another title which was a magazine called Linkup. So I became very captivated about having this magazine but I realised that there were lots of danger signs because although the magazine was owned by this company, Home & Law, there was a publishing agreement with an organisation called the British Association for the Advancement of Science and they were entitled to 10% of the profits so the first thing I did was I went to see the British Association for the Advancement of Science and said, ‘Look I want to buy this magazine but I want you on side and if you are not inside then I will walk away because I don’t want any hassle. I am new into my business career’ and they agreed. I, you know, gave them my ideas and they said they liked them and then I… but they wouldn’t allow me to meet the staff so as soon as the deal was through I went to meet the editor and the ad director and I told them that I was buying the magazine, I had bought the magazine, I wanted them to come on board. I told them my plans for the magazine and they reacted positively but they said they will wait until the end of the week before they would let me know whether they would join me or not. The end of the week came and instead of getting a confirmation, what I got was a kind of a Writ for them being… for constructive dismissal so we went to the Tribunal. My solicitor and I and we won this action. They were just trying to… what they were trying to do is get the magazine for nothing because they had a connection and a link with the British Association for the Advancement of Science. So then the next thing that happened was – I only discovered this by chance – a magazine called Marketing Week came through to my office, on the front page of Marketing Week was an article which said, if I can remember the first paragraph, it said ‘A furious row has broken out over the mysterious sale of Linkup to a Battersea, I was then based in Battersea, Battersea publisher, Mark Allen’ and I was horrified. Two days later there was an article in the New Scientist – all generated by the editor and meanwhile the magazine which I bought which I had a lot of kind of blue chip advertisers – the Esso, Shell, British Airways – the phones started ringing and they said ‘cancel space we didn’t know this was controversial, cancel space’.

Elliot Moss
And we are going to hold it there because we are going to find out what happened next with the cancelled space but we are going to have to move to the latest travel in a moment but stay with me for much more about where this story goes with Mark Allen, my Business Shaper. Latest travel is coming up and before that some words of wisdom from our programme partners at Mishcon De Reya for your business.

This is Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday 9.00 to 10.00 you can find us right here on Jazz FM. Mark Allen is my Business Shaper today; he is the chairman of the Mark Allen Group, eponymously name and they look after sixty six publications and they do a whole other host of things as well. It is a phenomenally good business. We went back a bit in time though when we were at this point when it wasn’t so rosy Mark and this was just before you made it and there was this Court case pending basically on this new publication that you had bought. Very briefly just explain this Court case didn’t quite go the way you wanted it to go. What were you left with and how long did it then take you to build again?

Mark Allen
Well what I was finally left with was a bill for £525,000. Remember I had started the business with nothing. Even a £10,000 loan which the bank had refused and so that was a very dismal kind of period. I won the legal action. I fought this injunction against the advice of my solicitor but my pride was such that I thought I could not try and sort of face this action and we won it. We won the damages but we lost the commercial war because of all the kind of publicity and that was a very very sort of difficult period. I mean we were left with these enormous bills. The thing I am quite proud of is that because I bought this magazine in a different company the accountants at the time said ‘Well don’t worry about it, let’s just liquidate the company’ and you know, just move on and I said, ‘Well I can’t do that because I have got the printer who is actually servicing the medical journals which I have’ and the same printer was doing the kind of Linkup and I can’t you know, deal with him in one company and not deal with the other so every bit of money that I owed I paid back, you know, no one suffered at all. But I was very close to bankruptcy but I soldiered on. Technically probably I was you know, I was probably out of order but the one thing that was going well was the medical journals and we had pretty good cash flow which was coming in through subscriptions which I generated so that was a positive. So things were going you know, it was tough work but what I started to do was launch a lot of very small little niche health care magazines and I was doing all that off the margins and then I suppose the big stroke of luck came a few years later when I managed to buy a dental magazine for £5,000 and that was really a bit of a fluke because a friend of mine asked if I would go in with him to buy this magazine. We met these four delightful people who owned this magazine, they were all kind of north of 75 and we managed to buy it for £5,000. I mean the magazine had been around since 1959. It was a magazine called The Probe but the next day the person I thought I was going into business with this magazine decided to cry off and I didn’t know anything really about dentistry but I decided to go on with the magazine. I got a new ad manager on board. He bottled out before we started. I then got another person and I very nearly closed the magazine but one Monday I decided to get on the phone myself with an ad person and we decided there was quite a lot of advertising in the market but the other person hadn’t really been going out there so he went and I decided that I would go on with the magazine and we started from that point building it up and then literally four years later the magazine was going quite well. The phone went and someone on the back of the phone said, ‘We’d like to make an offer for The Probe’.

Elliot Moss
This is the one you bought for £5,000?

Mark Allen
That’s the one I bought for £5,000.

Elliot Moss
And you sold it for? Ladies and gentlemen…

Mark Allen
2.2 million.

Elliot Moss
And there you go and that’s what happens when you hold in there, you hunker down and the resilient Mark Allen finally gets his just desserts. Stay with me for much more and there is even more as I said, to this fantastic story. It all goes good and continues to have been good. Time for some more music, this is Nina Simone with one of my favourites, I like the title anyway and it is pretty bouncy to, it’s Brown Eyed Handsome Man.

Nina Simone with my aspirational title, Brown Eyed Handsome Man. I am talking about me of course. It may be that some of it is true. Well the brown eyed bit anyway. Mark Allen, this story that you have been telling where it sounded like you were on your knees, people keep bottling it left, right and centre. You carried on. Where did you get the gumption to carry on because now we are looking at a business that is turning over millions. We are looking at sixty two publications, sixty six publications. It would be very easy if I took a snapshot of the last two or three years to go ‘well he’s just arrived and is another good publishing house and he’s done a whole bunch of other stuff’ but I want to go back to those formative years because I am really intrigued about why you stuck it out? What is it about you that means we are having this conversation now?

Mark Allen
Well I think I am very very determined and I felt at the time I didn’t really have another option but to stick it out and try to make it succeed. So I think that if you work very hard at something and you believe that it is going to come right which I did believe, even the darkest moments I thought that things would eventually turn and you know, I had the support of friends and family and everything so, so I soldiered on and eventually it started to come out. Obviously buying The Probe was a very lucky break because it meant that I could clean up the, the… my balance sheet and off the back of some of that money I bought a house down in Wiltshire and we then started developing a kind of bit of a business down there. So that was when things started to begin to come right again.

Elliot Moss
And then the strategic plays into the health care, into education, into business, music, leisure, travel, exhibitions, all sorts of things that have then come through. How have you strategized? What’s made you go from one to another. What is it in the back of your mind because you said The Probe may have been a lucky break but you don’t keep having lucky breaks Mark, you are making strategic decisions. Where do they come from for you?

Mark Allen
Well I don’t think I am typical kind of Harvard Business School and you know lots of people would probably say that we’ve got our eggs in far too many baskets but as far as I am concerned I quite like the fact that we have got a wide range of different products and I think first of all we developed a kind of business in health care publications and a lot of those were niche publications so we have got several journals that serve kind of the nursing population as well as you know, doctors and health care you know, managers and so that was a kind of if you like a lot of niche kind of magazines and journals which we were launching and that all started to build up quite well. Most of them were subscription based, you know, small little magazines and that started to come good and then I was always kind of interested in education and my wife is a teacher, was a teacher and we decided to go into the educational world. First of all I launched a magazine called EYE – Early Years Educator and then we started acquiring and launching one or two other kind of titles and now we have got seven or eight sort of different education titles so that came second to the kind of health care side.

Elliot Moss
But it sounds like you just sort of said, ‘Well I am passionate and I like the look of them’ and then you apply the same logic to how to build a business. I mean basically that sounds what has been going on.

Mark Allen
Yeah, I mean I think that, I mean some people always said that I was a medical publisher. I am not a medical publisher. I don’t actually know a great deal about medicine. I like doctors and nurses but I believe that I am a publisher and I think if you have got the skills in launching in one sector then you should have the skills of actually being involved in other parts of publishing and so that is what I have tried to do. Obviously more recently we’ve acquired, I have acquired a lot of magazines from Haymarket and they have all worked out very well and at the moment I am indulging some of my passion which is in music, I love music. I bought you know, Jazzwise magazine which has been a tremendous sort of boost to the company. It’s pointed us in a different direction and from Jazzwise we have actually then gone on to buy you know, Gramophone Magazine from Haymarket and then Song Lines I bought last year from you know basically, Chris Pollard and some other sort of directors and so I am now if you like indulging myself but you know, not, it’s not… there’s a commercial rational for what we are doing in the music side because all three of those magazines are profitable and making money but it is something that I enjoy doing.

Elliot Moss
And indeed it hasn’t been a super indulgence because your business is now turning over just around thirty million pounds or just under which sounds to me to be pretty healthy indeed with a very healthy margin to. Final chat coming up with Mark plus we are going to be playing a track from Robert Glasper’s Miles Davis Project. That’s after the latest traffic and travel.

That was Robert Glasper and Miles Davis, I’m Leaving You. It is off the album Everything’s Beautiful and if you’ve seen the film Miles Ahead then you will know it is from there as well. Mark Allen is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes. You’ve now built this business Mark and it is north of thirty million and the profits north of four million. I mean extraordinary from the time when you couldn’t get £10,000 from the bank manager – I bet he’s ruing the day he didn’t provide you with your funds. But anyway so be it. What does the future hold for you now? You’ve built this empire, your son is in the business now I believe in a significant way, he’s managing director. Where do you go from here? Have you still got the passion? Still got the drive or are you going to put your feet up soon?

Mark Allen
Well I still have the passion.

Elliot Moss
He’s young by the way, very young but I am asking, obviously you have been doing it a long time.

Mark Allen
Well I don’t feel young at times but I have still got a lot of energy and passion and having, it’s a family business so the only shareholders are the family so obviously I am the majority shareholder with my wife and my son is involved and my children but it is a family business and I think that what we have got and had in the last few years is a momentum and as long as a momentum keeps going, you know, I want to keep going and as you’ve said, we’ve turned over thirty two and a half million, we made, will make about four and a half million pound profit this year, net profit which a publishing company is very good. I don’t think many publishing companies are doing as well as that but I think that we’ve got plenty of opportunities to develop the business. We’ve got a five year plan, our five year plan is to develop the business into fifty million and to make somewhere in the region of you know, eight million pound, nine million pound profit so that’s what we are trying to do and as long as I am enjoying it, which I still am, then we will go on. But I think in business it’s important also to have a hinterland and I would like to believe I have a hinterland. I love music, I try to play the saxophone, not very well but I’ve got interests like that which I think keep you going and give you the passion and the enthusiasm to actually help develop the business.

Elliot Moss
If I turn round tomorrow and said I have got a buyer for you, are you for sale?

Mark Allen
I am always a street trader Elliot so if you come up with the right money, I’ll be prepared to negotiate with you.

Elliot Moss
We’ll talk after 10.00 o’clock. Mark it has been really good having you as a guest today, thank you so much. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Mark Allen
Well I have chosen the latest CD by Liane Carroll and that’s Seaside and I’ve chosen that because Liane is a wonderful person, she has played at Jazz Festival which I organised for eight years down in Wiltshire. I heard her last year at Salisbury, there was a festival called Celebrate Voice and I think what her record is, I mean Liane I don’t think she will mind, Liane has had her stresses and strains in life and if you like the Seaside which is her record, it’s a kind of I think a sort of a metaphor for her life. She is actually at times has suffered from depression and I think you know, the seaside is connected with both triumph and also disaster and if you haven’t heard it, it is absolutely beautiful, particularly the first track, it’s an absolutely beautiful record and I admire greatly what she does musically and I like her very much as a person so that’s why I have chosen it.

Elliot Moss
And a very good reason to and here she is.

That was Seaside from Leane Carroll, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Mark Allen. A self-made man, someone who had to literally do it all on his own without even getting the help from a bank manager at one point in time. Resilient, tough times did not stop this man persevering and carrying on going forward. Many others would have just stopped and wouldn’t have had the stomach for it. And opportunist, when he’s seen a gap he’s gone for it and he’s built an empire on the back of all of those things. It’s really really impressive and I have a lot of admiration for him. Do join me again same time, same place, that’s 9.00am here on Jazz FM next Saturday. But stay with us right now because coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams.

Mark read social studies at Durham University and, having spent a gap year working in a London remand home and assessment centre for youth offenders, originally wanted to become a social worker. At university, he founded and became the chairman of a voluntary group providing support for vulnerable people, including psychiatric patients, however increasingly became interested in writing and decided to become a journalist instead.

Mark worked for three years at The Sheffield Star, before moving to the Daily Express in Manchester – then a broadsheet newspaper selling four million copies – as first an investigatory reporter and then as a sub-editor on the news and features desks. His interest in journalism and social policy coincided when he was appointed the launch editor of Reed Business Press’ Community Care. The magazine became one of Reed’s most successful publications.

Mark’s next appointment was as editor of Nursing Mirror, which he revamped. In one year, Nursing Mirror won three Professional Publishing Association (PPA) awards. Mark became the Editor of the Year at the same time as Nursing Mirror won the Magazine of the Year and the Campaign of the Year awards.

A move into publishing management followed, first with Reed and then with Thomson, the former owners of the Times newspaper, where Mark was asked to set up a healthcare publishing division for the company. However, after little more than a year, Thomson decided that healthcare publishing was not for them. Having never previously considered becoming an entrepreneur, Mark bought two of the medical titles and set up his own business. When his bank turned down a request for £10,000, he decided to try and convert one of the magazines, a journal circulated to 35,000 hospital doctors, into a subscription-only publication. This proved a success and provided him with enough money to survive and develop his company. He persuaded 7,200 doctors to subscribe at a rate of £32.50, generating more than £234,000.

During the last few years the Mark Allen Group has expanded rapidly. Today the group is involved in publishing and communications in four principal areas: health care, education, consumer and business-to-business. The company publishes 62 magazines, including three music magazines – Jazzwise, Gramophone and Songlines. It also organises conferences, exhibitions and travel tours. Altogether it employs 275 staff with offices in Herne Hill, Dartford, Paddock Wood, Guildford and Wiltshire.

Last year the group had a turnover of £27.5 million and made net profits of £3.2 million. It was listed in the Sunday Times Profit Track 100 ‘Ones to Recognise’ category. This year, up to March 2016, it will go one step further with a turnover of £32 million and will make £4 million net profits.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“It was a job that I turned down about three different times because I really didn’t trust them at the time as a company.”

…overnight, out of frustration, annoyance, I became an entrepreneur.”

“For the first ten years or so of having the business I always felt I was on the back foot because I started out with no money.”

“The second year proved to be a disaster because I thought I could walk on water and that’s always a very dangerous thing to believe.”

“We won damages, but we lost the commercial war.”

“Lots of people would probably say that we’ve got our eggs in far too many baskets.”

“I don’t feel young at times, but I have still got a lot of energy and passion.”

“I think in business it’s important to have a hinterland, and I would like to believe I have a hinterland.”