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The Duncan Painter way

Duncan Painter, CEO at the Top Right Group, was interviewed by the PPA’s Barry McIlheney at the Digital Publishing Conference on Wednesday and gave some interesting insights into his business philosophy, writes James Evelegh.

By James Evelegh

Duncan Painter joined the then Emap as chief executive last autumn, and within five months the company had restructured into three divisions; i2i Events (exhibitions and conferences), 4C Group (information services) and Emap (B2B media).

Under the old structure, said Painter, the company had lost its way and lacked clarity of purpose. The old Emap was at its best, he said, when it was a collection of dynamic small business units and the homogenous one size fits all approach of recent years had stymied its entrepreneurial spirit.

His aim was double digit growth across the group, and he intended to achieve it through a relentless focus on customer needs. His previous role had been as MD of Sky IQ, a subsidiary of BSkyB. In fact, as he freely admits, he has no real publishing experience at all, but, he says, that experience in retail is perfect preparation for leading any business. BSkyB, he said, is a truly world class company which was “really exceptional” at everything it did. The consumer research techniques employed by the company helped them anticipate their customers’ needs and was one area in which B2B publishers would do well to embrace.

With its obsession on delivery, the publishing industry was in danger of disappearing up its own backside, he said. The focus was all wrong. The absolute key was developing brilliant content which met the needs of its audiences. People in business need information to succeed, and B2B publishers need to provide must-have, not nice-to-have, information.

If, Painter said, you can work out what is the critical information your audience needs, when and where they need it, then the delivery question will answer itself.

So, identify customer needs and create must-have content to meet those needs are two pillars of the Duncan Painter way. The third is to develop a culture of excellence and innovation within the company.

When asked from the floor about his acquisition strategy, Painter was almost disdainful in his reply. Yes, they do occasionally acquire companies, when there was a need to extend market reach quickly, but he was very clear that the best global companies are those that create organically and grow. Whenever any of his senior managers propose an acquisition, his first response is always to ask, why haven’t we done this ourselves? If we’ve got the best people, then they should be continually coming up with “bloody good ideas”.

And, employing the best people is central to Painter’s business philosophy. He wants his people to be experts in their fields and the company is investing in staff training and development, having made the mistake, along with many other publishers, of cutting back in this area. “Cheap shots” he described that particular strategy as.

Staff development makes business sense. “It’s no accident that Manchester United win every year. They have the best team. If you have the best people, then it’s not surprising you will do well”, said the lifelong Tottenham Hotspur supporter.

This year, the group has taken on sixty graduates; next year he wants it to be a hundred. Similarly, next year, he has set the group as a whole the target of launching three times as many new products as this year.

Being an ‘expert’ requires putting the work in. He is dismissive of the celebrity, get-rich-quick culture. To be successful in business, you had to graft. To be an expert in an area, you had to get below the surface froth to find the real substance and that required hard work.

No one could accuse Painter of shirking hard work. A self-confessed workaholic, his day starts at 4am (yes, 4); he checks the previous day’s sales figures and then hops onto the rowing machine for his daily workout routine, which he absolutely loathes, but was persuaded by American colleagues a few years’ back was an essential part of any senior executive’s daily ritual – and he never misses it.

Duncan Painter comes across as incredibly self-disciplined, something which he jokes is probably OCD related.

So, after almost a year in the job, how’s it all going? After five years of decline, how is the group doing now?

“Any CEO who stood here and said everything was going brilliantly, would be a liar,” he said. But he’s pleased with progress so far. Across the group as a whole, he is expecting double digit growth this year.

And Emap? The division which everyone expected him to offload as quickly as possible. 2% growth this year, which represents a swing of 16% on last year.

Emap are, he concluded, “the absolute stars of the show.”