Claverley Group - Two heads are better than one

In this interview we talk to brothers Ed and Tom Graham of the Claverley Group, a midlands–based publishing group. The fifth-generation board members tell us about working in this incredibly challenging and fast-paced business, and about the need to adapt to meet the needs of their customers.

How did you first get involved in the family business?

ED: During the holidays I was encouraged to spend time in different departments of the newspaper business. After university I cut my teeth at the Daily Mail, Sydney Morning Herald and the Wall Street Journal before returning to the bright lights of Wolverhampton to join the family firm.

TOM: It was always expected that I would follow suit and join the business. After training as a reporter, I gained experience at other organisations before joining the family firm. I worked as a reporter for the Kent Messenger Group followed by a post as a political reporter in the House of Commons. I then joined the Press Association in London, and finally did a year and a half at the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia before coming back to work at Claverley in 2010. The move from Sydney back to Wolverhampton was as hard as it sounds!

What were the biggest challenges you faced when you joined?

TOM: Succession is always quoted as the number one challenge in family businesses. Ed and I are very lucky that we have a small and supportive family, so there was less chance of any shareholder conflict. My father has always been very good at not treading on our toes, and he gave us plenty of space to make our own way.

When I joined in 2010 there was huge structural change already taking place. Newspaper circulation was in sharp decline, and traditional advertising pillars were under pressure from global players such as Facebook, Google, and classified platforms like eBay, Autotrader and Rightmove. The business was still highly cash generative, but we were constantly having to take cost out of the business in order to remain competitive.

What was it that made you want to be part of the family business?

ED: Besides from our father beating the drum and his passion for the industry, it was undeniably a wonderful and stimulating opportunity, and a privilege to be part of a family legacy. I’ve always understood the power of the news. Everyone is interested in some aspect of it, whether that is current affairs, sport or what is happening in your community. Our father would frequently take us around different departments to see how each division was an integral part of the newspaper jigsaw puzzle. Putting a daily newspaper together before a rapidly impending print deadline requires so many elements to fall into place under huge time pressures; it’s an exciting and dramatic experience.

What’s it like working with your family? What’s it like working with your brother?

ED: Not many people get to say this, but it’s been a pleasure working with my family in the business so far. I’m very close to my brother and we bounce a lot of thoughts and ideas of each other.

The saying “two heads are better than one” is true of me and my brother. We take comfort in the support we give each other. We also have our cousin, Paul, who is an important member of the main board and integral to managing our pension scheme. We never really had the opportunity to work alongside our father and our uncle, however, I’m honoured to be following in their footsteps. Tom and I are attempting to secure the business in turbulent times, acting as custodians before passing the baton to the next generation.

What are the main challenges facing the business now?

ED: Like most businesses at the moment, there are many. As consumer habits shift from reading traditional “paid for” print media to online, the industry must somehow convince people that news is a valuable commodity that has a price attached to it and generate income from it.

Outside of operational matters, managing the pension scheme is the company’s biggest challenge, it’s like the sword of Damocles hanging over us and there is only so much we can do.

What challenges has the Covid-19 pandemic presented to the business?

TOM: Along with every other organisation, the coronavirus pandemic has been the biggest challenge our business has faced in its 146-year history. In the space of a few weeks revenues fell off a cliff. Our legacy businesses (regional newspaper publishing and contract magazine printing) were hardest hit, but the Government’s furlough scheme really helped us and our staff.

In terms of our diversification strategy, Covid-19 actually slowed us down. We had three targets for acquisition pre-lockdown and were at due diligence stage, but for obvious reasons these were postponed so we could focus on readjusting the existing business. However, we have now resumed the process, and hope to acquire.

About the company

The Claverley Group is an independently owned, family-run business built around news and information. The group operates daily newspapers including the Shropshire Star and Jersey Evening Post, runs a digital marketing agency, a printing business, develops technology that supports publishing companies, operates a children’s magazine publisher with over 30 titles and finally, a creative design and print procurement agency. You could say that they operate everything around the written word!

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