What started out as a single plumbing magazine for Rory Macnamara, turned into a stable of publications, travelling exhibitions and major international conferences. Michael Bratt sat down with him to explore his journey through the media, the things that led to his successes and how he roped his family in for the entire trip.
Back in 1995, Macnamara found himself without a job after the company he was working for was facing liquidation. In a bold move he decided to put in an offer for the faltering company. The liquidation process took a year to complete, but at the end of it his offer was accepted and he found himself as the new owner. In Macnamara’s words, “I had a title, which I knew nothing about, and no money.” But he did have 45 years’ experience in technical publishing. That title was Plumbing Africa, a joint venture created by a South African and a German publishing house, and is still around today. The difference is, now it is not alone. Interact Media Defined, through a combination of acquisitions and original creations, now has a stable of five publications, each catering for different service industries. These include refrigeration and air-conditioning, emergency services, plumbing and mining.
Macnamara says, it was a “long road to build plumbing Africa back up, after the company went into liquidation.” But the journey was a success. He says that the title has survived so long for two reasons. Firstly it is because the magazine explores a topic which is not thought about or discussed much and is a lot more complex than people initially think. As Macnamara put it, “it’s not a dinner subject.”
Secondly, it is because of how the magazine presents plumbing in a broader context. The publication is the official journal of the Institute of Plumbing SA. Macnamara says the success of all the magazines under the Interact Media Defined umbrella can be attributed to “the way the magazines and the group are involved with the industries they discuss.” He says that as a trade publication you have to be involved and the success of the publication and the success of the industry are intrinsically linked. He also added that another advantage is that “there are no direct magazine competitors.”
But it has not been all smooth sailing, particularly lately. Macnamara says one of the challenges is laws that politicians have made, which in his view are anti-small and medium business. But he says the biggest challenge has been the South African Post Office (SAPO). He explained that, with SAPO being the main form of distribution for publishers, any disruptions it sees has major consequences for them. Last year 29 publishers banded together after the SAPO strike to try and resolve the issues. Only this week, was the case heard. He also said that for Interact Media Defined, postage costs are now number 2 on the budget, almost as important as salaries. But Macnamara says the business has been looking for and testing alternatives to get its products out.
And a major benefit has emerged from all the chaos at SAPO. Macnamara says, “Electronic media has been the biggest success in the last year or two. We are now sending digital copies of our magazines into Africa. The crash in the Post Office forced us to move quicker with digital into Africa than we had planned, but it was inevitable.”
Despite describing himself as a BBT, ‘Born Before Technology’, Macnamara still had some advice regarding digital expansion. “Don’t go into electronic media if you are looking for profit. It is designed to support your printed products, which for us are the core business, not to make money,” he said. However he believes electronic “allows people to engage more with your media”.
Another success for the group has been the travelling exhibitions and major international conferences which they host. The travelling, exhibitions which so far have taken place across the SADC countries, aim to connect buyers with sellers.
The next major international conference Interact Media Defined is involved in will take place next year in September in Cape Town.
During our conversation Macnamara offered some advice for others involved in the industry. The lessons he has learnt from his countless years of experience include:
- The idea of doing things on your own and holding things yourself is a short term view. You need partners. We look for partnerships all over the place. You need to know the dividing line between a competitor and a partner
- Remember good people you have worked with before for future partnerships. Don’t close doors, keep every door open
- Listen, listen and listen. Listen to your readers, advertisers and even your competitors. Listen for what they want and are asking for from you
- Be a sponge. Take everything in and then select what is most appropriate for you and your business
- Respect others and try not to judge, that’s very important
So what is next for Interact Media Defined? Macnamara says that last year 51% of the business was bought out by an investment company. He went on to say that “the buyout ensured the future of IMD and I was not going to cling to ownership, just because it is a family run business.” I didn’t know how much involvement the family has in the business.
That was until I was about to leave the boardroom where the interview took place, I glanced at a picture on the wall, the person who was named the latest manager of the year. His surname is also Macnamara. Rory explains that one of the other successes of the business was that along the way he roped in his entire family. It began with just himself and his wife, who he says kept him on a very tight financial leash. Then at one stage it was himself, his wife and four sons; now it is himself, his wife, three sons and a daughter in law. I ask him how as a family run operation they separate business from family. Macnamara smiles broadly and says, a long time ago, an industrial psychologist was brought in to assist. “Not to deal with problems. Those can always be solved. But to deal with the personalities involved,” he concludes.