Dr Iqbal Survé and his Independent News and Media SA group (INMSA) are big news. Articles penned by his own journalists and those of competitors continue to attract column centimetres, click throughs, pass ons and Twitter comments. A business leader should be happy with the attention. He finds it disturbing and disappointing. Sandra Gordon asks him why.
The run up to and announcement of the sale of one of South Africa’s iconic newspaper groups was well covered by the media. The stodgy INMSA was stripped of everything except its brands and a little dignity was ripe for the picking. Survé saw the opportunity early on and claims that timing was in his favour. His majority shareholding was funded via his family trust, so the future of the business is close to his heart and on his mind. Survé refers to himself often as a “scientist, entrepreneur and capitalist”. He is a Doctor of Medicine and obtained his MBA at the University of Cape Town. [The rest of his biography can be found here.]
Whilst his love of sport is apparent, it is business that he finds most challenging and stimulating. The acquisition process he followed in the run up to the sale of INMSA was meticulous and scientifically managed by him. “I must know exactly what I am buying and paying for,” he says.
Survé was prepared to risk the hefty sum of R30-million in the lead up to the purchase. He appointed and worked closely with global and local legal, financial and media advisors. He is pretty sure that INMSA was a good buy and was extremely active in getting under the soft underbelly of the business. “Independent accounts for 28% to 30% of newspaper circulation, a disproportionate share of the total R7-billion newspaper ad revenue and a growth of 6% in revenue last year. This despite (their being) no investment in the company for many years.”
The knowledge he acquired of newspaper best practice across the globe, plus the attraction of a business which suffered from shareholder neglect, were key factors in the purchase decision. “If a business makes money despite itself there is opportunity.” He adds to this the fact that big international players like Newscorp had shown significant interest and only withdrew when the Marikana incident put them off investing in our country. “Had they stayed in the price would definitely have been around R2.8 billion,” he reckons. He and his fellow shareholders paid R2 billion.
At a time when newspaper businesses should be pulling together to find solutions to dwindling circulation and advertising revenues, he is disappointed at the negative reaction of competitors, many of whom had a stab at buying the business or a number of INMSA’s brands. He feels it goes a little deeper than mere sour grapes. “I am surprised by the reaction of other media groups, their negativity and sniping at me. I have had more written and investigated about me than anyone except our President. Our business is to get our business right and for our company people to flourish,” he says.
On the other hand he was not disappointed or surprised by what he found when he immersed himself in INMSA’s business. It is clear that a completely new strategy and structure has caused internal consternation, some of which has spilled out into the wider market. Survé acknowledges that changes of the magnitude he is supporting are likely to create stress. “Cultural shifts are difficult to deal with,” he says. One such shift is the intention to make editors responsible for the bottom line, what he refers to as “business-focused editors”. This change arose from global research indicating a swing to a new way of managing newspaper assets, placing responsibility for circulation, content and brand extensions such as events, at the feet of editors. “One of the myths is that we have young newsrooms, whilst the average age is 40. These senior guys were administrators with high admin structures and few content generators,” Survé says.
Independent’s newspaper titles are important to advertisers and their agencies. He is keen to reassure them that benchmarking exercises, strategy sessions, clear goals, key performance criteria and an allocation of resources to deliver better titles and circulation will deliver success for the business and the staff who are able to deal with the short-term chaos that change brings.
The benchmarking was performed by editors with the help of financial people. “What is the ideal title for this region, who is the audience and who do you want it to be were some of the questions debated. Independent has over 1000 editorial people, second to the SABC, so the way we handle content in future will make our business sustainable.”
He is proud of the technology he has introduced to the group, much of it emanating from companies in which he has an interest or a seat on the board. Anthony Robinson has been appointed “to lead the technology revolution, we will leap frog the competition”.
Out of this planning and strategising Survé offers a glimpse into future plans (although he is cagey to reveal too much given the leaks from his office in the past).
“At the end of 2014 we will be positioned for growth with clear strategies in four or five areas. We will reveal our plans for individual titles and how we plan to best use our content from print to multiple platforms,” says Survé. He talks of hubs producing quality niched content that could be reformatted and included with their regional titles, thus offering advertisers a national platform. “Independent needs to build a strong research base and be innovative in their approach to advertising without losing integrity.”
The question whether Survé does or doesn’t interfere with editorial independence will continue to be tested. He asserts strongly and often that he “doesn’t interfere with my editors on editorial direction”. He does believe, though, that our media lacks diversity. “I am tired of the apartheid legacy, our obsession with crime, race and ideology; we need to take our country to a new space in the African continent. Our newspapers must be interesting and diverse, encouraging South Africans to stop beating ourselves up. Our kids have a right to see a future (in our country).”
His confidence, at times overbearing, stems from a self belief that he is “a scientist who does things by thinking carefully, I am not dependent on anyone, want to be judged by what matters like growing a sustainable business and giving back. And I don’t conform. I am not afraid to tell people what I think”.
Many a competitor and for that matter, their journalists, can attest to this.
Sandra Gordon is the CEO of Wag the Dog Publishers, and publisher of TheMediaOnline and The Media magazine.
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