Heir Apparently

NatMags heir apparent Duncan Edwards is a tough cookie. Not content with being credited as the driving force behind the Gruner & Jahr coup, his ambitious acquisition strategy is poised to produce huge upheaval in the UK consumer magazine marke

Just do it. That’s the mantra, borrowed from Nike, that the heir apparent at UK magazine publisher The National Magazine Company intends to make his own. Duncan Edwards, deputy managing director of the publishing house behind such household names as Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, took the slogan to heart last week as part of the team which swooped on the UK arm of German publisher Gruner & Jahr (G&J) for a reported £100m.

Just a week earlier, IPC Media had been tipped to buy G&J’s stable of titles, including Prima, Best, Focus and Your Home.

Edwards refused to be drawn on whether the deal, which launches NatMags and parent The Hearst Corporation into the women’s weekly magazine market, was his idea or that of managing director Terry Mansfield.

One industry insider says: “I wouldn’t mind betting that Edwards was very, very involved, although Mansfield would have signed the deal.”

Mansfield is understood to be retiring within the next two years, and Edwards is expected to take over from him. Indeed, Mansfield is the only person Edwards will name as a possible mentor: “I have worked with him for 11 years and knew him before I came here, as I tried to sell him ads when I worked at Media Week. I have learned a lot from him, particularly how to deal with people.”

Edwards, aged 36, was promoted to his present role in October 1998 – in a move which surprised many who had tipped Simon Kippin, then publisher of Good Housekeeping, as Mansfield’s successor.

Months after his appointment, a major reshuffle saw publishers switch magazines. The move ruffled a few feathers, with at least two Рincluding Kippin Рeventually moving across to join rival Cond̩ Nast.

Again, Edwards declined to say whether the restructure was his idea or Mansfield’s: “The decisions that are made about people or strategy are made together.

“The move 18 months ago was about getting fresh eyes to look at our challenges. If there are ways for us to get people to look at the same problems or opportunities from a new perspective, it will be a good thing.

“NatMags is a business – it’s not just a lifestyle, it’s not just a club. If you don’t behave like a business, you won’t succeed as a business. It’s those kind of decisions which have put us in the position to make acquisitions.”

Having just moved Country Living, Esquire and Harpers & Queen into a division called the Affluent Magazine Group, under group publishing director Liz Kershaw, Edwards would not be drawn on the possibility of further divisions being created – despite the close fit of Prima and GH into a mid-age domestic bracket.

But there are likely to be more acquisitions. Edwards says NatMags’ strategy is to “get bigger” and use its assets to turn itself into “a communications business”.

“We will evaluate anything that comes along,” he says. “We are a publisher which likes large-scale products – both here and in the US. We don’t get on well with small-scale magazines.”

It is this strategy which fuelled the G&J deal. Prima gives NatMags its third monthly women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine with sales of more than 400,000. Only its own Cosmopolitan and GH, and IPC’s Marie Claire, boast similar circulations in this category.

And Edwards has ambitious plans for special interest magazine Focus: “It sells 700,000 copies a month in Italy and 400,000 in France, where it is called Ça m’interesse, so there’s an opportunity to develop a large-scale magazine.”

Edwards likes figures, claiming his greatest achievement was boosting the circulation of Company magazine from 170,000 to more than 300,000 when he was publisher, with the help of then editor Mandi Norwood.

Condé Nast managing director Nicholas Coleridge, who works alongside Edwards on the board of joint distribution company CoMag, says: “He is very impressive at maths and mental arithmetic. He’s good at long multiplication in his head. There’s a kind of hard nose side to him that’s more EMAP than NatMags.”

Others agree. One press buyer says: “He’s quite hard to deal with.”

Nigel Conway, client services director at MediaVest, comments: “He is a good business person. I have always found my dealings with him to be extremely good – very tough.”

Edwards is aware of his reputation: “I try to be very straight with people. If that sometimes comes across as being tough, that’s because I’m trying to be straight.”

He describes himself as “professionally vain”, in the sense that he believes excellence is achievable and is “intolerant of mediocrity”.

As for business values, Edwards briefly mentions the Nike tag, then, taking the corporate line, goes on to talk about NatMags’ own mantra: excellence, creativity, innovation and building brands.

It is not easy to get him to talk about himself, but when asked why he enjoys playing rugby, he says: “I love the physical confrontation which is legitimate on the rugby field but not in the business world” – where he tries to be “consensual and collegiate”.

You get the sense that the business and the bottom line are always on Edwards’ mind, despite his “ambition to achieve a decent work/life balance” that makes room for his wife and two children.

Edwards started his career in ad sales, with an eye on a career in journalism, but quickly became “hooked” on selling ads. Jokingly, he says: “It’s still a salesman or a suit who used to want to be a journalist that is everybody’s nightmare.” He hopes people don’t think that of him.

But he adds: “I believe it’s totally valid for professionals in publishing to comment and offer input on all aspects – even if it’s outside their core area.”

He is likely to have to wait a while before being given a free rein at NatMags, but in the meantime Edwards is prepared to sit tight, soak up knowledge and consult with Mansfield. “Everything is joint here. You couldn’t get a fag paper between us,” he says.

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