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CEO French sees opportunities for growth

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John French is president-CEO of PBI Media Holdings, the temporary name given to the former Primedia Business Magazines & Media unit while its new owner, Wasserstein & Co., looks for a new name. French, who also led Primedia Business, talked to Media Business about the new ownership and what it means to the company, to marketers and to himself.

MB: Do you see the new ownership of PBI Media Holdings as an advantage?

French: It's early in the transition process, but we're working on becoming a standalone company. It's a big step for us. Long term, we have good prospects in terms of editorial quality and investment in the product. It's a different world for us. At Primedia we had some restraints in terms of acquisitions and investment. But even so what we have are very strong products that have maintained their quality. Seventy-eight percent of our products are No. 1 or No. 2 magazines in their markets. We have a lot of opportunities for growth.

First, we now have an opportunity to invest in these products to make them stronger. Second, we have an opportunity to look at some strategic bolt-on acquisitions to fill out our portfolio, which we are very excited about. Third, our online growth has been 60% for a couple of years now. And fourth, we have hugely successful databases, and that's going to continue to be a huge opportunity for us.

MB: How do you expect Wasserstein & Co. to approach editorial content at your business?

French: Even in the last three of four years, we still won over 400 awards for editorial. We did cut back [under Primedia], but it didn't damage the editorial. The quality is still there. We've migrated a lot of editorial to online. We have increased our e-newsletters and Webinars. We've gone from about zero 21/2 years ago to doing about 150-plus newsletters a month. Editorially I have no worries. We have great editors. Some of them are icons in their industry, and that's not going to change.

MB: Top managers of a property on the block often have their jobs at risk. What was your outlook during the sales process?

French: In any sale, there are no guarantees but, intuitively, I felt optimistic because I was so ingrained in the business on a day-to-day basis. The fact that we had turned it around and that the business had five straight quarters of growth was also to the positive. I couldn't be happier with the way things developed.

MB: Why do you think Primedia looked to sell your division? And what attracted Wasserstein & Co. to your business?

French: I can't speak for Primedia, but I think the stated reasons are the real reasons. They saw an opportunity in a good M&A market. The reason why this is a good business to buy today is that it's in great shape. It just needs someone to build on the success in terms of investment.

MB: What differences can marketers expect to see with your new ownership?

French: They can expect a continuation of the quality that's been delivered through an investment in the products. I think we're going to surprise a few folks with some strategic bolt-on acquisitions that are going to nicely fill out our portfolio. It's going to be a very positive message. We have a good story, and we like to tell it. -Sean Callahan

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