Start-up Ascend Media rolls dice on gaming and event publishing

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Three former Primedia Business Magazines & Media executives are now with a new b-to-b media business just a few miles from their former company’s headquarters.

Cam Bishop, Dan Altman and Ron Wall are the key players on the management team running Overland Park, Kan.-based Ascend Media Inc.

The company was created earlier this year with the acquisition of two small companies, Atwood Publishing and Gem Communications. JP Morgan Partners is backing the Ascend management team, which plans to build, mainly through acquisitions, a media company bringing in more than $100 million in revenue annually.

Ascend’s three principals—Bishop is CEO, Wall is exec VP-sales, Altman is exec VP-CFO—know each other well. They often even think alike, as an incident at the American Business Media spring meeting last month in Savannah, Ga., demonstrated.

Bishop was part of a panel, and Wall was in the audience. CMP Media CEO Gary Marshall, who was also on the panel, mentioned he had worked in five different regions of the world and experienced recessions in four of them.

In the audience, Wall quietly wisecracked to those sitting around him that he wanted to know where Marshall was headed next, so he could be sure to avoid it. On stage, when it was his turn to take the microphone, Bishop made precisely the same crack to Marshall.

"We do think a lot alike, but we also have very complementary skill sets," Bishop said. "Ron grew up on the sales side of the business. I grew up through marketing. Dan grew up in the financial side."

The three are now using their skills in an effort to boost revenues and profits at the properties they acquired. Bishop and Altman (Wall joined the company in March after leaving his post as president of Primedia Business) searched for an acquisition target for nearly two years before finding Atwood and Gem.

"We had about five deals die in that time frame," Bishop said. Mergers and acquisitions have slowed to a trickle over the past few years due to a tightening of credit and the advertising recession, leading many companies to postpone selling healthy properties until the market bounces back.

Atwood and Gem, which were part of a Veronis Suhler Stevenson private equity fund that was closing, were among the few profitable companies on the market.

In the deal to divest Atwood and Gem, Veronis became a minority partner in Ascend. "We wouldn’t have invested if we didn’t think they could do the job," said Hal Greenberg, managing director at Veronis.

Other industry observers support the management team as well. "They have an excellent sponsor in JP Morgan," said Roland DeSilva, managing partner of DeSilva & Phillips Inc. "They have a publishing team with a wealth of experience and an excellent track record in Cam Bishop, Dan Altman and Ron Wall."

Robert Crosland, managing director of AdMedia Partners Inc., said the structure of the deal to buy Atwood and Gem favored Ascend. "They’re starting off with no debt," he said. "When you can find a private equity player [JP Morgan Partners] willing to acquire a platform, without going into debt immediately, that’s a pretty strong vote of confidence. ... And it enables them to be very flexible, because they have no debt covenants."

While Ascend is searching for new acquisitions, it also is working to build new revenue streams at the properties it already owns.

Atwood, now known as Ascend Media Event Publishing, creates show dailies and other publications for b-to-b events and conferences. By introducing weekly sales meetings and schooling the sales staff in cross-selling and upselling, Wall said, this division is already seeing results.

In the first two months of this year, the event publishing division sold only two new projects that weren’t pick-ups from the previous year. Since the beginning of March, it has sold 49. "It’s a company that’s never been asked to grow," Wall said.

A similar makeover is occurring at Gem, now known as Ascend Media Gaming Group. This division includes several magazines, such as IGWB and Casino Journal, and conferences aimed at the domestic and international gambling industry. As proof of the industry’s upside, Ascend points to a new conference it produced about technology’s impact on gaming. Microsoft Corp. was a sponsor of the Gaming Technology Summit, held May 28-29 in Las Vegas.

While Wall, Bishop and Altman focus on the business they have, they still think of the business across town that they used to be part of. Amid all the rumors about Primedia Business being on the block, Ascend made its own offer for the division. It was rebuffed.

"It’s not the time to sell," Altman said. "That’s kind of reading in between the lines, but that’s recently been affirmed."

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