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Saudi Specialized Publishing Company: Bringing The Top 50 International Titles Plus A Host of Niche & Diverse Genres To The Arab World Since 2006 – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Mohammad Alomar, Managing Director, Saudi Specialized Publishing Company

February 16, 2016
Reporting from the  FIPP Middle East & Africa conference in Dubai Feb. 10 and 11.

Reporting from the FIPP Middle East & Africa conference in Dubai Feb. 10 and 11.

“Thinking, planning and mixing poetry with mathematics for new projects.”

“We do believe strongly in print. We do not think at all that print is dying or has already died, because I am doing the kind of business like Condé Nast International is doing. They are doing Madame Magazine for Air France; they are doing the same for BMW and Mercedes. We are doing this sector in print and we are making a lot of profit. And we know the market and we know that millennials are not on digital devices all the time. They know Vogue and Marie Claire. They know this magazine and that magazine and they’re bringing these beautiful things to their tables.” Mohammad Alomar

From Dubai with love…

Saudi Specialized Publishing Company has been bringing niche magazines to targeted audiences in the Arab world since 2006, along with licensing some of the most popular titles around. With support from their parent company, Saudi Research and Marketing Group, the SSPC is healthy and expanding with an optimistic eye on the future.

IMG_1527Mohammad Alomar is managing director of the company and leads his group, according to Mohammad, like a maestro guides his orchestra to the ultimate goal of bringing entertainment and joy to its audience. Mohammad has been in journalism and publishing media for more than 20 years as an editor-in-chief of many magazines, among them Robb Report Arabia, the Arabic edition for the luxury Robb Report magazine.

He has brought his many skills and abundant experience to SSPC and has led the company in developing an extensive base of investment in international licensing, commercial publishing and education. I spoke with Mohammad recently at the FIPP Middle East and Africa conference held in Dubai and we had a very interesting and exuberant talk about the status of Middle East publishing and the many accomplishments, and ones still to be made, of Saudi Specialized Publishing Company. Under Mohammad’s leadership, SSPC has forged diversified business relations with a number of international publishers like Disney, Societé du Figaro, Editoriale Domus, Meredith Corporation and Curtco Media. The future looks bright indeed for SSPC.

So, I hope you enjoy this glimpse into international publishing and licensing at its best as you read the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Mohammad Alomar, Managing Director, Saudi Specialized Publishing Company.

But first, the sound-bites:

On the genesis of the Saudi Specialized Publishing Company: The Saudi Specialized Publishing Company was established in 2006 out of the idea that we are the largest in the market, but after reviewing the kind of changes that the market would be facing in the next few years in publishing when it came to newspapers and magazines we began to think about special publishing targeting a special audience because the market was fragmented and cemented.

On already being specialized with the foundational company and what made them feel as though they needed even more specialization with the establishment of Saudi Specialized Publishing Company: For us mainly, most of our dailies were in politics. We have a daily in sports and the magazines were mainly lifestyle magazines, like Sayidaty. We moved to be a public company. Moving from a holding to a public company means you have a big responsibility to shareholders. Then we had to figure out our next move and the next move was establishing the company and new horizons that were very successful in the world. We started talking with Condé Nast, Time Inc. Meredith and others and we started with our partners in New York. And we saw that the kind of target audience we could create with the kind of advertising for those segments would make it a very seductive choice for us.

RRA Cover 34On his mission to bring the top 50 magazines in the world to the Arab region and on how he identifies the top 50: We did our exercise very well. We started in the markets in the Western world. In the lifestyle category, we asked ourselves what we wanted. We talked with Condé Nast and I’m a very big fan of Vanity Fair. And we knew we also needed something for mother and child; is there one? We wanted something with interior design and indoor lifestyle, like Better Homes and Gardens.

On the fact that he’s been described as a hands-on director: Yes, especially when it comes to Robb Report. I’m the editor-in-chief and I’m always telling my team that I’m the maestro of an orchestra, not a manager in a company. A maestro should not play every instrument. If he did he’d be a clown. If you see a maestro, sometimes he tells the orchestra how to play, but more often they are the best around and they’re closing their eyes and flying high in the sky, and even the maestro is moving his hand without opening his eyes. He is leading their souls to entertain the audience. This is my role.

On the biggest challenge he’s had to face: It hasn’t been smooth sailing always. Building something new, you always encounter challenges, and encountering sometimes, some regulations that will not allow you to fly higher. Sometimes even in big organizations you have corporate politics, but I consider myself lucky enough that I was supported big time by my CEO and we’re friends. He told me one day when we met for the first time, we spoke about the concept of specialized publishing, he told me to consider my dreams. He said that was my job description, to fulfill my dreams here. And we did that.

January Cover On his opinion of the future of print: The future we believe in. Everyone has a TV, but it did not destroy the legacy of radio. These are media and media are pipes. The biggest challenge is readers and what they want. If they want apples, then you need to invest in apples. If they would like to have apricots, invest in apricots. We believe and this is the most important thing, digital expanded our reach, it didn’t threaten our circulation at all.

On what he would hope to say he had accomplished in one year: I would tell you about the first issues of our magazines and that digital will be doing some things from sites and apps, but most importantly, we will be capitalizing on ink on paper. This is what we believe.

On anything else he’d like to add: We do believe strongly in print. We do not think at all that print is dying or has already died, because I am doing the kind of business like Condé Nast International is doing. They are doing Madame Magazine for Air France; they are doing the same for BMW and Mercedes. We are doing this sector in print and we are making a lot of profit. And we know the market and we know that millennials are not on digital devices all the time. They know Vogue and Marie Claire. They know this magazine and that magazine and they’re bringing these beautiful things to their tables.

On what motivates him to get out of bed in the morning: My work is my lifestyle. It’s not my way of living; it is my lifestyle and my passion. I have two important things in my life: my son and my work. It’s like birds, they do not wake up to eat; they wake up to sing. And they enjoy it and I do strongly enjoy my work, because it is my lifestyle. I’m there sometimes at 6:00 a.m. and leaving at 9:00 p.m.

On what keeps him up at night: Thinking, planning and mixing poetry with mathematics for new projects.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Mohammad Alomar, Managing Director, Saudi Specialized Publishing Company.

Samir Husni: Tell me a little bit about the beginnings of the Saudi Specialized Publishing Company.

IMG_1526 Mohammad Alomar: The Saudi Specialized Publishing Company was established in 2006 out of the idea that we are the largest in the market, but after reviewing the kind of changes that the market would be facing in the next few years in publishing when it came to newspapers and magazines we began to think about special publishing targeting a special audience because the market was fragmented and cemented.

So we established Saudi Specialized Publishing Company as the platform of special publishing, special content creation, and for international publishing and licensing.

Samir Husni: However, the mother company was a leader in the Arab world in terms of daily newspapers and specialized newspapers, like the sports newspaper. Why didn’t you think that was enough of a degree of specialization; what forced you to move into even ultra-specializations?

Mohammad Alomar: For us mainly, most of our dailies were in politics. We have a daily in sports and the magazines were mainly lifestyle magazines, like Sayidaty. We moved to be a public company. Moving from a holding to a public company means you have a big responsibility to shareholders. Then we had to figure out our next move and the next move was establishing the company and new horizons that were very successful in the world.

We started talking with Condé Nast, Time Inc. Meredith and others and we started with our partners in New York. And we saw that the kind of target audience we could create with the kind of advertising for those segments would make it a very seductive choice for us.

When the company was established, it was 500,000 riyals, half a million riyals; we didn’t want to risk that much, but the profit for the first year was 200% and the second year was 400%. In 2006/2007, the company became public and the stocks changed. In 2008, after three years of very big growth in our area, the board made the decision for us to see a holding with the capital of 100 million riyals. And this became a small growth in the womb of the mother company. And that growth became Saudi Specialized Publishing Company, which became SSPH (Saudi Specialized Publishing Holdings).

Under SSPH, we have a company in Dubai, in Amman and two companies in Riyadh. Then it came to us that the world was now a new opportunity. We were doing very well, so we invested big time. We were not to start a business from scratch, no; that wasn’t the model we were doing. We started buying the gas stations, not building the gas stations. We acquired the biggest company in education in the region, two companies in U.A.E., one company in Saudi Arabia and one in Amman.

Before this, for our business only and for the kind of magazines we were publishing, we acquired the biggest printing house in Riyadh to add it to our sister companies in printing. In 2007, to add to the business of printing we began under the name Saudi Printing and Packaging Company. Traditionally, we used to print dailies and weeklies, now we do a lot of business for others; we are publishing for a lot of other companies that must be licensed. So the kind of operation we do is good for the sister companies.

Samir Husni: You mentioned earlier that you want to get the top 50 magazines worldwide and bring them to the Arab world, to the region. How are you identifying the top 50?

PA FEB Cover Mohammad Alomar: We did our exercise very well. We started in the markets in the Western world. In the lifestyle category, we asked ourselves what we wanted. We talked with Condé Nast and I’m a very big fan of Vanity Fair. And we knew we also needed something for mother and child; is there one? We wanted something with interior design and indoor lifestyle, like Better Homes and Gardens.

Our CEO has been a big supporter of these things we’ve been doing and is an architect. He has a Ph.D. in architecture and he was for a while the minister of education in Saudi Arabia. And he is one of the biggest figures followed on Twitter. Two million follow him on Twitter.

So, at the time we spoke about the new initiatives, he supported the idea to go and grow bigger with all of these magazines. I told him that he being an architect, he knew that we needed Domes; it is the Bible of architecture, but we don’t want to compete with our sister company, so I was more inclined toward Madame Figaro. I wanted to speak to ladies who were into fashion traditionally and plus we are close politically and culturally etc. So, we targeted Madame Figaro. And we brought it as a lifestyle magazine.

And for the very young generation, for children whose moms are reading for them, to 15-16 year olds, Disney publications were the target. We publish more than 10 of their magazines. But the number one magazine published with our populace in Beirut in 2006 was Businessweek.

When we started with Businessweek, I spoke with Time Inc. about Fortune. Forbes, at that time, was with somebody else in the region. And I adored The Economist and what we could have done with The Economist, but they were not at that time into licensing. Also they were selling the syndication of The New York Times and they are my friends. We met in Paris, London one time. This way when we studied the numbers about the best magazines, we studied what were the target audiences of these magazines. This is a very beautiful addition to our very strong growth structure.

Yes, we shall not prostrate, this is a very stupid way to do licensing. We choose from the original magazines, whatever is appealing to our readership, and we do the other part, sometimes it’s 50% or 60% or 70% in-house made, but up to international standards, so this was how we did it on many sectors. One day we dreamt we might have Fortune or The Economist. At that time we were negotiating with Curtco Media about Robb Report, which is the number one digital magazine in the world. We work with The Economist of course, in syndication.

In 2008 it was a rosy year for us, though all of the problems were starting in the United States with the crash. In 2008, we achieved double the number net profit, and then in 2009 the international crash happened. We were hit badly. But we didn’t lose. We went down from 240 to about 80, while others died. After that, it was the consequences of the international crisis in Dubai and in the region. In 2010 it was very bad in the region. So we suffered in 2010.

After that, we went down. Our people thought that during that we might die, but we reached the bottom, took a breath, and then we came out higher. It was the year we went down and then came up.

Our CEO has returned to the group after being the minister of education and we’re planning again. We are publishing and reprinting daily in more capitals around the world. And they set us free to fly higher again and again in licensing international business. In our tradition falcons only go up, up and up, but they don’t eat a lot, they are very picky. They choose whatever they like to eat and this is what we’re doing now.

Samir Husni: It’s my understanding from talking to some of your editors and others that you’re a hands-on managing director; you like to read every word and see every picture before the magazine goes to print.

RRA Cover 34 Mohammad Alomar: Yes, especially when it comes to Robb Report. I’m the editor-in-chief and I’m always telling my team that I’m the maestro of an orchestra, not a manager in a company. A maestro should not play every instrument. If he did he’d be a clown. If you see a maestro, sometimes he tells the orchestra how to play, but more often they are the best around and they’re closing their eyes and flying high in the sky, and even the maestro is moving his hand without opening his eyes. He is leading their souls to entertain the audience. This is my role.

When it comes to Robb Report, it’s music for me. I adore language and my Arabic language. It’s poetry and I told them that we want, especially with this magazine, and they promised the best level of English would be involved, as if Shakespeare were writing about stocks and finances, and that he wrote the magazine from the beginning to the end. The system you use, the orchestra, should not mix beautiful music. The passion you have helps you lead sometimes modestly and set a good model, so this is what we’ve been doing. Yes, it’s the passion and by the end of the day, as you know, you’re a journalist. And being a journalist means your name. If you want to come up to the stage and say anything, people will not spare your face.

Samir Husni: Has it always been smooth sailing for you or have you had some choppy seas along the way during your journalistic journey? What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve been faced with and how did you overcome it?

IMG_1527 Mohammad Alomar: It hasn’t been smooth sailing always. Building something new, you always encounter challenges, and encountering sometimes, some regulations that will not allow you to fly higher. Sometimes even in big organizations you have corporate politics, but I consider myself lucky enough that I was supported big time by my CEO and we’re friends. He told me one day when we met for the first time, we spoke about the concept of specialized publishing, he told me to consider my dreams. He said that was my job description, to fulfill my dreams here. And we did that.

Other than the difficult financial years of 2008-2010, we suffered, but we were very persistent and believed strongly in what we were doing. And thank God, we’re flying high again and making profits again.

Samir Husni: You’ve bought a new printing plant, so that tells me that you do still believe in print, but what about the future?

Mohammad Alomar: The future we believe in. Everyone has a TV, but it did not destroy the legacy of radio. These are media and media are pipes. The biggest challenge is readers and what they want. If they want apples, then you need to invest in apples. If they would like to have apricots, invest in apricots. We believe and this is the most important thing, digital expanded our reach, it didn’t threaten our circulation at all. Being a very big conglomerate, we have our own big solution company and the media that’s working in the market, the share is 32% of the Middle East market, and it’s our company. And print is our company. Events are our company. Education is our company. We could transform the cost in a smart way to lay the groundwork for our business to be better. This way we could overcome whatever problems we faced after.

Samir Husni: If a year from now you and I are sitting and having this same discussion, what would you hope to tell me that you’ve accomplished in that year?

Mohammad Alomar: I would tell you, Mr. Magazine™ these are the first issues of our magazines and I have kept them for you.

Samir Husni: (Laughs).

Mohammad Alomar: I would tell you about the first issues of our magazines and that digital will be doing some things from sites and apps, but most importantly, we will be capitalizing on ink on paper. This is what we believe.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Diplo37-1 Mohammad Alomar: We do believe strongly in print. We do not think at all that print is dying or has already died, because I am doing the kind of business like Condé Nast International is doing. They are doing Madame Magazine for Air France; they are doing the same for BMW and Mercedes. We are doing this sector in print and we are making a lot of profit. And we know the market and we know that millennials are not on digital devices all the time. They know Vogue and Marie Claire. They know this magazine and that magazine and they’re bringing these beautiful things to their tables.

Samir Husni: What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

Mohammad Alomar: My work is my lifestyle. It’s not my way of living; it is my lifestyle and my passion. I have two important things in my life: my son and my work. It’s like birds, they do not wake up to eat; they wake up to sing. And they enjoy it and I do strongly enjoy my work, because it is my lifestyle. I’m there sometimes at 6:00 a.m. and leaving at 9:00 p.m.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Mohammad Alomar: Thinking, planning and mixing poetry with mathematics for new projects.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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