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Kalmbach Publishing’s New CEO Is A Firm Believer In The 83-Year-Old Company’s Steadfast Mission Of Putting The Customer Front & Center – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Dan Hickey, CEO, Kalmbach Publishing…

September 11, 2017

“There’s room for it (print), of course, and if you’re in the relationship business, to some extent you’re agnostic. Your job is to really know the customer and how they want content experiences delivered to them. And if they’re raising their hands and saying they want magazines, then you provide magazines. And they still today provide fantastic and immersive lean-back experiences.” Dan Hickey…(on whether there is room for print in the magazine media world’s future)

A legacy publishing company, Kalmbach Publishing has been around for 83 years and has no plans to slow down now. A force to be reckoned with in the world of niche, with titles such as Model Railroader, Discover, Bead & Button, Classic Toy Trains, and Astronomy, plus many more, Kalmbach’s long dedication to its mission statement of putting the customer first is something that drew media veteran, Dan Hickey to the position he now holds as CEO.

Dan is someone who brings an array of skills to the top post at Kalmbach, from his tenure at Meredith, where he oversaw all digital businesses, to his executive position at AOL, and his editorial leadership roles at Walking Magazine and National Gardening, along with many other career experiences that will no doubt help him along this niche path he is now traveling.

I spoke with Dan recently and we talked about his vision for the company’s future, which consists of accelerating Kalmbach’s already very prevalent commitment to its customers, and to keep what he considers the core of the magazine business, relationships, revved up. It was a highly informative and interesting conversation, and one I hope you enjoy.

And now, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Dan Hickey, CEO, Kalmbach Publishing.

But first, the sound-bites:

On his vision for the future as the new CEO of the company: The 83-year-old history of the customer coming first, a value that Kalmbach has embraced, is really the foundation of the future as well. I believe that the magazine business at its core is a relationship business. Great content, experiences that you find in magazines, that you find on websites and with other platforms, is the conduit that allows for those relationships. And ultimately, I think it builds the brand loyalty over time.

On his reaction when he learned the Kalmbach board had selected him as CEO: The reason I’m excited, and why I was so attracted to Kalmbach is after a number of visits to the company, I found out several things. First, they are a very proud company and it reminded me of my days at Meredith. Meredith is very similar; 100+ years-old, Kalmbach’s 83-years-old. Kalmbach was not shy about their history of values, they have put the customer front and center for 83 years. And simple things impressed me. They keep their building and campus immaculate, and I saw that right away. I said to myself, this is a company that really cares; about itself, about its employees, and about its customers. So, that was impressive to me.

On whether he thinks his editorial background prepares him better for the business side of the company or could it be a possible stumbling block: I think it prepares me well, and not only my editorial background, but my digital background as well. For the last 20 years, I’ve pretty much been on the digital side of the business, as well as marketing. So, it’s not just editorial. It’s editorial, marketing, circulation, and ad sales. I’ve touched all of those sides of the business and I feel that I have a deep enough understanding of how to weave all of those things together in preparing for the future. I’ve see a lot of silos in my day; I’ve seen editorial silos, ad silos, consumer marketing silos, so I think my background will really help me bring those functions together in an harmonious way to really prepare for the future.

On whether he believes those silos are being torn down quickly enough: I think that as a whole, the industry isn’t clear enough as to where the puck is going. And I really believe we’re in the relationship business and I think there is a shift mentally from companies that say they’re a magazine publisher, to they’re in the relationship business, because once you can shift mentally into that relationship faction, you’re less focused on a particular form factor. And you’re really focused on the relationship itself and the needs of your customers. In my view, the slowness of the industry is embracing that. Once everyone embraces that and ask themselves how they can super-serve their customers, then the silos will naturally break down.

On whether he believes there is still room for print in the future, for our children and grandchildren: Of course. The customer is going to determine that, right? There’s room for it, of course, and if you’re in the relationship business, to some extent you’re agnostic. Your job is to really know the customer and how they want content experiences delivered to them. And if they’re raising their hands and saying they want magazines, then you provide magazines. And they still today provide fantastic and immersive lean-back experiences.

On whether he believes there will ever come a time when people will pay for digital in the same way they pay for print: Yes, and it will be easier. I do think that’s part of building a relationship platform. As you have an ecosystem of platforms from magazines to digital to social to events to potentially subscription boxes or other things that you deliver to your customers, and mobile products as well. Part of the strength of a company like Kalmbach is our circulation departments or consumer marketing departments are essentially very good at handling recurring revenue streams.

On something he looks back on today and wishes he hadn’t done: Ten or 15 years ago, when I first got into digital, I think most publishers, if they could rewind the clock, wouldn’t be giving away free content like they are today. It was the reality that we knew at the time. We thought that “search” was the great disruptor, that it was going to be a level playing field, and that anything behind a paywall was not going to get indexed and we wouldn’t get traffic. And if you could look at what we know today, I think most publishers would agree, we should have been asking for money right away.

On anything he’d like to add: I’m super-excited. We’ve got a great organization with a great legacy and a lot of talent; we have 187 employees and everybody is very proud of our company. They live their work and they work their lives. They’re all enthusiasts at their core, so I’m just super-excited to be here.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I’m a big believer in show, don’t tell, in journalism. But if I had to have something tattooed, it would probably be something more aspirational for me. If people were going to remember it forever about me, I would love to be remembered as a kind person. That would make me very happy, and it’s something that’s, again, aspirational and something I have to work on every day.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: I’m probably binge-watching YouTube with fishing or boating videos. I’m trying to perfect my boat-trailering launching, and there’s an endless supply of videos showing, and sometimes they’re very humorous, showing what to do and what not to do with your boat when you’re backing into a lake.

On what keeps him up at night: Figuratively, as I mentioned before, it’s phones, and how we’re going to create and maintain the relationships that we have on that device. It’s already a real challenge for media companies and it’s not talked about enough, and that worries me. It’s something that I think about a lot.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Dan Hickey, CEO, Kalmbach Publishing.

Samir Husni: You’re quoted in the press release about your position as the new CEO of Kalmbach Publishing, as saying that Kalmbach has a long and compelling history of putting the customer front and center. That being said, what’s the vision that you bring to the company as you look toward the future?

Dan Hickey: The 83-year-old history of the customer coming first, a value that Kalmbach has embraced, is really the foundation of the future as well. I believe that the magazine business at its core is a relationship business. Great content, experiences that you find in magazines, that you find on websites and with other platforms, is the conduit that allows for those relationships. And ultimately, I think it builds the brand loyalty over time.

More and more this is happening across the brand ecosystem, so Kalmbach has very strong relationships with its customers through the magazine, the website; through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and we have a very robust email program. And it’s emphasizing the strengthening of each platform. Again, Kalmbach’s audience is engaging in print, digital, and events. For example, Kalmbach’s Bead & Button show is the largest event of its kind. So, we have the foundation for a relationship platform, and the vision is to really continue to invest in that platform and better allow the company to manage those relationships across the entire brand ecosystem, including print, digital, social and email.

The vision is a continuation of the nurturing of those relationships, and also creating new relationships. Once you have a relationship platform in place that serves the passion communities that they serve today, you can start looking at new categories and new communities, hopefully with younger audiences, and develop new relationships. And from those relationships, as they become trusted, you can serve those audiences.

And the expectation is that you’ll serve new products and services that enhance the customer’s experience, especially in these niche, enthusiast categories. We’re already doing this at the company, and we’ll continue to do more of it. An example would be premium video in the train category. We have 10,000 people subscribing to the magazine who already pay additional to subscribe to the video service. That’s an example of extending the brand, extending the relationship by providing more value to content in whatever form the audience wants it.

Samir Husni: When the board selected you as the new CEO, what was your initial reaction?

Dan Hickey: The reason I’m excited, and why I was so attracted to Kalmbach is after a number of visits to the company, I found out several things. First, they are a very proud company and it reminded me of my days at Meredith. Meredith is very similar; 100+ years-old, Kalmbach’s 83-years-old. Kalmbach was not shy about their history of values, they have put the customer front and center for 83 years. And simple things impressed me. They keep their building and campus immaculate, and I saw that right away. I said to myself, this is a company that really cares; about itself, about its employees, and about its customers. So, that was impressive to me.

And the second thing I saw was that because of the niche, enthusiast audiences, passion audiences or passion communities, I saw that they didn’t have some of the challenges of the mass market publications, because they’re serving these niche, enthusiast audiences that love their products, from trains and beading, to model cars and astronomy.

And again, it wasn’t just the magazines either; their audiences were already buying premium content in experiences above and beyond the magazine. So, that was super-impressive to me and I thought this was directionally and instinctively the way I would take the company as well, just really kind of accelerate it.

Third, they had a strong balance sheet and they’re very strong operationally. They’re set up for endemic growth, as well as acquisition, and finally I’m one of them. I’m an enthusiast; I have many hobbies and interests, from fishing and remodeling, to gardening and biking. And I understand the importance of passions and how they feed, at least my own, heart and soul. So, I thought that this is something bigger than just a publishing company; that Kalmbach really does serve an important service. Hobbies and passions will be around for a long, long time. And in fact, they may become even more important in the lives of future generations, especially when we see what’s happening with phone usage and the younger generation.

There was just this bigger picture thing there as well, and when they told me that I had been selected, I was super-thrilled. I felt like in some ways the job was just made for me.

Samir Husni: You’re one of the few CEO’s now in the media world with an editorial background. You’ve held a lot of editorial positions, from the days of Walking Magazine to National Gardening to newspapers; do you feel that your editorial background prepares you better for the business side or could it possibly be a stumbling block?

Dan Hickey: I think it prepares me well, and not only my editorial background, but my digital background as well. For the last 20 years, I’ve pretty much been on the digital side of the business, as well as marketing. So, it’s not just editorial. It’s editorial, marketing, circulation, and ad sales. I’ve touched all of those sides of the business and I feel that I have a deep enough understanding of how to weave all of those things together in preparing for the future.

I’ve see a lot of silos in my day; I’ve seen editorial silos, ad silos, consumer marketing silos, so I think my background will really help me bring those functions together in an harmonious way to really prepare for the future. The future is going to take a team. And not just an editorial team, or just a sales team; it’s everybody working together as one team. And I think my background prepares me for that.

Samir Husni: Looking at the industry as a whole, not just specifically Kalmbach, do you feel that we’ve been fast enough when it comes to destroying those silos and building a big brand warehouse for the product, or do you think we’re still taking our own sweet time doing that?

Dan Hickey: I think that as a whole, the industry isn’t clear enough as to where the puck is going. And I really believe we’re in the relationship business and I think there is a shift mentally from companies that say they’re a magazine publisher, to they’re in the relationship business, because once you can shift mentally into that relationship faction, you’re less focused on a particular form factor. And you’re really focused on the relationship itself and the needs of your customers.

In my view, the slowness of the industry is embracing that. Once everyone embraces that and ask themselves how they can super-serve their customers, then the silos will naturally break down. I think you have to understand where your vision and your future is, and then you’ll start to understand that you can’t have it with silo practices and functions within your organization.

Samir Husni: Being in the relationship business, what type are of relationship are you looking for with your customers? A one night stand; a love affair, or a long-lasting relationship? (Laughs)

Dan Hickey: (Laughs too) A long-lasting one, for sure.

Samir Husni: If someone asked you what the future of magazine publishing is, what would your answer be? We know we can’t be just print or just digital, we have to be in it all. But is there still room for print in the future, for our children and grandchildren?

Dan Hickey: Of course. The customer is going to determine that, right? There’s room for it, of course, and if you’re in the relationship business, to some extent you’re agnostic. Your job is to really know the customer and how they want content experiences delivered to them. And if they’re raising their hands and saying they want magazines, then you provide magazines. And they still today provide fantastic and immersive lean-back experiences.

So, to some extent I don’t know why we are a little obsessed with the question. To me, it’s a matter of what the customer wants. And what we do know is that they’re always interested in being immersed in great content experiences, whether that takes the shape of a printed magazine, tablet, or subscription boxes; it really doesn’t matter about the platform to some extent.

Tablets, for example, never exploded like they were originally forecasted to, some of the phone companies are actually giving them away, but no one is asking the question are tablets dead. Again, with the customer as your strategy, you’re going to say, I will deliver content however they want me to deliver it.

What worries me a little bit is the phone and how content is consumed on the phone. And how media companies and publishers are meeting some of the challenges to monetize and maintain the relationship on that particular platform. With most publishers, there is less engagement on the phone than on either desktop or print, or other platforms. And socially than more so. I think one of the challenges for us is to really think about how are we going to deliver on the phone in the future versus some of the other platforms.

Samir Husni: With your digital experience at Meredith, and acknowledging that the phone may be one of the stumbling blocks for magazine media and publishers, do you believe that we will ever reach a stage where people will pay for digital in the same way that they pay for print?

Dan Hickey: Yes, and it will be easier. I do think that’s part of building a relationship platform. As you have an ecosystem of platforms from magazines to digital to social to events to potentially subscription boxes or other things that you deliver to your customers, and mobile products as well. Part of the strength of a company like Kalmbach is our circulation departments or consumer marketing departments are essentially very good at handling recurring revenue streams.

And so, we want to make sure that’s a strength within the company going forward, so that across the entire brand’s ecosystem, our ability to transact with customers and provide those great products and experiences that get them into the recurring revenue streams happens easier and faster. And service those customers along the way just as well as we do today.

Samir Husni: What has been something that you look back on today and wish you hadn’t done, and maybe even promise yourself you will never do again?

Dan Hickey: (Laughs) Great question. Ten or 15 years ago, when I first got into digital, I think most publishers, if they could rewind the clock, wouldn’t be giving away free content like they are today. It was the reality that we knew at the time. We thought that “search” was the great disruptor, that it was going to be a level playing field, and that anything behind a paywall was not going to get indexed and we wouldn’t get traffic. And if you could look at what we know today, I think most publishers would agree, we should have been asking for money right away. We just didn’t know the future; we didn’t know that advertising in the digital space, although there’s a lot of hype around it, it has devolved, if anything. And it has become less valuable in some regard.

So really, it’s understanding that our business has all along been the relationship business and getting the consumer to pay us for great experiences. We somehow forgot that 15 years ago, and now the smart publishers and media people are all coming back to that concept of, what are the other products and services that I can offer to my audiences?

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

Dan Hickey: I’m super-excited. We’ve got a great organization with a great legacy and a lot of talent; we have 187 employees and everybody is very proud of our company. They live their work and they work their lives. They’re all enthusiasts at their core, so I’m just super-excited to be here. And looking forward to digging in, of course.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Dan Hickey: I’m a big believer in show, don’t tell, in journalism. But if I had to have something tattooed, it would probably be something more aspirational for me. If people were going to remember it forever about me, I would love to be remembered as a kind person. That would make me very happy, and it’s something that’s, again, aspirational and something I have to work on every day.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; on your iPad; watching TV; or something else?

Dan Hickey: I’m probably binge-watching YouTube with fishing or boating videos. I’m trying to perfect my boat-trailering launching, and there’s an endless supply of videos showing, and sometimes they’re very humorous, showing what to do and what not to do with your boat when you’re backing into a lake.

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

Dan Hickey: Figuratively, as I mentioned before, it’s phones, and how we’re going to create and maintain the relationships that we have on that device. It’s already a real challenge for media companies and it’s not talked about enough, and that worries me. It’s something that I think about a lot.

And sometimes I literally wake up during the night with something that gets me excited for the next day, and once I wake up I usually can’t get back to sleep.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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