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Royal Media: Where “The Power Of Knowing” Is Specific Information For A Specific Audience – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Royal Media’s President & CEO, JJ Hornblass…

October 29, 2018

“… An organization has to have a core competency, several actually. So, what is the core competency that we’ve developed? There are a few, but one of the central core competencies is that we’re in constant change mode. So, in fact, if I looked at what we’ve done since 2010 when we made that acquisition to now, probably if I was 10 years before that, all of these things were going on, but now it’s kind of par for the course. And we’re trying to continue to change. So, the walk in the rose garden, is just one that has many twists and turns, but if you know that they’re coming then it’s not so surprising.” JJ Hornblass…

Royal Media is a leading information company formed in 1995 to deliver deep market knowledge through online information portals, traditional publications, electronic newsletters, conferences and custom media products. According to President and CEO, JJ Hornblass, the aim of the company is to do excellent work and deliver superlative, intelligent, engaging content to its clients. The company’s tagline is a mirror image of what they try to impart to each of their clients in the air cargo space, banking and finance: The Power of Knowing.” Everything Royal Media does is centered around information and the power of knowing how specifics relate to how marketing conditions are and will evolve.

I spoke to JJ recently and we talked about the past, present and future of Royal Media. The name itself holds a very special meaning to JJ as his grandfather came to America in the 1920s from Europe, via Canada, and started his own innovative company for the times called Royal Lamp, and JJ is continuing the familial mission of “shedding light” as he delivers solid content to his clients, content dedicated to the “Power of Knowing.” In fact, so committed to good content is Royal Media, the company hired John McCormick as editorial director, who comes to Royal from SourceMedia, where he had the same title for 10 years. He was also a long-time senior editor at Ziff Davis. And coming from a news journalistic background, JJ is familiar with the importance of research and facts and vows that Royal Media will continue to provide profound ideas and analysis that will better their clients’ understanding of their worlds and careers. So, the Power of Knowing is not just a tagline, it’s a mission.

So, I hope that you enjoy this very informative conversation and benefit from your own “Power of Knowing” as you read the Mr. Magazine™ interview with the president and CEO of Royal Media, JJ Hornblass.

But first the sound-bites:

On what Royal Media is: Royal Media has taken a very long and winding path over the years. When I started the company I was very young and very ignorant (Laughs), and very inexperienced. But we started with one very central premise, which was to pursue highly specialized news media products with the same intensity and sophistication as, let’s say, The New York Times pursues, in general, news coverage and in its products. So, when we started we started as a pure play newsletter company. I read a “How to do newsletters” book at the time and off we went.

On what he would say the elevator pitch for Royal Media would be: I often have a hard time, Samir, with the elevator pitch, to be honest with you (Laughs), because it’s hard to explain to somebody that we provide great information on three specific industries in a number of different mediums. And that’s really what we do. The range of our activities is always centered on information, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing, it’s always centered on knowledge and market intelligence. It’s quite a lot. So, it ranges from high level data, oriented research to traditional news; we proudly team with great journalists and do traditional news, but then it segues all the way to a technology accelerator that we run. We run a financial technology accelerator and have several member financial institutions that participate in it.

On how the content categories the company covers was selected: We looked for an asset that would mitigate that risk and we acquired an air management group, which published on the air cargo industry, basically to get as far away from financial services as possible at the time (Laughs), and create an entirely different economic dynamic for us, which is what we did. We’ve since added an additional acquisition on the air cargo side. And we’ve retained two verticals from that kind of “back then” banking, technology and auto finance, which we were able to maintain. The banking and technology really flourished actually post-credit crisis, and the air cargo business is one that came afterward as a diversification effort.

On whether it has been a walk in a rose garden for him and the company since earlier rocky times: (Laughs) Yes, of course. We could just end the conversation now. (Laughs again) No, it hasn’t been. I think the thing maybe as a professor that you’ll appreciate is that an organization has to have a core competency, several actually. So, what is the core competency that we’ve developed? There are a few, but one of the central core competencies is that we’re in constant change mode. So, in fact, if I looked at what we’ve done since 2010 when we made that acquisition to now, probably if I was 10 years before that, all of these things were going on, but now it’s kind of par for the course. And we’re trying to continue to change. So, the walk in the rose garden, Samir, is just one that has many twists and turns, but if you know that they’re coming then it’s not so surprising.

On whether there is a difference between what the company offers in print, online and in mobile: If it isn’t already now, it will be in the next several weeks, we will formerly stop our last print publication. That doesn’t mean that we don’t create magazines, we’ve just transferred them onto a digital platform and distribute digitally. On rare occasions we will actually physically print them, let’s say for one of our events or something, but generally speaking we’re creating magazines or “print publications” that are actually digital. So, in that case, yes, we’re not printing them on paper, but we still adhere to the same production standards and requirements that we had when we were actually physically printing them on paper. And that also translates into the content.

On what’s on the horizon for Royal Media: I think it’s high time that we do another acquisition. We’re about three years from the last transaction and it does take us time to do an integration. I do think that it’s kind of high time for that. We have a new brand that we’re going to introduce next year and that’s a big move for us to try and carve out a parallel vertical to one of our existing verticals, but yet establish a new one. We continue to focus, especially on the air cargo side, on expanding it on a global basis.

On how the name Royal Media came about: I’m very proud of the reason behind the name of the company. My grandfather came to America in the 1920s. He smuggled in across the border from Canada. He came from Europe and had nothing and started a business. He started a company called Royal Lamp. And they sold light bulbs. At the time that was a new business and a relatively new industry. He was very successful and he was also a very admired person, a very disciplined and trustworthy individual. In deference and in honor of him, I named the company Royal Media.

On anything he’d like to add: We’re a very stick-to-our-knitting kind of company. I think you’re actually the first person I have ever really in all of these years talked to about the company. We don’t have investors; we don’t really publicize the brand. That’s why when John (McCormick) joined us it was such a big deal. I had this in the press release that I wrote, to me starting alone on the second floor of a warehouse, to be able to have somebody of his caliber come, it’s remarkable. I can’t believe that we’re so fortunate. It’s just a very stick-to-your-knitting shop.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: You might catch me in a yoga class, I try to do that and sometimes it’s an end of the day thing. Or I’m probably with my son, doing something with him – I have three children and my oldest two are in college and they don’t need me anymore, but my son is a freshman in high school, so I might be helping him. I have to admit that I am a pretty rabid Yankees fan, so during the season I’m following that narrative and see whether we have it in us to pull another championship out of the hat. Those are things you’d probably catch me doing.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I tried my hardest.

On the biggest misconception about him: I don’t know. Maybe that I have it all figured out in advance. (Laughs) Maybe people think that, I don’t know.

On what keeps him up at night: There’s a lot of things. Personally, I’m generally driven by achievement, and that’s not always a good thing. So when something isn’t going right, it definitely keeps me up. We have very specific goals for every product that we have. And I do fret; I fret when one or two of them are not going the way that they should. I’m definitely up if you want to call me, Samir. I’m available to you when that happens. (Laughs)

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with JJ Hornblass, president and CEO, Royal Media.

Samir Husni: Royal Media is almost 25 years old, you started in 1995. Tell me a little bit about this whole idea; your tagline is “The Power of Knowing.” What is Royal Media and what is “The Power of Knowing?”

JJ Hornblass: Royal Media has taken a very long and winding path over the years. When I started the company I was very young and very ignorant (Laughs), and very inexperienced. But we started with one very central premise, which was to pursue highly specialized news media products with the same intensity and sophistication as, let’s say, The New York Times pursues, in general, news coverage and in its products. So, when we started we started as a pure play newsletter company. I read a “How to do newsletters” book at the time and off we went.

Now we’ve really graduated into a much more diversified and sophisticated operation, but we still cue to the very central premise of providing exceptional informational products in very specialized areas. And we only have three, but in those areas we try to do exceptional work. So, in areas like that it’s still, despite everything online or via mobile, it’s still hard to really know what’s happening and really understand the subtleties of market trends and news developments. And that’s kind of what we mean by that; we mean that “Knowing” the specifics and details is a benefit and gives a certain power or advantage to those people who are our readers and subscribers.

Samir Husni: From those humble beginnings, and I’m going to call them humble because…

JJ Hornblass: (Laughs) Oh yes, they were definitely humble. I was alone in a warehouse. It was humble, trust me.

Samir Husni: (Laughs too) But now, you recently announced the hiring of John McCormick as your editorial director. I see that you’ve expanded; you’re no longer just a newsletter company. Tell me about the current Royal Media. If someone asked you for the elevator pitch after all of these years, what would you say?

JJ Hornblass: I often have a hard time, Samir, with the elevator pitch, to be honest with you (Laughs), because it’s hard to explain to somebody that we provide great information on three specific industries in a number of different mediums. And that’s really what we do. The range of our activities is always centered on information, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing, it’s always centered on knowledge and market intelligence. It’s quite a lot. So, it ranges from high level data, oriented research to traditional news; we proudly team with great journalists and do traditional news, but then it segues all the way to a technology accelerator that we run. We run a financial technology accelerator and have several member financial institutions that participate in it.

So, is that journalism? Hard to say. Is it magazine publishing? You can’t really say that. But it is information-oriented and we run that venture as an information venture, so I didn’t exactly give you an elevator pitch (Laughs), but that is what we do today.

Samir Husni: How did you end up with the different sectors that you cover? You have banking to the airlines to air cargo; did it just dawn on you one day that you should cover these categories?

JJ Hornblass: No, are you kidding me? Of course not. The first thing is, if I can share just a bit about me, I was trained as a journalist and the journalism I was taught was kind of an utilitarian approach; in other words, you do whatever, it doesn’t matter what you write about. Whatever you’re asked to write about, that’s what you write about. I don’t know if it’s the same today, but back then that was my school of journalism and the way I was taught. I had lived in Asia and when I came back I looked for a job and one that I could get was writing for American Banker, which was the leading banking newspaper at the time, and still is a very good news source. And that was the beat that I was on.

And when I wanted to start Royal Media, I started newsletters related to financial services, essentially tracking the growth of the asset-backed securitization market at the time. And so we had financial services media brands. Then came the credit crisis and we really suffered. About 40 percent of our revenue was lost in a very short amount of time. And we closed a number of media brands at that time. We were in full growth mode then and we suffered; it was not good.

So, when we came out of that I was determined to mitigate our risk in the future and not have such a concentration in financial services. It was like a basic principle of risk management that we had been writing about for any number of years beforehand and didn’t adhere to, which was kind of embarrassing, but that’s how it was.

One of the interesting things about being involved in financial services media at the time is that you really got kicked to the curb faster than anyone else. We had a brand that covered subprime mortgage finance. And it was already at the end of 2007 that we knew something wasn’t right. We were doing the conference at the time, it was taking place in early ‘08 and we were already seeing that there was a problem. The registration was off, the numbers weren’t hitting our expectations, so we suffered very early. And by the time other media ventures started to feel the effect, we had already right-sized, as they say in proper corporate America.

We looked for an asset that would mitigate that risk and we acquired Air Cargo Management Group, which published on the air cargo industry, basically to get as far away from financial services as possible at the time (Laughs), and create an entirely different economic dynamic for us, which is what we did. We’ve since added an additional acquisition on the air cargo side. And we’ve retained two verticals from that kind of “back then” banking, technology and auto finance, which we were able to maintain. The banking and technology really flourished actually post-credit crisis, and the air cargo business is one that came afterward as a diversification effort.

Samir Husni: Since then has it been a walk in a rose garden for you?

JJ Hornblass: (Laughs) Yes, of course. We could just end the conversation now. (Laughs again) No, it hasn’t been. I think the thing maybe as a professor that you’ll appreciate is that an organization has to have a core competency, several actually. So, what is the core competency that we’ve developed? There are a few, but one of the central core competencies is that we’re in constant change mode. So, in fact, if I looked at what we’ve done since 2010 when we made that acquisition to now, probably if I was 10 years before that, all of these things were going on, but now it’s kind of par for the course. And we’re trying to continue to change. So, the walk in the rose garden, Samir, is just one that has many twists and turns, but if you know that they’re coming then it’s not so surprising.

So, the event business is much more important to us. We’ve transitioned to more of a subscription dynamic, this is kind of like what’s old is new again for us, because we originally started as a subscription-only business. We’ve tried to create new products that are more research-oriented. Air Cargo Management Group, which we acquired in 2010, had a research consulting practice for the air cargo space and we’ve continued to maintain that. And that has evolved over the years. You’ve just got to make it work.

Samir Husni: In today’s digital world that we live in, what do you see as the role of your printed products? You said you’re back into the subscription business; do you differentiate, is there a difference between what you offer in print, what you offer online, and what you offer in mobile?

JJ Hornblass: If it isn’t already now, it will be in the next several weeks, we will formerly stop our last print publication. That doesn’t mean that we don’t create magazines, we’ve just transferred them onto a digital platform and distribute digitally. On rare occasions we will actually physically print them, let’s say for one of our events or something, but generally speaking we’re creating magazines or “print publications” that are actually digital. So, in that case, yes, we’re not printing them on paper, but we still adhere to the same production standards and requirements that we had when we were actually physically printing them on paper. And that also translates into the content.

We haven’t really done a great job of doing, for example, feature writing online in the context of our online news sites. Sometimes it just doesn’t really translate well and we haven’t really figured that out. And it seems like our readers don’t necessarily want features. And what I mean by features, I’m talking about like magazine features online.

So, the online content tends to be more consistent or similar, the lengths and the quality of them, and with quality I mean the amount of reporting that goes into them is very consistent, whereas for the digital publications we’re producing, there we’re doing more of what you might consider eclectic magazine content of varying lengths and varying reporting and varying utility.

Samir Husni: Based on the audience, you’re following your customers, you’re giving them what they want, wherever they want it. So, as you look at the near future, what do you think will be one or two things that we can expect from Royal Media? Anything major on the horizon?

JJ Hornblass: I think it’s high time that we do another acquisition. We’re about three years from the last transaction and it does take us time to do an integration. I do think that it’s kind of high time for that. We have a new brand that we’re going to introduce next year and that’s a big move for us to try and carve out a parallel vertical to one of our existing verticals, but yet establish a new one. We continue to focus, especially on the air cargo side, on expanding it on a global basis.

Air cargo is, not surprisingly, a very global industry. When we acquired Air Cargo Management Group in 2010, it was solely U.S. focused. And we’ve subsequently expanded to Asia, we produce a publication in Mandarin, and in the fall we’ll have our first event in Europe covering the Europe, Middle East, and Africa market of air cargo. So, those are initiatives for us.

And the third front is the accelerator, which we’re continuing to push hard to expand and really do a better job. It’s a lot of work and we’ve learned a lot in the three years that we’ve been doing it and I would expect that side of the business to continue growing as well.

Samir Husni: And I have to ask you about the name and how that came about?

JJ Hornblass: I’m very proud of the reason behind the name of the company. My grandfather came to America in the 1920s. He smuggled in across the border from Canada. He came from Europe and had nothing and started a business. He started a company called Royal Lamp. And they sold light bulbs. At the time that was a new business and a relatively new industry. He was very successful and he was also a very admired person, a very disciplined and trustworthy individual. In deference and in honor of him, I named the company Royal Media.

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

JJ Hornblass: We’re a very stick-to-our-knitting kind of company. I think you’re actually the first person I have ever really in all of these years talked to about the company. We don’t have investors; we don’t really publicize the brand. That’s why when John (McCormick) joined us it was such a big deal. I had this in the press release that I wrote, to me starting alone on the second floor of a warehouse, to be able to have somebody of his caliber come, it’s remarkable. I can’t believe that we’re so fortunate. It’s just a very stick-to-your-knitting shop.

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; watching TV; or something else? How do you unwind?

JJ Hornblass: You might catch me in a yoga class, I try to do that and sometimes it’s an end of the day thing. Or I’m probably with my son, doing something with him – I have three children and my oldest two are in college and they don’t need me anymore, but my son is a freshman in high school, so I might be helping him. I have to admit that I am a pretty rabid Yankees fan, so during the season I’m following that narrative and see whether we have it in us to pull another championship out of the hat. Those are things you’d probably catch me doing.

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

JJ Hornblass: I tried my hardest.

Samir Husni: What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?

JJ Hornblass: I don’t know. Maybe that I have it all figured out in advance. (Laughs) Maybe people think that, I don’t know.

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

JJ Hornblass: There’s a lot of things. Personally, I’m generally driven by achievement, and that’s not always a good thing. So when something isn’t going right, it definitely keeps me up. We have very specific goals for every product that we have. And I do fret; I fret when one or two of them are not going the way that they should. I’m definitely up if you want to call me, Samir. I’m available to you when that happens. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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