Publishing veteran Kevin Kelly goes from groceries to glossies and back again

 

MEDIA & MARKETING:The ‘Checkout’ magazine owner has sold his stake in ‘Image’ and is focusing on a new venture, writes SIOBHÁN O'CONNELL

A WEEK after selling his stake in Imagemagazine to the glossy monthly’s managing director, Richard Power, and his brother Robert, publisher Kevin Kelly was up at 4am in Barcelona to get to an international food and drink fair so he could promote European Supermarket Magazine,his latest publishing venture.

As he waves goodbye to Image, Kelly (73) says he is excited about his startup. “ ESMis a bi-monthly magazine for Europe’s supermarket buyers which I have been publishing for less than a year out of Dublin.”

The veteran publisher has been active in the magazine game since 1973, when he bought retail industry trade magazine Checkout. His background was in the food industry, selling margarine for Unilever, and he had been a contributor to Checkoutbefore he bought it.

A year later he started monthly magazine Irish Business, where Sunday Times Ireland editor Frank Fitzgibbon learned his trade. In 1975 Kelly and his wife, Rose, launched Image, an aspirational glossy that was worlds away from Woman’s Way, the market leader at the time. In 1976, Ann Reihill came on board as an investor and editor.

Kelly’s decision to exit Imagehas taken many in the industry by surprise.

Imagehas been my baby for all these years but like all babies they grow up and you have to let them go at some point,” he says.

According to Kelly, the Power brothers approached him a few months ago with an offer.

“Richard Power is a very good managing director and his brother Robert has made a lot of money in his career,” says Kelly, adding that he did not tout his shareholding to other potential buyers such as Norah Casey’s Harmonia, publisher of Irish Tatlerand U.

“I don’t think any other Irish publisher could have afforded to buy my share of Image.”

Robert Power has the deep pockets necessary to see the magazine through the recession. He grossed an estimated €14 million from the sale of insurance broker Cornmarket to Irish Life & Permanent, a deal initiated in 1999 and concluded in 2008.

Image Publications was owned 50/50 by Kelly and Reihill. Under the new ownership structure, Reihill has retained her shareholding and her place on the board. Her son Patrick Dillon-Malone also remains as a director while Robert Power joins his brother Richard on the board.

The Power family have a long association with Image. Frances Power, sister of the new investors, is a contributing editor, while Robert Power’s wife, Laura, occasionally writes for the title. Brother John Power, a freelance designer and art director of the Irish Arts Review,is also on call if a design task is needed. Imagestaff not related to the Powers have taken to calling the magazine’s office Power City.

Imagehas been hit hard by the recession and by competition for advertising from newspapers. Filed accounts for 2008 disclosed a trading loss of €28,000. At the end of the year Image Publications Ltd had outstanding bank borrowings of €350,000 while directors were owed €337,000 by the company. The accounts stated that €287,000 was owed to Kelly.

In 2009, Image’s average circulation per issue was 22,060, its lowest figure in the past 10 years. The title now lags behind Irish Tatler, which had an average issue sale of 26,870 last year.

Social & Personalwas one of two Irish women’s magazines to grow its circulation last year, with an average sale of 16,410. The other was Prudence,which had an average issue sale of 11,035 last year. Another player in the sector is the Gloss, established by former Imageemployees Jane and Sarah McDonnell and now distributed with The Irish Timesonce a month.

Kelly concedes that these are tough times for Irish magazine publishers but insists that “quality will always win through”.

This view is shared by Adele Walsh, planning director at advertising agency Zenith, which books advertisements for L’Oreal.

“More and more magazine supplements in newspapers go on the advertising plan because they offer opportunities for higher circulation,” she says.

“But there is always a question mark over the extent to which these supplements are actually consumed by the readers. Monthly women’s magazines have a higher perceived value to advertisers because they are actively purchased.”

Kelly will be kept busy with Checkoutand his ESMstartup. He distributes ESMto 6,500 supermarket managers, buying directors and supply-chain executives in the hope that supermarket suppliers will want to advertise to this targeted audience. “It’s the best database in Europe for the European grocery business,” says Kelly.

“I sincerely believe ESMhas a lot of potential and the grocery sector is a business I know very well. And I still enjoy the hustle. The publishing business has certainly given me a better life than I would have had if I had stuck with selling margarine.”