The lessons from WK UK and Croner

The Croner brand is a great one. But all greatness comes from and needs leadership.

Croner succeeded when the legal publishers thought it was a business publisher and the business publishers thought it was a legal publisher. I saw it rise from £6m in sales to £120m in 15 years, and the team that rode that tiger was one of the best the industry has ever seen. The truth is it was neither legal not business publisher. A full 17 years after it broke all records on sustained growth and profitability a long roll of honour oversaw it’s decline. 17 CxOs in various guises in 17 years is all you need to know. Nice people all; experienced publishers in the main; but they universally missed the point. Take a bow Carter/Williams/Fernandez-Lopez/Ancia/Hague/Crompton/Wolfe/Smith/Casimir/Mellor/ Gilliat/Richardson/ Detailleur/Thijs/ Ainsley/Myson/Messotten. I may even have missed one or two – there is certainly no shortage of people claiming a CxO title over the past 17 years in Croner.

The point is, the rump of the business that has now found a new home are the cores that I built in tax and HR advisory services. The CCH software services stay within WK. I took a lot of flak when running CCH in the late 90s, but the software acquisitions and the established future of that brand was my shout. I’m proud of that, but it was the least we could do for a team who had built a stunning green field operation and bested Butterworths at their own game. The content business is divested as the customer market structure is just a nightmare.

The Croner publishing business is a shadow of its former self; the software underpinning it not very inspiring, and the loss of market positions in safety, export, logistics, and schools both avoidable and lamentable. This was what Ulrich Croner gave his name to. That the brand transferred into advisory services was a tribute to what he built (Sefton expanded and Staal transformed). The rival now buying the consulting business is lamentable, yes, but the advisory team also suffered the 17 CxOs in 17 years and despite underperforming the market, they substantially out performed the content and tax parts of the business.

Irony of ironies, the plans to tackle the advisory, certification and standards business that were the main rivals before Dotcom were dismissed by WK HQ. What was then Technical Indexes, is now IHS, and IHS/Markit is now an $18bn global group, outstripping the WK group by some way (at a meagre $11bn). WK has begun buying safety and risk software businesses now (Croner did this back in 98), and is looking at developing GC focused services only a decade too late (15 years after Practical Law Company showed the way). In today’s market being a late arrival is problematic. Being 10 years late, repeatedly, is appalling.

The fact is Croner was never a publisher; legal or business. That it ended up defined as such almost killed it, and the Publishers of the past decade have been woefully inept in reading the marketplace they serve. Nobody saw that the real disruptive competitor was not online platforms, but free content marketing efforts from legal firms, accountancy and insurance firms. The usual suspects got locked in a race to the bottom, accelerated by on-line production over-engineering. They missed the role of the brand entirely in giving confidence and certification to business processes. So others have filled the void.

The old guard dismiss this as the future of the geeks, nerds or techies. The fact is, the people who kill you, don’t look like you, but to dismiss them pejoratively forgets two things. 1. They’re not geeks; they’re getting paid to do a good job by people with expanding pockets. Sure a few have pony-tails and bean bags in the office, but the good ones look awfully like the good publishers did when they had the whip hand. 2. Back in the day, the real geeks were the nerds on long lunches, shooting fish in protectionist barrels, and whacking up prices at will. Now buyers are better equipped, the choice of services is ten times better, solutions come in computing, consulting and content formats, often all in the same package, and content is not King (hasn’t been for 20 years).

So don’t lament Croner. Don’t blame nerds. The brand will endure in some form. Managing decline takes leadership just as much as growth does. WK singularly failed to deliver that in the UK. Possibly because it was never European, and never the 51st State either. They blew it in UK growth markets just as much as they struggled in declining ones (everyone has). The US thought it knew best when it didn’t, and missed the legal services transformations completely accordingly. The EU misread the certification services markets entirely and gave IHS a free pass accordingly. Bad choices, but lamentable when they penalised the one shop which was ideally placed to experiment with and deliver those strategic options.

The lessons are there; just don’t ask any of the 17 above, or their acolytes. The whole process was horribly introverted, brutal, micro-managed and a textbook example of how Christensen economics plays out (when even good people stick to the script). It was also not the worst example of such. Behind the scenes, institute publishing, recruitment advertising led magazine publishing and law book publishing have seen worse catastrophes and more blood on their carpets. The best people mostly left Croner many years ago. Many excelled in other teams. It has a future. It’s just that publishers won’t deliver it. Businesses with compliance risks to manage will choose who. They’ve chosen a precocious new advisory services team in the UK, not the old guard.

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