From school garage start-up to globally renowned brand operating in 80 countries, Haynes Publishing has been creating car manuals for over 50 years. But, as group executive chairman J Haynes tells us, the £29m company recently completed a restructure and is revving up to embrace a digital future
The saying ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ is certainly true of the Haynes Publishing headquarters in the sleepy Somerset village of Sparkford, 15 minutes north of Yeovil. Pull into the driveway and the unassuming industrial buildings ahead give little clue that this is home to a British motoring icon. Until, that is, you swing to a stop in front of the reception and catch sight of that familiar yellow and red logo above the door – the same one that adorns the front of the company’s famous car manuals, so commonly spotted on oily garage workbenches and stuffed in glove compartments the world over.
In fact, what you definitely can judge by its cover is a Haynes manual. That diagram which allows you to glimpse at the anatomy of the title vehicle promises complete knowledge of the intimate workings within.
And it’s a promise that has come to be trusted by amateur car-tinkerers and professional mechanics in more than 80 countries – particularly in the US and Australia, which account for 50 per cent of Haynes revenues. Indeed, for the year to May 2014, Haynes reported a six per cent rise in revenue to £29.3m and a 31 per cent leap in adjusted profit before tax to £4.2m. And this against the backdrop of a costly restructure to refocus the business on an increasingly digital future.
It’s a far cry from the days of the first Haynes project – conceived by a 16-year-old John Haynes in 1954. Having convinced teachers to allow him to build a car – an Austin Seven Special – in a school outbuilding rather than participate in sports, Haynes hit upon the idea of creating an illustrated booklet to show others how to repeat the feat step-by-step. Selling out of his first run of 250 copies in 10 days, he realised there was a gap in the market for manuals that explained in detail how to build or repair particular models of vehicle.
Officially launching the Haynes business in 1960, and floating the company on the London Stock Exchange in 1979 (the family still holds the lion’s share of the stock) the founder director, now aged 77, is still heavily involved in daily operations to this day – with his sons John, known as ‘J’, as group executive chairman, and Marc as a non-executive director who also runs the charitable trust, Haynes International Motor Museum, a short drive around the corner.
“Today, the founding principles of the business are very much back at the heart of the business,” says J Haynes, as he leads us from the company’s bookshop reception to his office, clutching a Haynes-branded mug of tea. “Fifteen years ago that wasn’t the case as the company had gone into many other areas of business, from coffee table books to third-party distribution to equipment manufacturing. But today we’re very much focused on those principles of providing practical information that allows people to look after, repair and maintain their cars. We’ve broadened the remit from consumers to also provide different information for professional mechanics, and – as you can see – we now create manuals that cover all kinds of practical areas, it may be guitars, it may be pies… We still, whatever the subject matter, will bring that item into our workshops, tear it apart and record the process.”
He points to a pile of manuals on his desk which range from the usual guides to an array of four-wheeled vehicles, to books that could, should you so desire, help you to repair a spitfire, fix a guitar, understand the inner-workings of the Apollo 11 lunar module or – in a new tome released in time for Christmas – assist you in baking the perfect pie. Deals with franchises such as Lucasfilm to produce an Owner’s Workshop Manual to the Death Star from Star Wars have brought the company a different audience and a new generation of fans. But how do these weighty printed tomes compete in an increasingly digital world?
“There is still a demand for manuals,” he says. “Why? Because there are still millions of people who’ve used them for many years and are comfortable with them. You also have to consider the environment in which they’re used – I’d much rather drop a £20 manual on the floor, spill oil on it and drop a spanner on it, than my very expensive Kindle. If you look at our forward programme, we are producing more car manuals this year than we did last year and we’re going to be investing over £2m in the printed manual product, so we remain very committed to that. But, at the same time, we’ve looked at ways to leverage more value from the content we create.”
Haynes is referring to online and film. As well as offering electronic versions of its print manuals on the web, the company has operated a digital-only resource of technical data for professional mechanics since 2008, when it acquired Vivid Automotive – a business which had been specialising in supplying such information in multiple languages across Europe since 1995. Rebranding it as HaynesPro in 2012, the business now boasts over 40,000 subscribers – with professionals contributing some 20 per cent of overall revenue. But, says Haynes, this is only the beginning and the company recently began filming each of its painstaking vehicle builds (it still takes three-to-six months to produce a manual from strip-down to publication) in high definition.
“We’ve developed an archive of procedures and the great thing is we can take stills from the HD video and use them in the print product – so it’s actually a very efficient way to create something for the future while also creating what you need for the existing product,” says Haynes. “And we are presently undertaking a very large piece of consumer research to understand the motoring interests of the modern generation. Now, when you pass your driving test, you have to have an understanding of some of the basic mechanics of your car. Well, who better to provide that information than a company that’s been providing it for 50 years? But the important point is: how should we deliver that? Should it be via an app that contains videos which show you how to work on your car? That’s what we’re researching right now.”
With both the research findings and a new company website due to be ready by the new year, Haynes is looking forward to hitting the accelerator in 2015. But being in a position to speed off into a digital future has not come without its upheavals. When J Haynes joined the business as an executive in 2001 (he previously worked for the company in the US before a spell in investment banking and studying for an MBA), he found it was heading for its only loss-making year in its history – a deficit of £700,000.
“It had diversified perhaps a little too far, and we had become less focused on people’s roles, so we had departments that were adding questionable value to the overall objectives,” says Haynes. “The first thing we did was stop distributing for third-party publishers. Then we closed our design department, sold the garage equipment division, and sold the history publisher Sutton Publishing.” While cutting back on these “non-core” activities, Haynes embarked on a series of acquisitions to increase its manual-selling power in key overseas territories – buying its main US rival Chilton and paying £2m for its Australian opposition Gregory in 2002. The aforementioned 2008 acquisition of Vivid, meanwhile, prised open the professional market.
While the business returned to growth in the wake of these measures, recession and a fall of group revenue by seven per cent in the year to mid-2013 brought another strategic review and the announcement in September last year of a plan to restructure UK operations – 23 people left the company, reducing headcount to 41. “The hardest thing was, we had to say goodbye to a relatively large number of people – some of them had been with us a very long time, 25 years plus, and that’s always going to be very challenging,” says Haynes. “But [it] was the final stage in acknowledging that central vision: that we are providers of practical information. The area we restructured was our book division that primarily created coffee-table books and non-automotive manuals… and we decided that we would outsource our distribution function to a well-respected third party.”
Affirming the company’s intention to refocus on its manual-making bread and butter, the restructure announcement coincided with the £5.85m acquisition of Clymer and Intertec Manuals from US-based Penton Business Media – giving Haynes a global stranglehold on the DIY repair manuals market for motorcycles and farm machinery.
So, given the company’s track record for successful acquisitions, what does Haynes believe is the formula for getting it right? “What’s vital is to maintain your company’s vision at the top of your mind, because that allows you to walk away if you need to, even at the last minute,” he says. “We’ve had as many acquisitions that we have not pursued to completion as those that we have completed. Sometimes it’s difficult because you may have put a lot of time and effort into the deal and the ego – to be seen to succeed – is very powerful. But you have to be able to stand back and, if it doesn’t fulfil the objectives that you originally had in mind, be able to walk away.”
And what has he learnt about maintaining success in overseas markets such as the US, where his father temporarily moved to develop the LA office in the mid-1970s? “Once you have senior managers located in a country you have to empower those individuals to make decisions and grow the business within a broad understanding of what you’re trying to achieve,” he says. “If you are an entrepreneurial founder, sometimes there’s a desire to be involved with everything – I respect my father hugely for the way he has been able to accept that others have to take responsibility. Because I think it can kill a business if someone thinks they have to be involved in every decision.”
With his father handing over the role of group chairman to him in 2010 – the company’s 50th anniversary year – but remaining on the board as founder director, what characterises the working dynamic between the pair today? “Lots of discussion,” says Haynes. “Humour is bloody useful too. Hopefully over time my father has learnt to trust my judgement and he also realises that I respect his experience. We spend a lot of time discussing the big issues facing the company. I’ve been fortunate that he’s been supportive of the changes – he challenges them, which is fabulous… the discussions we had about closing the book trade and distribution were very robust. It’s in everybody’s best interest that you have someone who can interrogate with great experience what you’re proposing to do.”
So, from 2015 onwards, where will the Haynes team steer the business next? “I would like to think we’ll be able to empower consumers to make choices as to whether they want to repair something themselves or employ the services of a specialist,” he says. “I would like to think we’ll be able to provide that information across multiple platforms. And I’d like to see us leverage the language-translation capabilities that reside within HaynesPro to launch a digital consumer product that would be pan-European – we will continue to invest in opportunities to develop geographically.”
As he takes a final sip of his tea from his Haynes mug and that famous yellow and red logo flashes into view again, it’s too tempting not to ask – would the family ever consider selling such a bankable brand?
“There’s been interest, obviously there is, it’s a fabulous brand,” he says. “But we have been preparing it for the next 20 years and I think the opportunities that lie ahead are far too exciting to entertain discussions with anyone else.”