CEO Panel Highlights First Day of 40th SIPA Conference

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Fittingly, a panel of three highly successful CEOs and a fourth who served as moderator opened SIPA's historic 40th Annual Conference earlier today. Ironically, a question about your biggest mistake brought out some of the best advice.

"It's not the things you do, it's the things you don't do," said Brian Crotty, president and CEO of OPIS, an IHS company. "I was in the oil publishing business for 30 years, and it took me to 2008 and [many years before I said that we should really just go for it and become an international pricing provider."

"Not to do the bold things can be a big mistake," added moderator Don Pazour, CEO of Access Intelligence.

"Focus was a key word for us," said Robin Crumby, co-founder and managing director of Novatum Group. "It took a long time for us to let go of some of the legacy products we had grown up with. So we took a hard look where the real value laid in our businesses and customers. We delayed tough decisions."

Lynn Freer, president of Spidell Publishing Inc., was the third CEO on the panel. "We're from California—we're different from the east coast," she said. "For us the mistake was a cultural thing. When I first [took over] Spidell, I allowed the culture to be way too loosey goosey. We had to change that culture and still have fun, be a great employer and pay enough money for people [to adapt] and not want to leave."

All three CEOs agreed that bringing in top people was key. "We brought in high-caliber employees with a lot of experience," Crumby said. "That accelerated changes."

"It's a little easier now that we can hire a big salary," Crotty said. "But what gets hidden are the small secrets to success—we got some really smart people in there [before their big success] and ponied up to get them."

Being bold was certainly the theme for this day. Time and again, publishers talked about taking the leap, not being afraid to fail and building a transformative culture. Wayne Cooper, managing director of Greenhaven Partners, spoke of an early initiative where they sent out 25,000 direct mail packages and got three orders back. "It was a disaster," he said. "But that was a signal to the team that it's okay to fail. That was truly transformative for us. 'Don't be shocked if there's an idea that didn't work.'"

Soon, many ideas did work. The culture had been put in place. "Fail cheaply," he said. "See what the market thinks. You don't have to commit to an ongoing service. You can do a one-off, and if it gains traction" you can put more resources into it.

The bold attitude was reflected in the lunchtime ceremonies as well where 26 first-place finishers were named in the 37th Annual SIPAwards, (See those winners here.) The David Swit Award for Best Investigative Reporting went to Kates-Boylston, a UCG company. And the Margie Weiner Award for Best Marketing Campaign of the Year went to Penton Agriculture.

Lucy Swedberg, EVP and publisher, Wellesley Information Services, won the Volunteer of the Year Award. And Bob Brady, founder and former CEO of BLR, was inducted into the SIPA Hall of Fame.

"Thirty-nine years ago, I gambled all my money on the surest of commodities—postage," Brady said. "I quit a job, moved, got married, left on a five-week honeymoon and started an 8-page newsletter, the Personnel Managers Legal Report. The bet paid off—especially the marriage and the newsletter. I parlayed an eight-page newsletter into BLR, one of its industry's most successful companies. I was lucky to meet and partner with the right people."

Lucretia Lyons, president of BVR, received an award to conclude her year as president of the board—a year marked by significant membership growth. "Twenty-two years ago I came to my first meeting with IOMA and David Foster. I was quick to fall in love with the community and it has been a privilege to serve in the association leadership for the last six."

Cindy Carter, president and CEO of FDAnews, assumed the presidency from Lyons.

The other theme of the day was talking to your customers before you design products for them.  "Do what the customer wants," said Crotty. "Our customer wanted real-time information, not end-of-day pricing."

OPIS then discovered that gas station owners wanted to see what everyone else is doing for pricing. So they created software that texts price changes as they happen. Next Crotty saw how important his IT staff had become, and that staff could not wait to get answers from them. So now OPIS has around 100 IT people. "We get projects out faster now, and our growth rate went from 8% to 12%."

Freer's boldness is now moving into other areas. "Baby boomers are aging," she said, "...and they have trusts and estates. It's one tax preparation area that you can't buy Turbo Tax to do."

In a new product workshop on Monday, Elizabeth Petersen, executive vice president for health care at BLR, called their talking to customers "research diversity." Interestingly, she prefers one-on-one customer calls to online surveys and focus groups, where one or two people can dominate the discussion. She also mentioned conference observation—which rooms are filled the most, what speakers and topics are most popular and seeing how people interact.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…