At 50, Norah Casey is one of Ireland’s most famous business- women and a regular on the country’s version of Dragons’ Den.
The owner/manager of Ireland’s biggest publishing company started out as a nurse. Her publishing career began when she was 28 years old and decided that she wanted “to try something different”.
Casey studied journalism and worked for magazines in London before joining a Dublin-based magazine publisher. “We had some great titles but we weren’t getting the most out of them.” The magazine business “was a distraction” for the parent company, an international corrugated paper producer. In 2004 it decided to dump the business. Casey, MD at the time, decided to lead a management buyout. “I was prepared to take a gamble because I thought I could make a success of it. “As most of the other senior management had become disillusioned and already left, she “had to go it alone.”
Her business plan persuaded several banks and with the finance in place she bought the business and renamed it Harmonia. Her first move was to ramp up contract publishing - producing in-house magazines for other firms, such as retailers. “It wasn’t a glamorous side of the business but I needed to get sales up to finance the second part of my plan.” Helped by the boom in the Irish retail sector, contract publishing grew to around 50% of sales.
Casey also cut costs by winding up less successful titles. “It wasn’t easy but I wanted to concentrate my resources on the magazines that had the most potential.” Some of Harmonia’s leading magazines “had lost their way and didn’t really know what they wanted to be”. The company’s leading magazine, Irish Tatler (not related to the UK version), was “within months of closing”. Casey decided to “reposition the magazine and sell it to a younger audience”. After an extensive marketing campaign it became the best-selling magazine in Ireland.
Yet by 2008 the looming recession was taking its toll. “Retailers were demanding no-risk contracts for their magazines.” Unwilling to guarantee the advertising they wanted, Casey decided to get out. “It was hard to get rid of such big clients, but there was no way I was going to promise them a certain advertising revenue.” Within a year contract publishing had shrunk from 50% of sales to 5%. She also closed her design title. “As the housing market collapsed I realised I’d made the right decision.”
Having lost a chunk of business she diversified. With cash “earned during the good years” she launched the firm into conferences, award ceremonies and special editions - anything to boost advertising revenues for each remaining title. She also changed the format of some big hitters and invested heavily online. Sadly, “like everyone else”, the firm still hasn’t found the “way to make online pay”.
However, her strategy worked: last year sales were £8.5m, leading to an invitation to judge Dragons’ Den. As for Harmonia, she’s begun projects in China and Australia and has an eye on the UK. “It doesn’t make sense just to focus on a market of five million people when there’s a bigger one next door.”