Time Flies When You're Having Fun
You see, this edition marks the 15th anniversary of Plumbing & Mechanical. Whether you have been a faithful reader from the beginning, or started the habit somewhere along the way, I thought you might be interested in learning about the rather colorful history of this publication.
PM’s late founder, Charlie Horton, for three decades was the dominant voice of the plumbing industry as owner and publisher of Supply House Times, the industry’s leading magazine for PHC wholesalers. Most regular readers turned first to Charlie’s back-page editorials. He was a brilliant writer, and his masterful essays were made all the more readable by their frequently cantankerous tone.
Charlie used to purposely pick fights. He knew that controversy makes for good reading, and advertisers like publications that get read. Consequently, the Supply House Times of Charlie’s era bulged with advertising. Even its competitors had reason to thank Charlie, because they picked up ads they’d never otherwise get from people who went to them out of spite after getting peeved at something he wrote. He didn’t care. Year after year his magazine would chalk up twice as much advertising as its main competitor.
I joined Supply House Times as an associate editor in 1977. From the time I came aboard Charlie would periodically talk about starting a magazine aimed at contractors. Plans got delayed by the 1981-82 recession, the most severe economic slump in this country since the Great Depression. Business got better in 1983 and by mid-year Charlie made the decision to go ahead with a contractor magazine.
It led to the biggest break of my career. By then I had been on the staff of Supply House Times for more than six years. For the most part I liked my job and Charlie treated his employees great, but there was no room to grow in his tiny company. So from time to time I would put out my résumé. One summer day in 1983 I received a fairly attractive offer from a publication in another field. I spent a weekend mulling it over but after weighing all the pros and cons decided to stay put. The following week, Charlie called me into his office to tell me he would be launching a new magazine and that he wanted me to be the editor in charge. I sometimes wonder where I’d be today had I accepted that other job, but never regretted my decision.
Chutzpah Galore!He had selected March 1984 as the launch date. Why not January to kick off a new year? Because many advertising budgets are still unsettled at the beginning of a year and this would complicate ad sales for a startup publication. For the same reason, Charlie had chosen the month of March (1959) to launch Supply House Times. This logic — sprinkled with a little superstition — led to PM’s March birthday.
A common but expensive way to launch a new magazine is to put together a prototype edition with sample articles and giveaway ads. This shows potential subscribers and advertisers how the book will look and read. Charlie didn’t see the need to spend all that money when he had such an abundance of free chutzpah with which to spread the word.
Never mind that we had yet to publish a single line of copy. Charlie sent letters to every potential advertiser declaring that ours would be by far the best magazine in the industry, and that our competitors amounted to nothing but doggy doo. I can’t remember for sure if he ever used that exact term, but it seems like something that might have popped up in his red-hot promotional prose. Here’s a headline that topped one of those promo letters, dated Aug. 4, 1983:
Charlie Horton & Company DECLARE WAR On The Strip-Mining Of Our Industry By Cruddy Publishing Conglomerates Who Know Nothing About It, And Care Even Less
Plenty of people got offended. Knocking the competition breaks a cardinal rule of business etiquette, and some of his name calling got pretty vicious. There were advertisers who slammed the door in our face as a result. But for every one of those, dozens of others got a kick out of this brash approach — especially since many felt that for all his bombast Charlie had a point. In fact, he originally had no great enthusiasm for a contracting magazine, but various advertisers kept egging him on to start one, because they perceived the existing magazines in the field to be, well, doggy doo. (One of the competitors has since folded. The other has improved quite a bit from the doggy doo days, in my opinion, thanks at least in part to the competitive challenge from us.)
Again before we had ever published a single word, Charlie insisted that we adopt as our slogan, “The Bible of the Contractors.” This ran as part of our front-page banner for the first two-and-half-years.
Every staff member except Charlie was against it because we knew it stepped on some religious sensitivities. A few advertisers avoided us because of it, and many others told Charlie they didn’t like it. Each month several contractors would call to cancel their subscriptions. But Charlie had a stubborn attachment to his pet slogan. One day the sales and editorial staffs conspired to simply remove it from the front page without telling him. Several editions went by before Charlie even noticed. When he finally said something, we simply shrugged and changed the subject. Charlie never brought it up again.
“Plumbers don’t read!”In fall of 1983 I relinquished my Supply House Times duties to prepare full-time for the launch of PM. Besides digging up copy, I traveled around the country meeting contractors and other industry VIPs in order to learn as much as I could about the contracting sector. Most people liked our idea for a new magazine, but I vividly recall one conversation with an advertising executive who didn’t.
“You people are crazy!” the ad guy said. “There are too many contracting books out there already. Besides, plumbers don’t read.”
That knocked me for a loop. He knew the industry far better than I, and what if he was right? I felt like I had just bought a ticket on the Titanic. But as I thought through what he said, disappointment turned to defiance.
“They’ll read if you give them something worth reading,” I replied.
The episode has stuck in my mind all these years. Every piece of copy I’ve written or edited since then has passed through a filter in my mind that asks, “Is this worth reading?”
In an ideal world, this saying would be tatooed across every editor’s knuckles. But a sad truth about trade publishing is that because subscriptions are given away free, editorial content often gets treated as an afterthought. Ours is predominantly a market-driven business. Find the right niche, and you can get rich putting out a magazine that does little more than distribute ads to the target audience. You can fill the gaps between those ads with mundane news releases and anything else that occupies space. Readers may not pay much attention, but as long as you can prove they receive the magazine and fill out a few bingo card inquiries, advertisers can be suckered into buying. I’m sure most of you can think of a few publications that fit this description. Charlie Horton would have none of that. He wanted his trade magazines to read like consumer publications, and he hammered this attitude into everyone who worked for him.
That’s why I spent a lot of time trying to dig up a blockbuster cover story for our inaugural issue. But the hottest leads fell through for one reason or another. With deadline approaching, I settled for a story that was about my fourth or fifth choice as cover material. It was a piece about the Carl P. Wallace Co., run by an heir to the recently defunct Sam Wallace Co., formerly the nation’s largest mechanical contractor. They went belly up after being bought out by a Saudi investor, and bad blood flowed all over the place. As an industry novice, I regarded it as just a humdrum company case history article and felt disappointed that I couldn’t come up with anything better. Later I learned that many people in the mechanical contracting sector were wondering what Carl Wallace was up to. Our story got us noticed in a hurry by many of the biggest contractors in the industry. As they say, better to be lucky than good.
Our second issue was nothing special, but our third featured a cover story on Richard Trethewey, who was in the early stages of his long-running stint as the featured plumbing-heating expert on the “This Old House” PBS series. Our fourth and fifth editions featured a lengthy investigative series titled “The Yellow Pages Racket,” which put us on the map in a big way with residential service contractors.
After our fourth edition, PM commissioned its first ever editorial preference survey. It showed us as the second most preferred magazine among three in the field, way ahead of the cellar dweller and within hailing distance of the leader. This after publishing a mere four issues! The next year we finished first, as we have in every subsequent reader preference survey I’ve ever seen.
End Of An EraCharlie Horton understood the dynamics of the plumbing-heating industry as well as anyone. In staff meetings he often predicted that the day would come when PM would be a bigger advertising draw than his flagship Supply House Times, simply because contractors have more ability to influence the sale of industry products than wholesalers do.
We staffers thought he was blowing smoke. Supply House Times outsold PM by more than two to one. What’s more, PM never fulfilled advertising expectations during his lifetime. Charlie, shrewdly, bought his way into the market by offering steeply discounted rates for all charter advertisers. They were about half what our competitors charged and what we needed to charge to make any money. Our inaugural issue had 184 pages, and we put out sizable issues throughout that first year. However, in the second year the charter rates disappeared. We boosted our prices by about double and ad sales became a struggle.
Eventually, Charlie’s prediction did come true. Due to Charlie’s departure and wholesaler consolidation, Supply House Times, though still a pretty good publication, is a mere shadow of the size it used to be in its glory days. Several years ago we overtook it in the amount of plumbing-heating advertising that graces our respective pages, and have been widening the lead ever since.
Charlie never lived to see it. He departed from earth on July 5, 1989. He may not have seen it even had he lived, because PM never did prosper under Horton ownership. Like so many entrepreneurs, Charlie was a remarkable visionary but a terrible business manager. During his reign, Supply House Times was so dominant, so chock full of advertising, that plenty of dollars fell to the bottom line despite the owner’s efforts to squander it all. It could even subsidize PM’s losses. But in the months leading up to his death Charlie busied himself with a frantic cost-cutting crusade because the engine was running low on fuel.
Charlie’s heirs tried to run the company for a couple of years after his death, with predictable results. They were about to pull the plug on PM when, in August 1991, they sold us to Business News Publishing Co. (BNP). As part of the same transaction, Supply House Times was taken over by the Cahners publishing conglomerate.
An Era BeginsUnder BNP’s stewardship, PM finally acquired a publishing professionalism that was absent in the seat-of-pants family business that gave us birth. Weaknesses in marketing, circulation and advertising sales got shored up. The only thing BNP didn’t mess with was our editorial thrust. Our new Publisher, Tim Fausch, supported virtually everything we wanted to do editorially, and suggested quite a few good ideas of his own.
In 1992, Tim took on group responsibilities and replaced himself as Publisher with George Zebrowski, my friend and colleague from the startup days of PM. Since George took over, PM has enjoyed a remarkable run of prosperity. We just finished our seventh consecutive year of record ad sales, and we win by a wide margin every credible reader preference survey anyone throws at us.
Despite many staff changes over the years, one thing has remained constant. That’s the Charlie Horton legacy. Editorial excellence is just half of it. The second part goes hand-in-hand.
I said in the first paragraph that this article contradicts a fundamental tenet of our publishing philosophy. Charlie always told us to think of ourselves as part of the plumbing industry more than the publishing industry. Forget about objective journalism. Our role is that of unapologetic industry boosters. We realize that our fortunes, good or bad, are inextricably linked with yours. We like to hang out with our readers and our advertisers. You know you can tell us things in confidence. We are your friends.
This philosophy meshes perfectly with that of our subsequent owners. Check out their mission statement, labeled “The Seven Principles of Business News Publishing Co.”
1. Know our subscribers and advertisers.
2. Hear their problems, and solve them.
3. Know their needs, and package information to fulfill them.
4. Prove the value of our readers to our advertisers. Achieve whatever we aim for and aim for more than we achieve.
6. Ask questions of, listen to and learn from everyone.
7. Above all, GET THINGS DONE ON TIME.
George and I have tried our best to take to heart the guidance offered by both of our employers of the last couple of decades. We embrace the plumbing industry as our home, and have done our best to learn everything we can about our readers and advertisers and promote their interests. And we’ve tried to instill these values in the rest of the staff.
As part of the plumbing-heating industry, I’ve not strayed too far from industry affairs in all the years of writing. From time to time I might go off on a tangent that weighs heavily upon your interests (like those damn lawyers!), but this is the first time I’ve been so self-indulgent as to devote this much space to publishing industry doings.
Is this worth reading? In this case, I’m way too close to the content for my normal editorial judgment to kick in. You decide. If it’s not worth reading, as a friend, I ask you to cut me a little slack. I promise not to do this more than once every five years or so. Thanks for bearing with me. Now let’s get back to business.