SIPA Member Profile: Biehl Writes His Own ‘Classic’ Story

Rick Biehl, President and Publisher, Atlantic Information Services, Inc., Washington, D.C.

SIPA: What was your first job out of college and how did you get into this business?
BIEHL: In the early 1970s, I graduated from Columbia with a master’s in Chinese studies, and the timing should have been perfect since Richard Nixon had just “opened the door to China.” But at the time, the State Department was not looking for someone who aspired to be a communist and wanted Nixon forcibly removed from the White House. So … in the worst recession since the Depression (until this one), I hung out my shingle as a temporary typist … and two years later I was running the information/publications division of a 25-person higher education association, where I wrote lots of things, including books on nondiscrimination. In the late 1970s, I wrote a book on disability law compliance for Dick Thompson of the Revenue Sharing Advisory Service (which morphed into Thompson Publishing Group), who then hired me to launch a new company and develop dozens of new products. I started AIS seven years later.

Has there been a defining moment in your career? Perhaps when you knew you were on the right road.
No. I want to be a writer when I grow up and am not clear I have ever been “on the right road.”

In brief, describe your business/company?
Atlantic Information Services (AIS), which turns 25 in November, is a B-to-B company that employs 35 people in downtown D.C. (and a number of freelancers and consultants). We remain a classic “newsletter company” that relies on aggressive direct mail (in addition to modern sales channels), with 85% of our product line in health care business and 15% in higher education management. AIS publishes 16 newsletters (3 weeklies), a number of looseleaf subscription services and subscription-based websites, and various books, directories, databases, and e-letters. We run about 50 webinars per year and have a heavily-trafficked website (1,500 pages, all free) and aggressive e-marketing operation.

What are two or three important concepts or rules that have helped you to succeed in business?
1. This is a PEOPLE business. It is important to maintain strong, positive, honest relationships with employees, customers, publishing and marketing partners and vendors. A people-friendly corporate culture is (in my opinion) a prerequisite to long-term business success; as a bonus, it also improves the quality of life for everyone involved.
2. Content is king (see my final comment below).

What is the single-most successful thing that your company is doing now?
We are doing two important successful things right now:
1. Launching successful print subscription products (two in 2010 and two more on the way in early 2011), and
2. Unveiling a great new company website later this month that will give us great new editorial, marketing and customer service capabilities. (Despite its 20th century charm, our current Model T at gets zillions of visitors. So we’re excited to see what will happen when we transition to our new site.)

Do you see a trend or path that you have to lock onto for 2011?
While AIS continued to “make money” during the recession, we remain shell-shocked from the past two years and will (for the near term) adhere to the strategy “nothing ventured, nothing lost.” We will stay in the markets we are in, stick with the product types we know, and market things with quick surgical strikes that have only the smallest chance of bombing.

What are the key benefits of SIPA membership for you and your team?
SIPA obviously provides great networking opportunities for our managers…and strong skill development and benchmarking programs for our entire operation. And where else can you follow Frank Joseph having an e-orgasm while playing with his New Courier type?

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, a small town about 25 miles southwest of Manhattan that is best known for being the waspyest place in North America. But I also spent 2-3 months every summer in Margate/Ventnor, N.J., just south of Atlantic City, where I learned there are blacks and Jews and I would be happy spending the rest of my life on the beach.

What college did you attend? Is there a moment from that time that stands out?
I went to Brown as an undergraduate and then the Columbia University School of International Affairs, where I got a master’s in modern Chinese political history (a great foundation for health business publishing). My most poignant memory involves doing many weeks of tedious research (for a prominent Chinese scholar at Columbia), sifting through thousands of daily Chinese news agency releases in the basement of Low Memorial Library, when it dawned on me that I was working for the CIA…the #1 enemy of most Columbia students in the early 1970s.

Are you married? Do you have children?
I am married to Donna Lawton, AIS’s VP for marketing (and everything else non-editorial). She has two children and I have three, all by former marriages. We currently have four kids in college at the same time, which is like hitting the reverse-superfecta of parenting.

What is your favorite hobby and how did it develop in your life?
Between the ages of 2 and 22, I spent most of my waking hours chasing balls and pucks and hitting them with bats and rackets and sticks of one kind or another. I was a major athlete on the New Jersey high school scene and then played striker for a college soccer team that was ranked #1 in the country for several years. Sports remain an obsession for me, but in the words of a boy on the travel soccer team I coached for years, I am now “too old, too fat and too ugly” to be competitive any longer.

Is there a book you recently read or movie you saw that you would recommend?
I re-read “The Grapes of Wrath” earlier this year and was completely blown away. In my opinion, the greatest story ever told; it is also a perfect journey to take for beleaguered publishers trying to survive the hardest of times.

Final comment:
Editorial content is the 8,000-pound gorilla in the SIPA room. Because we all publish into different business or consumer markets with different product types, SIPA programs must focus on publishing infrastructure, e.g., things like open rates, SEO, social media, email and direct-mail strategies and other matters of process. But this stuff is the icing, and editorial content is the cake. Bold/creative product development and strong reporting and writing—with constant attention to the repositioning of editorial—will always be the chief determinants of how successful we are. With a seemingly never-ending parade of new e-gadgetry to distract publishers, a danger exists that the cake will be forgotten/overcooked and no one will ever want to eat the thing, whatever flavor the icing.


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