September 27, 2016: The life, times and happy founding of the magazine were all down to the entrepreneurial skills and knowledge of Don Gribble.
Creating a publishing legacy
Theories of destiny aside, chance plays a huge role in the affairs of mankind. And if the UK’s Electric Vehicle Association had been doing better some quarter of a century ago, this story could not be told.
But for Don Gribble, head of the EVA in the late 1980s, times were proving tough. The EVA — a creature of its time and ahead of its time at the same moment — was in difficulties. The dreams of popularizing the electric car were proving difficult to substantiate. Membership fees were dwindling and Don, who had a long experience in the battery world, was increasingly relying on consultancy work for the Lead Development Association (now the ILA).
In his mid-50s his future prospects for work were bleak. But Don was not a quitter and remembering his time as a journalist some 30 years earlier working for The Engineer, he came up with a rescue plan.
Why not set up a magazine for the industry? he thought. “In the US there was the Batteryman, which was well liked but generally regarded as rather lightweight,” he says. “And there was also a technical journal that was over the heads of most of the business. There was a market gap.”
He spent some time wondering what he was going to call the magazine but the solution presented itself in a simple analysis of what the content was going to be. “It wasn’t about energy as such, nor was it about cars — though automotive batteries was going to be a huge part of its remit — but it was simply going to be about batteries. And since I didn’t want it to be a UK title, especially as those were the years when we finally saw the end of British battery manufacturing, it had to be an international title.
“Batteries International seemed to say it all.”
As anyone involved in publishing can tell you, setting up a magazine from scratch is an enormous task.
The immediate question is the product itself.
How many pages it is going to be? Who are the readers going to be? What is the so-called URP (unique readership proposition)? What kind of stories will you run? What kind of features will fit your URP? What kind of writing style will it be?
And from these basic questions a host of other questions immediately arrive — from the balance of the story mix to the relationship the magazine will have with advertising and, of course, the commercial relationship it will have with editorial integrity.
Oddly enough, although these are vital questions for a magazine, the fact is that publishing is a commercial business. And all the normal logic behind setting up a business have to be addressed.
For a start-up magazine the biggest problem is invariably cashflow. There are two main revenue streams for a magazine — advertising and subscriptions.
Advertisers never like to pay in advance — especially for a start-up issue — and then only when they see the distribution. Subscribers aren’t likely to pay up front for a magazine that they have yet to see.
A combination of two factors helped Don turn his plans into reality.
The first was £5,000, a legacy from the death of his mother which allowed him the cushion of time to get the magazine ready before invoices.
The second was just plain luck.
Although from the beginning it was a two-person operation — just himself and his wife Mary — Gribble had a co-partner and part-time sales person, Hugh Colliemore, a charismatic and gifted salesman. His outgoings in terms of staff costs were minimal and he was amazed to find that most of his advertisers paid in advance.
“I was cash-flow positive from the outset,” he recalls. “The magazine filled a niche in the market and by the end of the first year it had provided me with a living.”
Don remembers with fondness his early struggles to get the magazine recognised — he even tried to interest the Lead Development Association (now the ILA) into taking a stake. “If they’d done so, their investment would have paid for itself several times over.”
After five years of running the magazine — including making Chinese translations of the contents for some shows — and representing it around the world, Don called it a day.
A giant publishing house known as Euromoney was interested in the title and he was minded to retire, “while I still had life enough in me to enjoy my retirement”, he says. The sale of the magazine provided him with a lump sum and pension that has lasted him well.
But most importantly for the history of the industry he has left a publishing legacy that continues to serve the battery markets.