This Lady is for turning
PUBLISHED: 11:04 19 November 2010 | UPDATED: 17:19 20 February 2013
Ben Budworth tells Richard Bryson how he is changing the face of a famous magazine owned by a Suffolk family
The Lady isfor turning
Helicopter pilot, flying instructor, stockbrokerand now publisher, Ben Budworth has his work cut out turning round the fortunes of a magazine (and great British institution) with its roots in Suffolk. Richard Bryson went to meet him
Which might be the harder task? Teaching trainee Chinese helicopter pilots (possessing huge enthusiasm, but practically no idea of the English language) to fly, or running a well-established, genteel womens magazine?
You might be surprised to hear the chief executive and publisher of The Lady, Ben Budworth say it is the latter. Then again this dynamic 45-year-old East Anglian born and educated before stints in the Army and on the Stock Exchange floor has quite a challenge on his hands turning round this 124-year-old, v
v well-loved but increasingly dated title.
Its been in the Suffolk-based Budworth family since its inception back in 1885 and he picks his words carefully when describing what it means to be carrying on the tradition into a new, more cut-throat, era of publishing.
I was out in Florida when my mother called me to say that my uncle was thinking of closing it down due to declining advertising and a fall in readership. In its successful years The Lady provided for all the family and it took me a nanosecond to make my decision. It had to remain in the family and continue. Its a magazine with so much goodwill, people trust it and are loyal to it.
This is no vanity project either. Its not about me, Im merely the member of the family (he has three brothers, a fourth died from an epileptic fit in 1992) most suited to take it on, he says. For the time being my helicopter flying and teaching days are on hold.
He clearly loves this journal for gentlewomen, famous for recipes, rules of etiquette and classified ads seeking cooks, butlers and nannies.
I liken it to an old stately pile thats become rundown. Perhaps over the years people havent done right by it. When I revisited it, those 1950s multicoloured memorandums were still being circulated and people were being called by their surnames. Some of the staff were in their seventies, old home PCs were being used and the place was being held together by glue and cellotape.
The editorial was playing second fiddle to advertising. When The Lady started we had the Rolls Royce of editorial writing. My great grandfather Thomas Gibson Bowles had launched Vanity Fair and The Lady was his next publication. I want to return to those days of great writing but it must have a relevance to todays world.
He admires those other long standing publications known for their intelligence and wit, The Spectator and Private Eye, and notes the recent success of Saga magazine who have tapped into the grey market with a clever mix of features and offers. But we dont want to follow their rather hard sell approach, he adds.
Who then is the typical Lady reader?
" Someone not bothered about keeping up with the lives of non-celebrities, so not the kind of feature you find in Hello or OK! We wont do sex and tittle-tattle, he says.
The features on jam making and knitting may have some relevance in these recessionary times but the adventurer in this bachelor publisher could also come to the fore in future articles. Nowadays our readers want to know about white water rafting and kayaking and we should be telling them.
He is determined to bring down the average age of the magazines readership which stands at around 75 . Its not about age but attitude, he says. We all think younger than we are. Our magazine should also be cross-generational.
Where we were seen as irrelevant and eccentric, we want to be seen as charming and amusing.
Under the new editor Rachel Johnson, sister of Mayor of London Boris Johnson, he promises there will be some pushing at the boundaries . . . a voice against the nanny state, red tape, call centres and political mumbo-jumbo. With new readers on board he hopes the magazine will push on from its current 30,000 a week readership and when the time is right there will be an improved website too.
The changes will be introduced over the coming weeks, however, Budworth is shrewd enough to know that it would be rash to play around too much with a British institution, whose classified ads have regularly been used by the Royal Family to seek domestic staff.
That tradition lives on in The Ladys imposing, pastel-painted head office in Covent Garden. But Budworths heart is in Suffolk, though he doesnt exactly have fond memories of his school days at Nowton, near Bury St Edmunds.
At the age of eight I was going to set fire to the school, in fact, they caught me in the coal cellar with a match. My thinking was that if there was no school I wouldnt have to attend. I also had an escape plan for everyone, he recalls.
Looking back the teachers were mainly ex-military types with very regimented ways. I went on to a school in Oxfordshire, which I liked much better, then on to Harrow. I didnt do university.
Fortunately those few formative years in west Suffolk didnt put him off the county.
I love being here at the family home near Needham Market. I like nothing better than to come back for a few days and switch off. I might even one day base the magazine here.
Looking out over ther sun terrace at the brown trout-stocked lake, created by Bens mother Julia, and the gently rolling countryside, its easy to see the attraction.
On one of the few dry days of last summer Julia (who still has a great interest in The Lady having run it with Bens uncle for many years) hosted a fireworks party for friends and neighbours and its clear they enjoy being part of the local community.
And not for Ben the sometimes delay-plagued commute to the capital. He has a Suzuki motorbike (recently shipped back from America) to speed him through the traffic.
You sense that this is a businessman who likes getting to places quickly. He relished his days learning to be a pilot at the old Ipswich airport.
I have fond memories of buzzing over the countryside, he smiles.
That love of flying (and an eye for business opportunities) led him, with financial backing from the Vesteys of west Suffolk, to set up a company providing airborne traffic information for radio stations throughout Britain. He had seen how the idea worked in America and thought the concept would succeed here.
The next natural step in the Budworth career path was to become involved in the running of radio stations and he draws comparisons with magazine publishing.
Both need advertising and you have a set of readers, or listeners, that you need to serve and they will let you know when you are delivering what they want, or not, as the case may be.
No doubt the magazines readers will let him know about the new face of The Lady.
If his great grandfather could see the revamped magazine what might he think?
Well, first of all, he couldnt do much about it, but seriously, I think he would be massively proud of what we are doing and will continue to do, says Ben.