Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Almost full circle

It is on the front page of yesterday’s Het Financieele Dagblad, the financial daily: the acquisition of the US company IMS Health. Next to the article is a photograph of CEO Rob van den Bergh, fencing question during the press conference. It is the latest feat of VNU since it started its internationalisation policy in 1979.

VNU came about through a merger of two magazine publishing companies in 1964. A magazine publisher in the southern part of the Netherlands with a Roman catholic signature merged with a magazine publisher was located in Haarlem, the western part of the Netherlands. The new company, VNU, United Netherlands Publishers (a rather misleading company name), based its headquarter in Haarlem.

In the sixties and the seventies the company grew in magazines and books. In 1975 it bought Intermediair a job-ad magazine for academics. On the back of the job-ads scientific articles were published. It was (and in fact still is) a free broadsheet. This was the beginning in business magazines such as computer magazines. In 1979 the business publications division did its first foreign acquisition in the United Kingdom. It acquired the computer publications of Haymarket. In the meantime the company was set on internationalisation. In 1980 it made its first jump to the US and bought Disclosure, a corporate financials information service.

DPI crew in London in December 1979

It was also the time that personal computers and database publishing became en vogue. VNU went with the stream and started up a kind of a greenhouse company, VNU Database Publishing International (VNU DPI). The company officially started on January 1, 1980. A provisional team was in London in December 1979 to orientate themselves on the Online Conference in the Novotel in Hammersmith. The company was a mix of a new media company and innovation center. Managing director was Jay Curry, the father of iPodfather Adam Curry. The company was active for two and half years and the remains integrated in Intermediair.

The videotex starting page of the Jobdata service in 1980

VNU DPI was the service center of a job vacancy service of Intermediair, Jobdata. It ran for five years and was a popular service. But in 1985 Rob van den Bergh, then managing director of the Intermediair company, killed off the service as it was costly and no competitor to the print weekly.

In the meantime VNU bought business publishers left and right in Europe and sometimes in the States, but a real turn in policy came after the acquisition of ITT World Directories, a big buy in 1997 under Rob van den Bergh. After that VNU started to change its role from publisher to marketing information provider. VNU Magazines in The Netherlands was sold to The Finnish publisher Sanoma and with the money AC Nielsen was bought. Last year the directories were sold and now IMS Health is acquired.

In the meantime VNU has changed from a combination of two provincial publishers to an billion dollars American company, headquartered in New York. For many people who worked for VNU in the Netherlands it has been quite a change to see their company go abroad and being managed by mainly foreigners. One of them left the company last week after almost 25 years of service. She was working in Haarlem the former HQ base of VNU. It has been a complete cycle for her going from the magazine division to the business publication division, from Dutch publications to international contact. VNU is almost full cycle from being a Dutch company in becoming an American company; just another name and in time an American to succeed the present CEO.

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