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Family man takes on The Lady

Ben Budworth, fourth-generation publisher of The Lady magazine, knew he was taking on a challenge when he joined his family's business last year. But modernising a magazine that has been around since the 19th century is no easy task, as he exclusively reveals to Katie Barker.

The Lady magazine was first published in 1885 by Ben Budworth's great-grandfather and has been run for the past 40 years by Ben's uncle, Tom Bowles. As Ben explains, it hasn't been used to change. "My uncle was a barrister and he decided he really didn't know what to do with the magazine when he inherited it back in the 1960s, so he might as well just leave it as it was. He employed a raft of managers who did very little else except just keep things exactly as they were," he exclusively tells www.campdenFB.com.

"Hence why when I walked through the door in September last year there were net curtains, doilies, tea trolleys and staff that were calling everyone by their surname. The vast majority of staff had been there over 20 years."

The Lady has been very much a family business since it was founded and is currently owned by Ben, three of his brothers and his mother, who all also serve on the board. It has seen a host of celebrity writers, including Nancy Mitford, Stella Gibbons and Nora Herald, survived through two world wars and been ruled over by six monarchs.

The steady income it provided Ben and his four brothers after their father died left Ben with a sense of gratitude he felt duty-bound and happy to repay when the magazine was in need. "To some extent the Lady had provided for me and my family so when the Lady was not well it was the least I could do to steam in and apply whatever first aid I've been taught to do. To see what we can do to get the lady back on her feet and in robust health," he says.

Ben knew immediately he needed to make changes, and quickly. The challenges lay in knowing how to modernise a magazine that prided itself on its traditional image and content. "It had drifted editorially into an area where perhaps it might have seemed by today's standards as being irrelevant and, although it was quirky and charming, it was also a little eccentric," he says. "I wanted to put a concerted, focused effort into providing top notch editorial."

In order to successfully implement the new focus on editorial Ben went right to the top and sought out a new editor for the magazine, Rachel Johnson. Other modernisations included making the magazine colour for the first time in its 124-year history, giving the iconic classified section a facelift and making further staffing changes.

However his new style and ideas were not immediately popular, as he explains. "Initially I think a lot of people thought 'what is this boy doing coming in, its just because he is a family member, he is Mr Bowles' nephew.' They came in for the shock of their life when I came in and said 'this is not good enough, not by a long way. We are going to change it and now.'

Ben says that by and large a lot of the staff were "very, very supportive of the changes". Those that dragged their feet or that simply did not understand why changes were necessary and necessary so fast have moved on and have been encouraged to move on.

The staff reaction was nothing compared to that of the readers. "There is a fear of change with our existing readers. I have had endless sets of letter from people, initially they were downright threatening saying don't you dare change the magazine at all otherwise I'm cancelling my subscription."

However, even the most adamant of those readers seems to have been won round by new look Lady. Ben attributes this to the magazine's unwavering anti-celebrity stance and refusal to downgrade the content, which was the loyal readers biggest fear.

Circulation has increased 20% in less than a year since Ben has been in charge, which would suggest his modernisation programme is working.

Going forward, although there are no fifth generation family members working at the magazine, Ben still hopes to keep it in the family. "I have high hopes to be able to hand it onto the fifth generation. That is absolutely up there with my aims," he concludes. 

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