Jack Hennessy, founder of Medical World Communications, the company now known as Ascend Media, earned unflagging loyalty from the head of the dental division, Dan Perkins, in part because he allowed Perkins lots of leeway. "Jack was a great boss. If he called me at 4 in the morning and said he was thirsty, I would get on a plane with a glass of water," says Perkins.
When the MWC was sold to Ascend Media, and new owners came on board, Perkins had been running the show for three years. "I had helped to make two men extremely wealthy," says Perkins. "It was time for me to try my own thing."
Perkins set up his own firm, Aegis Communications, at Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, and has just moved it to Newtown. "It was our turn to take a shot at the brass ring," says Perkins. "No one in our organization bears the new management any ill will. I came to the conclusion that this is America, this is a place where you can open a business."
Perkins has launched one title and plans another, but the market is stiflingly competitive. "It’s a small, finite market – $85 to $90 million a year spent on professional dental advertising." But six new dental publications are coming into the market from Germany within the next six months, says Perkins. "And none of them are ours."
Still, he is confident. After all, he says, he and his staff are the ones who know their customers best. All the newcomers are, well, newcomers. "Usually the ones closest to the customer are the ones that succeed," says Perkins.
Ascend Media bought MWC in January, 2005, and Perkins gave notice in March, leaving in May. Perkins says he told the Ascend owners that he would not actively recruit from his former staff members, but many of them, on their own, volunteered to join him, including his long-time partner Tony Angelini.
At age 51, Perkins launched the first issue of Inside Dentistry, a peer-reviewed journal, at the American Dental Association convention in Philadelphia in September, 2005. "Inside Dentistry will offer a totally unique editorial approach to what is currently available," said Angelini, vice president and co-founder of Aegis in a launchtime press release that claimed the magazine was positioned to capture an immediate share of the readership market.
"We were delighted at the launch turnout at the convention, and the magazine has been well supported," says Perkins in a telephone interview. "Publishers say it takes two years to turn the corner, but we were profitable with our second issue." This year 130,000 dentists (including students and faculty members) will read nine issues, and in 2007 there will be 12 issues.
Though Aegis is a healthcare communications and education company, it will not limit itself to the dental industry. The second dental title is scheduled for late 2006 and the third title will be for pharmacists. As of its first birthday, July 5, the firm will have 10 employees and $6 million in revenues, and Perkins estimates he will have $20 million in revenues in 2008.
For the company name, Perkins turned to Greek mythology and the name of Athena’s shield. It connotes a third party’s guiding force, as in the expression "under the aegis of the college."
For his location, Perkins has returned the company to its roots in Newtown. The first dental magazine that he worked for was based there before the owner, Marvin Anzel, sold it to Hennessy. Perkins has signed a five-year lease for 4,000 square feet at 3 Pheasant Run Road.
He and his wife, an attorney, live in Elkins Park and have two daughters, one who just graduated from McGill University and is touring Europe, playing violin in a rock band, and the other a student at George Washington University.
He is looking for experienced editors and sales people. "Not many entry level positions are available," he says. "If we had a bigger infrastructure, we could train someone." He hopes to operate on a rich revenue-per-employee business model. At MWC his goal was $1 million per year per employee.
Perkins puts an unusual emphasis on hiring for talent and energy rather than for formal credentials. Perhaps that is because he is self educated. "I don’t care about resumes and people’s educations," he says, "I care only about what people bring to the table, whether they are contributing to the effort or they are clockwatchers wanting to get a paycheck."
A Philadelphia native, Perkins is the son of a talented trumpet player, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, who played with the great bands of the day; he accompanied Billie Holiday when he was 19. "I didn’t have that talent," says Perkins. "I had to find my own way. My first sales job was knocking on doors, selling custom wall mirrors."
After high school Perkins attempted to make a career as a professional soccer player. "I was nowhere near good enough," says Perkins, explaining why he did not go to college.
His hopes for playing soccer were dashed. "But by then I had fallen in love, and had no job, no nothing. My first real job was with a little temporary help agency, where I had to make 20 cold calls a day," says Perkins. "It was one of the things that really shaped who I am. Within two years I was the sales manager for four offices in Delaware Valley."
When that firm was bought out by Personnel Pool of America, he found out he was among the highest paid employees, but his salary was still low. He realized he needed to switch careers and got a job in South Jersey with Slack Medical Publishing. After three years he went to a competitor but was lured back by his former Slack manager to meet Marvin Anzel in Newtown.
When Hennessy bought Anzel’s business, he realized he knew little about dental publishing, and he allowed Perkins free rein. "Jack told me to grow that division, to be creative but to go do it. He gave me a license to find out more about myself than I knew," says Perkins.
For 10 years Perkins worked on Forsgate Drive, creating the dental division and launching four of the five titles. "The dental division was able to fund much of the growth of Medical World Communications. We were a cash cow," says Perkins. In one eight-year period, he says, the division grew from $3 million to $17 million a year.
In 2002 Hennessy put Perkins in charge of the Jamesburg operations, medical and dental. "For the last three years, I ran the business," says Perkins.
After all his years in the dental publishing business, Perkins is weary of the usual pablum. "We will never put teeth on the front cover of our dental magazine," he vows. "Every dental journal out there has a lot of teeth on the cover. Some feel it makes them look more clinical. We figure it looks like the same old thing. Our front cover stories are provocative."
For instance, the image for the first cover story, on the crisis in dental education (over 400 faculty positions are vacant in the United States), was a blackboard scrawled with "Doesn’t Anyone Want to Teach?" Perkins defends this unusual subject by noting that the lack of young dentists will affect older dentists looking for someone to buy their practices when they retire.
Innovative cover stories are one way Perkins plans to beat the competition. He is also offering free continuing education courses. Though physicians get their continuing education paid for by pharmaceutical companies, traditionally dentists have paid for the courses that are required by 43 of the 50 states. Perkins vows to change that, and to make free continuing education courses his hallmark. "Why should dentists be treated like second-class citizens," he asks. "We are the first book to do it."
The dental school at Tufts University sponsors a continuing education article in each issue. Dentists read the article, register for the credit, take a test on the article, and get the credit. "I am going to give up the revenue on the continuing education," says Perkins. "What is important is to have the best read product. When you enter the field that has 22 publications in it, you had better bring something new, fresh, and valuable."
Another strategy is to publish his magazines earlier than their competitors. "The June issue was in dentists’ hands by May 24," he says. "It makes a difference for the advertisers. Which one will they read, the one that comes in first, or the one that comes in last?."
To get mailings out early had better be worth it, because it is expensive. "We have to close the issue early," says Perkins. "I said no to $40,000 in revenue last month. We would never have done that before." Also the magazines need to be sent second class, not third class. "We just spent $130,000 to get to second class faster," says Perkins, referring to the postal requirements for qualifying for second class status.
Still, Perkins is sure of his market and notes that the average general practice dentist is now making more money than the average physician. This means his magazines can attract ads in leisure areas, such as vacations, luxury cars, and financial planning.
What he has learned: That medical publishing is a risky proposition, very capital intensive. "Every issue costs me $250,000," says Perkins.
"My motivation is my wife and my two daughters. And now that I have my own employees, that responsibility feels like the weight of the world. I take it very seriously."
"But any field I go into is already going to be filled. We have learned not to be afraid. Our team at Aegis is the only team on the planet that has successfully launched five titles in dentistry. We are the guys close to the customers, and we know the market. We do it better than anybody. We deserve a piece of the pie."
Aegis Communications, 3 Pheasant Run Road, Newtown 18940; 215-579-4341. Dan Perkins, CEO. www.aegiscomm.com