We first interviewed Joe for a YP Talk article back in December, 2004 (link to full interview) just as the first Internet based products were starting to
arrive. If you had an opportunity to spend a few minutes with him, you very quickly understand how he was able to orchestra the growth of Yellowbook from a very small independent publisher in Long Island into a billion dollar independent publisher with a significant presence in most major U.S. markets.
We noted at the time that Walsh’s Yellow Pages career was a textbook Horatio Alger story. He started as a sales rep for a small service directory company in the Washington, DC area in 1982. He joined Yellow Book in 1987 where he quickly rose to become CEO in 1992. Walsh acknowledged that he closely studied people who are top achievers. By 1992, he had changed the company’s focus to entirely Yellow Pages and started on the first of a string of acquisitions buying a series of small books in New Jersey from Gannett Company. In 1999, the company was sold to British Telecom, where BT agreed to provide a $1.8 billion dollar war chest for further acquisitions. Within two years, Yellow Book had acquired over 30 publishers. In June, 2001, the directory services (Yell Group) were spun off from BT and acquired by the private equity groups Apax Partners Ltd. and Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst. In July, 2003, Yell was listed on the London Stock Exchange following a successful Initial Public Offering (IPO). In January, 2004, Apax Partners Ltd. and Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst sold their remaining holdings
Walsh has instrumental in Yellowbook’s efforts to growth through the acquisition of smaller independent publishers, sometimes at sales multiples that raised eyebrows. And while acquisitions of any type will always result in a few ruffled feathers when the acquired company is transitioned to the “Yellowbook way”, by and large, the company became highly proficient at completing these mergers in a relatively seamless, efficient way.
Most recently, Walsh was one of the first industry leaders to sense the need to transition the company again, but this time from a predominated print focused company into an operation that will generate an increasing share of its revenues from digital and non-traditional products in the future. Other major publishers have followed, all with mostly mixed results to this point. As a result, Walsh could arguably be considered one of the most impactful leaders ever in the Yellow Pages industry.
I believe Walsh’s departure marks the end of an era as the major players in the industry are now mostly being led by executives who have little to no roots in the industry, as was the case for the better part of the industries one hundred plus year history. The industry is definitely in unknown, uncharted waters now, with captains that really may not understand how their ships run or even agree with their primary current engine, the print Yellow Pages.
Some industry watchers believe this was not a big surprise, given the changes being floated by Yell’s new management team. But the reaction of some of the Yellowbook people seemed to be the opposite. Netherless, Bob Gregerson, who will assume the CEO spot on an interim basis, has very big shoes to fill as he pushes the company reinvention rock up a very steep hill.
For long time industry veterans such as myself, this truly does feel like the end of an era where the industry’s future business direction was clear and leadership was a personable,dynamic lot with deep roots in the business. Between environmental battles, the heavy push to convert to digital products, and significant overall changes in the media advertising world in general, perhaps Walsh was again a visionary with the statement he made in an email sent to Yellowbook employees:
“…Now is therefore the right time to hand over to someone who can lead our company into the next stage of its life…..”
If someone at Yell/Yellowbook knows what that next stage looks like, give me a call, as this change seems contradictory. As Walsh noted in our 2004 interview:
“…I think it is vital that people win. It’s vital that your people succeed. Because if they don’t, it is not their fault, it is the leaders fault. You either picked the wrong hill, or didn’t have the right plan, but taking that responsibility is very important. I describe it in management development courses with the regional managers or conferences with the reps that we view the business structure as an inverted triangle where the people who touch the customers, the sales reps and the managers are at the top, and the guy running this company, me, is at the bottom. For everyone in between, their job is to allow those people making commitments to the customers to over deliver, to remove
obstacles, to speed the process along. I view my job as providing clarity, removing obstacles, and letting the folks doing the real work everyday get their job done…”
I’m not sure that job descripotion had changed much. For Joe Walsh, I don’t think this will be the last we hear from him. Winners don’t quit, they just find new challenges. Both Walsh and Yell/Yellowbook will now have the chance to pursue those new challenges…