The biggest company you never heard of

IDG was profiled recently in a Guardian article titled “The biggest company you’ve never heard of“.

“In 2007 it had revenues of more than £3bn, it publishes more than 300 magazines and 450 websites globally (including Computerworld and InfoWorld), employs more than 13,000, and encompasses the huge global analyst organisation IDC. There is also a consumer division in China, where IDG publishes titles such as Cosmopolitan and National Geographic under licence.”

The founder, Chairman, owner and lifeblood of the company is a man named Pat McGovern who was ranked number 64 in Forbes’ list of the 400 richest Americans in 2007.

The success of IDG is undeniable. And though I’ve been critical of their online acumen in the past, the company as a whole offers some very interesting lessons for us all.

McGovern keeps an incredibly lean central corporate organization. He is very involved at the board meetings for each business unit, but IDG corporate headquarters serves more of a support and investment function than one of control and leadership.

Business unit leaders have total authority. With that comes responsibility, and if a business unit is showing weakness, pressure is applied immediately with a heavy hand. The staff in the business unit are shielded from this dynamic and thus, in many ways, consider themselves employees of Pat McGovern first and foremost.

Journalism matters at IDG. McGovern had some hard choices to make in a kerfuffle over a story that was influenced by an advertiser not long ago. Former IDG employee Chad Dickerson wrote this about the incident:

“I don’t know the inside scoop of what happened at PC World, but you can bet that Pat McGovern was in the mix, empowering people like Bob Carrigan to make the right decision in the end. In the news cycle, this might seem like a flash-in-the-pan story about journalism, but for me, it’s a story about respect and good business in the long term. Hats off to IDG and Pat McGovern.”

Creativity is encouraged, but evidence drives the decisions. IDG has launched a few noteworthy offerings such as the technology ad network and an interesting approach to prediction markets on The Industry Standard site. BtoB magazine writes:

“So far, 100 bloggers have been approved for the network, with each being vetted by IDG editors. These bloggers cover several tech-related categories, such as hardware, mobile, security and storage.”

But nothing moves without careful attention to the ebb and flow of the revenue forecasts. If growth isn’t there the train stops.

Staff like working at IDG. McGovern does in fact deliver your holiday bonus to you with a handshake, a smile, a little chit-chat and often a very specific insight about your contribution to the company. It’s remarkable. And that respect given to the individual brings with it loyalty and commitment. His staff want to please him.

I think there are many things IDG could do to be a much more influential force in the online market, but there are times when I look at the numbers and wonder if I just don’t have the vision to see the longer term game McGovern is playing.

Could it be that IDG is merely a funding mechanism for his personal quest to understand the power of the brain? I don’t know if he still rides coach on his frequent flights to China, but those kinds of behaviors he’s famous for internally convinced me early on in my time at IDG that it’s not all about the money.

Yes, IDG is the biggest company you never heard of. You may never hear of it again, actually. The decentralized and targeted b2b IT print/web/events model may seem like a yawner at first glance. But while your company spent the day worrying about how to improve its Web 2.0 offerings, IDG’s accountants tracked another $8 million in revenue from around the world.