goes back half a dozen years, first bumping into him at various press conferences when I was working as a newspaper journalist in Singapore and then over the last couple of years when I was hired to replace him as editor of Payload Asia, I knew this was not going to be a normal interview.
A bottle of Chardonnay, some lessons in magazine printing and air cargo history and enough amusing anecdotes to fill a book later, I had my interview. Now all I had to do was compress the substantive, yet barely surface scratching summation of 25 years of the industry into a couple of Payload Asia pages.
The first clue that this was not going to be a standard interview came when I called Nol to arrange it. While I canÃ¢â‚¬™t print exactly the words he used, suffice to say he was Ã¢â‚¬ËœsurprisedÃ¢â‚¬™ it was 25 years since he made his foray into the air cargopublishing world.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬™t like to look back. I have fun in looking at what we produced then and to compare it with what we have today, how the quality has greatly improved and how we did it in the early days compared to how itÃ¢â‚¬™s done now. That is of interest to me, but looking back 25 years is something I almost never do. I Nol van Fenema would rather look forward and see what is going to happen in the next five to ten years,Ã¢â‚¬Â he explains.
But look back we must Ã¢â‚¬“ otherwise I have no story Ã¢â‚¬“ and so I proceed to ask the immortal journalistic question: Why? Specifically, why did he start up, of all things, an air cargo magazine? Ã¢â‚¬Å“Because David Campbell asked me,Ã¢â‚¬Â he states rather matter-of-factly.
Arriving in Singapore in 1983 with his wife Joyce and two young children in tow, Nol had been posted to the Lion City to head up the public relations department for the now defunct Dutch aircraft manufacturer Fokker Aircraft where he picked up magazine and publishing experience through in-house magazines etc.
He then took on a project to produce the Changi Air Cargo newsletter for the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) in 1984. With practically zero knowledge of the cargo industry he had to start from scratch in planning the magazine. Ã¢â‚¬Å“They said to me, Ã¢â‚¬Ëœyou develop the magazine and we will support youÃ¢â‚¬™, but that support was only verbal,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says adding there was no financial support other than advertising he managed to secure.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It was a strange deal, but I learned a lot in those years and in hindsight if I hadnÃ¢â‚¬™t taken on the magazine for CAAS I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬™t have ended up with Payload Asia.Ã¢â‚¬Â
He continued with the newsletter for about a year and a half during which time he met Australian expat David Campbell who was working in Hong Kong as editor of Cargonews Asia.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“One day he dropped me a line saying he had been thinking of producing a magazine for quite some time, would I be interested. I jumped on the idea because producing a magazine for a government organisation is distinctly different than one where you can say what you feel and what you think.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The magazine got its start in mid-1984 with preparations including rate cards and a mock-up to take to the industry, Ã¢â‚¬Å“just to see if it had any hope of survivingÃ¢â‚¬Â. Some months later the maiden issue emerged from the printer into a sluggish economic scenario and at a time of the year when most marketing budgets had been already allocated for the year.
At the time there was only one other publication covering the Asian air cargo industry and that was Cargonews Asia. But the distinction between the two then, as it still is now, is that Payload Asia focuses solely on the air cargo industry while the other has a broader focus on multi-modal cargo transport.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The industry was receptive, but I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬™t dare to make it sound like we had a winner right from the start. Far from it, we were struggling,Ã¢â‚¬Â Nol says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“For about three to four years the revenue was pretty marginal, we werenÃ¢â‚¬™t making a profit.Ã¢â‚¬Â He reckons it was not until about 1991 that the magazine made a real profit.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Then we were accepted and we launched the Air Freight Asia (AFA) conference which made it a complete product that people recognised. Later an exhibition component was added, which was the Ã¢â‚¬Å“real money-spinnerÃ¢â‚¬Â, he adds.
It may surprise many, but in the early days Nol was not involved in the editorial component of Payload Asia, focusing instead on advertising and production while David assumed editorial control from Hong Kong.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“David would type his stories out on a manual typewriter and hand write on the back of the photographs the caption and size to be used before posting them to me here in Singapore. We would bring the text to the typesetter which at the end of two days we would receive long strips of printed text on film paper which my wife would then strip into pages at night before taking them to the colourseparator.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“After the typesetting was proof reading and if there were any corrections it was literally cut and paste. There was no computer, no email, not even fax machines Ã¢â‚¬“ only telephone and telex. This was how we did the magazine for a good seven or eight years.Ã¢â‚¬Â
David Campbell died of cancer in 1991 and from that point Nol took over as sole owner of the magazine and show, as well as taking on editorial responsibility. The magazine, conference and exhibition were intrinsically linked, one didnÃ¢â‚¬™t exist without the other. It was a very strong combination that was very successful for many years and still is for many people, the only show in Asia they go to.Ã¢â‚¬Â But he concedes that is waning because of a raft of competing shows have come up.
One of the highlights over the years according to Nol, was the 2000 AFA in Kuala Lumpur. In preparation for the event, Nol was meeting with the then CEO of Malaysia Airlines who asked him who he wanted for the opening address Ã¢â‚¬“ the minister of finance, the minister of transport, or Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I said, Ã¢â‚¬ËœweÃ¢â‚¬™ll start with the last one and see how it works out!Ã¢â‚¬™ And it worked out just fine! He did an absolutely superb The AFA 2000 conference was a highlight for Nol and a Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcoming of ageÃ¢â‚¬™ for Payload Asia. job delivering the keynote address about the aviation industry as if he knew the industry inside and out. He was in top form Ã¢â‚¬“ that was one of the highlights,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We had access to the highest possible people in the country and we were really generating a lot of buzz in the industry with that show. For me, it was recognition that the magazine was clearly established as a leading publication.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You can argue that it took bloody 15 years to get there,Ã¢â‚¬Â he laughs, Ã¢â‚¬Å“but I mean, 15 years in publishing is nothing. Five years in publishing youÃ¢â‚¬™re a novice, 10 years youÃ¢â‚¬™re beginning to learn the ropes, but at the end of the day itÃ¢â‚¬™s only after 15 to 20 years youÃ¢â‚¬™re beginning to understand what itÃ¢â‚¬™s all about and have built up connections and contacts in industry Ã¢â‚¬“ and that is really the core of a successful magazine.Ã¢â‚¬Â
At this point I have to ask the question that is usually foremost on many readersÃ¢â‚¬™ minds and one that IÃ¢â‚¬™ve been itching to ask, but saving for the right moment which is now. Ã¢â‚¬Å“WhatÃ¢â‚¬™s with the masthead,Ã¢â‚¬Â I ask in reference to the typeface that so clearly resembles a certain notorious menÃ¢â‚¬™s magazine.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“My wife designed it,Ã¢â‚¬Â he replies. Ã¢â‚¬Å“She came up with this absolutely superb idea. I saw the first drawings she made and I said Ã¢â‚¬Ëœgo ahead, make it as slick as possible and then we give it to David to look atÃ¢â‚¬™.He almost had a heart attack! He called me and I knew instantly it was serious matter because he always wrote me by post and never called.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He said: Ã¢â‚¬ËœHeff ner is going to bring us to bankruptcy even before we have started!Ã¢â‚¬™ And I said: Ã¢â‚¬ËœIÃ¢â‚¬™m happy to take that risk.Ã¢â‚¬™ It was a stroke of genius in this, still, male-dominated air cargo industry. People perceive things without really looking closely and that masthead was instant recognition and it really put us on the map right away.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Not always printing flattering articles, Payload Asia attracted its fair share of lawyersÃ¢â‚¬™ letters over the years, according to the, occasionally, hard-nosed former editor. They were Ã¢â‚¬Å“a fairly common occurrence,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says adding, Ã¢â‚¬Å“not so much during DavidÃ¢â‚¬™s period as editor, but from the moment I took over they were.Ã¢â‚¬Â But none of them ever amounted to anythingserious, he hastens to add.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You gain a certain notoriety and reputation in the industry and it comes back to being provocative in the sense that you donÃ¢â‚¬™t take everything the industry gives you as the only answer. And that is the value of the magazine and why people read Payload AsiaÃ¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Payload Asia has seen airlines come and go; we had a cover story referring to a young, up and coming airline called Emirates and there have been numerous captains of industry, mostly heads of cargo that IÃ¢â‚¬™ve known over the past 25 years. After a couple of years it was always a first name basis. ItÃ¢â‚¬™s been a very rewarding experience to launch a magazine like that.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬™t like to look back,Ã¢â‚¬Â he reiterates, but clearly the memories are spilling out of the vault, no doubt aided by the Chardonnay. Ã¢â‚¬Å“An interview like this forces you to look back and all the experiences that IÃ¢â‚¬™ve had, all the travel that IÃ¢â‚¬™ve doneÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ the cultures and people that you meet Ã¢â‚¬“ IÃ¢â‚¬™ve been practically everywhere in Asia and the rest of the world, and that I find the most rewarding experience,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says of a career that has spanned reporter, PR man, editor, publisher and conference organiser, among others.
There are of course numerous other highlights for Nol, like playing golf in Sapporo, Japan in the depth of winter, where a blizzard at ninth hole meant they had to switch to orange coloured balls because they couldnÃ¢â‚¬™t the find white ones anymore!
Or a trip to the Russian Far East shortly after the fall of communism courtesy of Aeroflot where, overlooking the vast deepwater port of Vladivostok he saw the once mighty Soviet Pacific fleet rusting away in disrepair.
And time now for another stab at a journalistic epiphany: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Was it tough to sell Payload Asia after so much blood, sweat and tears went into it,Ã¢â‚¬Â I ask in reference to his selling of the magazine and conference to Reed-ElsevierÃ¢â‚¬™s publishing and exhibition arm, Reed Business.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“No feeling what-so-ever. I have a lot of friends said it must have been a difficult decision. But not at all. I obviously have an affi nity with Payload Asia and with AFA but it is a product I developed and I was happy and still pleased that I sold the magazine to Reed,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬™m happy to see each new issue of Payload Asia, but IÃ¢â‚¬™m not necessarily charmed by everything I see, but that is my personal opinion and I think itÃ¢â‚¬™s logical after working my butt off for 25 years and doing almost everything myself!Ã¢â‚¬Â
That sounded like a good time to end the interview, but before we parted company I was curious as to what really appealed to him about the air cargo industry. Ã¢â‚¬Å“What IÃ¢â‚¬™ve always appreciated about this industry, which goes for any cargo industry, is the straightforwardness of people. ItÃ¢â‚¬™s a no nonsense industry and itÃ¢â‚¬™s completely 100 per cent different from the passenger side of the airline industry,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says, speaking of being straight to thepoint.