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Tolley – Cento Anni!

Reflecting on 2016, in many ways a turbulent and distressing year, I was reminded of the centenaries that it marked. Notable ones for me were the momentous Easter Rising in Ireland, the wasteful Battle of the Somme, the birth of my late father and the establishment of Tolley Publishing.

Its parent, Lexis Nexis UK has posted on Tolley’s web site a “100 Years of Tolley Infographic” and has published a book to celebrate its centenary, entitled, thanks to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, “Plucking the Goose”. The title, apparently not some kind of smutty euphemism or double entendre, serves to remind critics and tax avoidance beneficiaries that “the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing”. “Face to Face”, an interview with me about Tolley, was published in The Legal Executive, March 1994, pp. 33-34.

My move from my first job at Sweet and Maxwell, part of what is now Thomson Reuters, to Tolley, as its publishing director, was a challenging one for me but the desire to gain new experience in a different environment was significant. However eminent were the two businesses, they were dissimilar and much adjustment of attitude, expectation and behaviours was required. One, entirely correctly and expectedly, represented the characteristics and values of its well-earned reputation, while the other – somewhat vulgar, smaller and based in an appropriate outer-London borough – had all to play for. In those days, Sweet and Maxwell would not even have categorised Tolley as a visible competitor.

Indeed, all was not how it seemed from the outside. Tolley’s upstart façade disguised remarkably successful performance, expressed in the number of its products being sold, the extent of its profitability and the quality and expertise of its tax and legal in-house authorship. Previously I had not imagined that any publishing business would be so committed to accuracy and quality as to invest in such high levels of skill, if not geekiness. From other publishers, customers bought authors’ names and reputations; from Tolley they bought “Tolley’s”. Yet in truth, it felt a little weird, alien and only partly welcoming.

Despite its success, Tolley had to diversify from but always to include its tax publishing core, though the change was to be more evolutionary than revolutionary. It might be said that in fact the Tolley business began its professional publishing activities in 1833, by virtue of its later-to-be subsidiary, Charles Knight Publishing, which went on to publish loose-leaf services and law reports in the fields of local government and construction law. The two businesses combined through various corporate reorganisations and in 1991 acquired several legal publications previously owned by Frank Cass and Co. That increased the amount of purely legal publishing and expanded the range of customers for its products and services. Building on that, it acquired Fourmat Publishing in 1993. Fourmat aimed its law books, forms and legal costs information primarily at smaller practices. All this, combined with such acquisitions as National Law Tutors, Finborough Seminars, Employment Law Training and Payroll Alliance (recently sold back, in effect, to the people who were running it then) gave Tolley a balanced range of products and services and a wider appeal to customers. So, as well as the tax market, Tolley targeted the legal one with publications, the aim of which were to be practical. In its later years before being acquired, it supplied its output for the work of mainstream medium-sized professional firms in areas such as business law, residential and commercial property, trusts and administration of estates, local government, construction law and, of course, taxation. It sought to appeal to the sharper and commercially-minded practitioners who were growing their firms. However, it did not try to be everything to everyone. Its objective was to focus on its strengths and look to changes and developments in the professions and see new opportunities. As in the tax market, in terms of the information it offered, Tolley consistently sought to be in what it described as the “advice sector”, below that of strategic planning and litigation but above basic compliance. This was a professional market of less specialist lawyers, accountants, tax advisers and in-house counsel and officers who trade on selling knowledge and information. It was a somewhat volume market in which strong sales and marketing activity, competitive pricing and perceived added-value were critical to success.

Even by the early 1990s, electronic delivery had become most important. Tolley launched one of the earliest UK CD-ROM products called Tolley’s Tax-Link, which, to some degree at least, evolved into later online services and tools. These were relatively early days of the digital revolution, preceded by mammoth efforts to bring together the data that would facilitate the phases to come, the launch of some spectacularly successful services and the strategic acquisitions that were conducted. All this made Tolley exceptionally well-placed and desirable, with, theoretically, an optimistic future alongside Butterworths in Lexis Nexis UK.

Tax publishing was and may still be a good place in which to operate. Many make the predictable “boring tax” comments but others know that this is important stuff. Governments stand and fall on it; it affects every decision on investment, savings, pay and rewards and, when geese are lawfully plucked and over-cooking is prevented, it builds schools and hospitals. Tax is such a newsworthy topic too. It’s impossible to read any news medium without seeing something controversial on tax. Moreover, it’s not called “tax” for nothing. It’s really taxing and that can be the challenge of it. Whether the future will be as the past remains to be seen, though my very recent experience of Lexis Nexis UK’s appalling customer service, makes me doubtful. Moreover, I detect in it, with its apparent focus on professional development and examination training, the character of what it may have been Mark Twain who observed, “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

Though maybe it has now had its best century, Tolley, now the UK market leader in tax, was eventually, for me, a cheery, open, somewhat maverick and collegiate environment in which to work. Frequently flawed and capable of mistakes and miscalculations, we were permitted to use our skills, experience and expertise to achieve the intended results without excessive or unnecessary intervention and this paid dividends. Indeed, one Tolley wag once commented that its then board members were exceptionally skilled at resolving problems; such a pity that they caused many of them!

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