Norman Rentrop, born in Bonn-Godesberg, Germany, was schooled at a Jesuit school, later becoming an exchange student at Eton College in England and graduating from Cologne University with a degree in business administration. He gained journalistic experience at a school newspaper, a youth magazine for Bonn, a local newspaper and the German Stars & Stripes armed forces newspaper.
He started his first newsletter, die Geschäftsidee, while he was in school with 10,000 Deutschmarks earned from being a reporter for a local daily newspaper. Today, Norman publishes 57 newsletters, looseleaf services and magazines and three directories in the fields of marketing, public speaking, finance, investment, real estate, human resources, taxation, stocks, market analysis, business expansion and more. Founded in 1975, Verlag Norman Rentrop („Verlag“ means publishing house in German), employs over 200 people and more than 400 authors at its Bonn, Germany, headquarters, and more than 600 people and 1,000 authors are employed worldwide. Verlag Norman Rentrop is today one of the leading information-publishing companies in Germany.
When he began in the publishing business, the German newsstands were crowded and the bookstores did not welcome newcomers. Norman turned to American-style direct marketing to grow the company; NPA, FOLIO and DMA conferences became his training camps. His training was enhanced by seminars given by visiting North American direct marketers like Joan Throckmorton, Dick Benson, Ted Nicholas, Ted Kikoler and Don Hauptman.
„I practice what I like to call ‚consultative journalism,‘“ said Norman. „I would like for every German business owner (my audience) to be able to afford consulting, and that’s what I give them through my newsletters. I think of information products as the ability to multiply ideas over the printing press and electronically.“
For those of you who don’t know Norman, the best way I can describe him is as a sponge of information. Norman, who lives in Germany, has probably visited more U.S. publishing companies than any U.S. publisher, always wanting to know how other publishers run their businesses, always wanting to improve how he runs his business.
Verlag Norman Rentrop spends a lot of money on developing people and new products. There is a heavy emphasis on investing in people. They budget one month’s salary each year per employee. His company sent 18 employees to the NPA International Newsletter Conference in 1998 – from Germany. They also budget between $150,000 – $200,000 on books, magazines, newsletters and other information products, which averages $1,000 per employee (in addition to one month’s salary for training). „My philosophy is that if you give, you will receive,“ said Norman. „I invest in my employees, and they will work hard for me in return and help to grow my company.“
On a recent business trip to the U.S., Norman dropped in at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. He looked at about 150 books and bought 50 books that he had shipped to Germany. „What more could you ask for?“ said Norman, „All the books you could possibly want, and nice chairs and food, too.“ Although Norman does enjoy visiting bookstores, he also enjoys buying books through Amazon.com on the Internet. While he skims through a lot of books, Norman claims to read only two or three books per month.
If asked who he admires, Norman will tell you he emulates Warren Buffet. Whereas Warren Buffet is a sort of contrarian on Wall Street, Norman may be a bit of a contrarian to the newsletter business. While most newsletter publishers are sole owners of their publishing companies, Norman owns minority interests in many other companies besides his own. Most publishers would prefer to maintain control over their business, but Norman is happy to own a minority.
„Why buy the cow if you want to dringk a glass of milk?“ Norman asks. Norman’s philosophy toward newsletter publishing is that of a shareholder. Let’s say you invest in 500 shares of one particular stock on the New York Stock Exchange. You own a minority interest in it, and your investment in the company, while you expect to make money, buys you little power and control. You can, of course, show up at the shareholder’s meeting, but how much effect could you expect to have?
Today, Norman has minority interests in companies around the world – in Turkey, Romania, Poland, France and the U.S. He works with the Mayo Clinic Letter, Agora, Georgetown Publishing House and Garrett Communications, to name a few. In the case of many of these relationships, Norman takes the U.S. newsletter and translates it into German – both for language and culture differences. For example, one newsletter he translates has to do with etiquette. While the American and German editions are similar, cultural differences make it impossible to simply translate word-for-word. For example, in the United States, it is customary for the gentleman to open the door and allow the woman to go ahead. In Germany, the man goes first to thwart danger.
Norman’s first love of the newsletter business is lists. „I spend one-third of my time evaluating and cultivating mailing lists and studying SRDS and rate cards; it requires the mindset of a good stockbroker who can calculate chances,“ said Norman. The famous list guru, Dick Benson, once said that a publisher should spend one-third of their time on lists or media. „I spend 12 days a year in list meetings where I meet with publishers and profit-center managers to evaluate lists for mailings and inserts (German magazines don’t rent their mailing lists, but do take inserts); it’s the most important element of direct marketing.“
New-product development and the ability to see a need in the market is Norman’s second favorite part of the newsletter business. He spent $50,000 with amazon.com last year on books to research new-product ideas. „I love the creative process, but I love the investment process even more. I study the lists, and based on the statistical validity of a test of 5,000 names, I make the determination of whether to invest in another 50,000-name mailing. That’s my favorite kind of investment.“