Media: Maven of the glossies finds a home of her own

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After a successful career making millions for others,

Sally O'Sullivan is setting up her own publishing


Sally O'Sullivan, doyenne of the glossies, insists she is not a person who always thought she must run her own show. "I'd thought of myself as incredibly happy to make other people a great deal of money."

But, a year off her 50th birthday, and after two decades of successfully launching and editing women's magazines for other publishers, O'Sullivan finds herself in the hot seat, chief executive of her own publishing house, Cabal Communications.

With planned launches later this year and early next in the mass market, the niche consumer market and the contract title arena, she and her business partner, Andrew Sutcliffe, are hastily getting their own show on the road. O'Sullivan, when I meet her, is rushing around Cabal's new offices on London's unglamorous Euston Road at a rate that belies her skin-tight pants and stilettos.

Amid overseeing the activity of builders and systems people, she must ensure that the band of 14-to-18-year-old boys taking part in a focus group are catered for, perform for the fly-on-the-wall BBC TV crew recording the birth of the company, and fit in this interview. All before rushing off to lunch at the Ritz where she and Sutcliffe hope to poach yet another "name" to join the currently 20-strong Cabal team.

Yet nothing appears to shake her composure. Though there is something frustrating her. It is BT: "I can't tell you how extraordinarily difficult it is to get them to understand that there are circumstances in life when you have to move more quickly than eight weeks. It's really challenging to try to run a company without a phone system."

But O'Sullivan is used to making things happen. She graduated from Trinity College with vague notions of being a writer, interior designer or actress, and says she "stumbled into journalism", though she's been going at breakneck speed ever since.

A glorious career in the glossy magazine world has seen her edit Options, launch Country Homes and Interiors (as well as the ill-fated Riva), and edit She, Harpers & Queen and Good Housekeeping for the National Magazine Company, before joining IPC two-and-a-half years ago to oversee the revamp of Ideal Home and be editor-in-chief of six titles. In her last few months at IPC she managed to put together two more launches, Beautiful Homes and Living Etc.

She has also in the past five years taken on non-executive directorships of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, Anglian Water and London Transport, and has a seat on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

She says she was terrified when first invited to join the ranks of the great and good, convinced she was "finally going to be rumbled".

"But I get on these boards and find I have something I can contribute, alongside other people who clearly have never doubted that they had contributions to make."

The work helped bridge a previously unidentified confidence gap and it has been a lesson she has carried into the day job. Having seen her talents mined so far only on the editorial side, she now believes she has talent aplenty to run a company.

Others believed it first, though. It was an old university friend now running a merchant bank who suggested that she put together a bid for IPC, when it became clear that Reed Elsevier wanted to divest itself of its consumer magazine division. She found backing for her bid but was beaten by the venture capitalists Cinven for the purchase. However, she says she came out of the experience with no battle scars. Just flabbergasted she'd got so far.

Putting the strategic plans together also helped her see there was another way to run a magazine company. Now she is determined to prove that editors are not just creative fluffy bunnies.

Tired of "layers and layers and layers of management", O'Sullivan and Sutcliffe, who is former editor-in-chief of IPC's music and sports titles, want to create an editorially driven company with a flat management structure. The plans have been received well enough to persuade five wealthy individuals to part with pounds 2.2m to back them, and a host of respected magazine types have not only left secure positions to join the new venture, but have also taken out share options.

First from Cabal, in mid-October, are to be two big consumer monthlies. One is aimed at teenage boys - going under the working name of "Project FOG"(Fuck Off Grown-ups), thanks to the input of the 16-year-old son of O'Sullivan and her husband, the former Times and Mirror editor Charles Wilson. It will, says O'Sullivan, cover the familiar areas of sports, clothing, games, gadgets and bikes. And girls? "Absolutely!"

The other will be a mass-market home interest title, which aims to fill an empty niche by catering for ordinary women alienated by the "let's- paint-the-living-room-red" brigade.

November will see the launch of a specialist health title and another consumer title, neither of which she will be drawn on. Then, if all goes well, next March there will be a big consumer launch in the women's sector and three new sports titles. In all, 12 magazines are planned in Cabal's first year, though "nothing is cast in stone".

And the story does not end with magazines. She adds: "What you don't tend to realise as a journalist is that you have a marketable talent and the talent is that you understand how to reach the consumer. I'd always thought it was just common sense. I fully expect this company to produce a clutch of high-quality magazines, but I also see us having a broader consulting role. We can put magazines together for a company, plus a television programme, evolve Internet sites and advise them on retail outlets.'

However, O'Sullivan is alarmingly modest. Not only does she berate herself for the failure of Riva ("It was 10 years too early, and I say that with no pride at all; to be too early in a market-place is inexcusable"),but of Cabal's creating a "different" style of publishing house, she is quick to add: "it remains to be seen whether it is better".

Setting up Cabal has been, she says, like climbing a terraced slope: "Andrew and I pick each other up when we get stuck in the mud or when the next step seems too high. Now we're two-thirds of the way up the mountainside we can look back and see how far we've come."

O'Sullivan has the partner, the money and the ideas. She's in the building and the staff are coming on board. All she needs now are those telephones.