Obituary: Roger Luard

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The Independent Culture
ROGER LUARD left one of the firmest and most unassailable legacies of any media executive Britain has known. He rode, masterfully, the key trends in the media, taking what had been an oil services company, Flextech, and creating out of it Britain's first independent supplier of pay-TV channels, worth at its 1996 high an incredible pounds 1bn.

An intensely driven, peripatetic, agile-minded man, he worked hard and long to make his at times derided vision of the media future really happen; by the time of his death, he had secured Flextech's position at the heart of the multi-channel revolution.

"He made a huge difference to establishing multi-channel TV," said David Montgomery, the chief executive of Mirror Group. "He accomplished this because he had a vision that went well beyond what others were thinking or doing."

Sam Chisholm, former chief executive of the satellite television giant BSkyB, said of Luard: "The great thing was he had a naturally good mind. He saw angles in everything. He was smart enough to spot the opportunities as he went through."

Luard was born in 1948, trained as an accountant, and joined Flextech in 1986 after a career in industry and a stint at an investment bank. Under his stewardship, the company invested in cable operations and made one of its first forays into cable and satellite television, acquiring a stake in the Children's Channel. But it was the merger of Flextech and the UK operations of the US cable giant TCI in 1994 that really launched the modern variant of the company, a deal driven by Luard himself.

By 1996, Flextech had interests in several cable and satellite channels, and had embarked on a ground-breaking deal with the BBC to create the public service corporation's first multi-channel business in Britain.

"Without Roger's drive and determination, the deal would never have been completed," said Bob Phillis, chief executive of Guardian Media Group and the former head of BBC Worldwide. "On several occasions over the 18 months of negotiations, we came close to failing, but Roger always found a way forward."

His negotiating tactics were legendary. Focused, highly strung, relentless, he could keep multiple agendas in his head, weighing openings when they presented themselves and shifting strategy when he sensed the need. He out-thought his opponents by staying one or two steps ahead of them. He drove his staff mad with new ideas and constantly changing strategic options. So committed a deal-maker, so active a negotiator, he had to wait several years before cashing in his stock options. "I'm always in bloody close period," he used to complain.

Frustratingly for some of his colleagues, he was more interested in the deal than in the underlying operations. "Why do we need all those people?" he used to ask his colleagues on visits to the Camden offices in north London. "We need them to run the channels you've set up," would come the sensible reply. For his part Luard just went on to the next deal, the next strategy.

Sometimes he was wrong, but not on the things that mattered. He knew more about pay-TV and the new multi-channel industry than anyone else in the country. He knew, for instance, that the key to the business was "distribution, distribution, distribution." And he proved it when he secured lucrative distribution arrangement for Flextech's channels not only with the cable operators but with the mighty BSkyB, at a time when the industry had realised, finally, that there was urgent need for improved content, and branded channels, to drive the pay-TV business.

Until recently, he played as hard as he worked. "He would always find time to see his friends and colleagues of an evening," David Montgomery said. "And he was loyal. He didn't drop you when you were no longer useful to his business."

When I, as a journalist, first met Luard in 1995, he immediately charmed me. For my benefit, his patter, punctuated with "hey guys" and "you gotta understand", was geared to suit my North American ear. He tailored his speech to charm when he wanted to; but he didn't shy away from strong language when it was time to drive a point home. Certainly when I wanted to write something he didn't want to see in print, the charm was off. "You write that and I'll break your legs," he would say. Or something worse, involving a different fate to a different part of my anatomy.

He could be brash and even vulgar, and had a wicked schoolboy's humour. His jokes were often off-colour, and his dark moods before his first cappuccino of the day will always be remembered at Flextech's Great Portland Street headquarters. But he was genuinely kind, and grew far softer in his attitudes following the adoption of a son, Harry, three years ago, and the subsequent adoption of his daughter Isabella. He came even closer to his wife, Roly, and enjoyed tremendously his weekends with the family in Gloucestershire.

Roger Luard, who suffered from an incurable neurological disease that affected first his eyesight and then his other faculties, will be remembered through the industry as a media giant. His company was more modest than some of the big media conglomerates; he was less often written about than Rupert Murdoch or John Malone; but, without him, UK broadcasting would have been less vibrant, less confident, less evolved. He was a true mogul; not a Murdoch, perhaps, nor a Malone, but he breathed the same air. Had he lived, who knows what more he might have done?

Roger Luard, television executive: born 21 November 1948; chief executive, Flextech 1986-98; married 1972 Roly Dewar (one son, one daughter); died London 15 August 1998.