Michael Heseltine, the Tories' golden vision, lays down his political mace and becomes a publisher first and last

The creator of Haymarket Publishing is resuming control of the company. Founded in 1959, it is the source of his great fortune and an expression of his powers as a talent-spotter. His political legacy lies in ruins. His business legacy is in much ruder he
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Just when a dicky heart and a resounding Labour victory looked likely to see Michael Heseltine devote all his energy to the arboretum at his estate in Thenford, it has emerged that Tarzan is swinging back into the business jungle.

Haymarket Publishing, the company Heseltine started in 1959, has spent pounds 40m buying the shares of the two men who have grown the company while Heseltine worked on his political career: Lindsay Masters, its chairman, and Simon Tindall, its chief executive.

The buy-back is part of a pre-arranged plan known as the "Post Mortem" designed to return the company to Heseltine's control when his political career finally ended.

The most important campaign in Heseltine's life may have been the campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. But nearly as important is Campaign, the advertising industry magazine to which he owes much of his reported pounds 150m family fortune.

The former deputy prime minister, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has told staff at Haymarket that years of speculation about the company floating or being sold are over. "He intends it to be a family-run business," a senior manager says. "He is not coming back to do nothing. Everything points to a period of expansion and growth. I think he wants to have fun with it." Whether this is his final walking-away from politics, leading to the handover of his desirable Henley seat to, say, Chris Patten, we shall see.

The appointment of Alan Kemp, GEC's director of strategy, as a non-executive director with expertise in procurement points to a buying spree.

Campaign is known as "Champagne" by rivals in the trade press - testimony to the way it is feted by advertising agencies and lavishly resourced by the grateful management of Haymarket. But publishing has not always been champagne and fun for Heseltine. His original ventures, in partnership with an Oxford friend, were an early lifestyle magazine called Town and a news magazine, Topic, both of which lost so much money they almost brought the future President of the Board of Trade down.

"The ironic thing is that a man who spent years arguing in government for the efficient running of departments and keeping things in check actually ran a totally chaotic business," says Heseltine's biographer Michael Crick. "It was only really from 1969 onwards, when Heseltine withdrew from it, that Haymarket stopped being a basketcase."

To be fair Haymarket in the early days suffered because of Heseltine's long-term game. Instead of loading all of his debts into a small subsidiary and letting it go bankrupt as many businessmen would have done Heseltine struggled to pay off all his debts knowing he needed a squeaky-clean past if he was going to have a political future.

What Town and Topic did expose was Michael Heseltine's fantastic ability to spot good people. From Michael Parkinson and Terence Donovan to Maurice Saatchi and Eleanor Goodman, a stream of talent worked under him at Haymarket in the Sixties.

This has continued throughout Campaign's history and it seems that everyone has had a stint there. Daytime TV host Vanessa Feltz had a brief stint as a secretary, Kelvin MacKenzie worked as a sub and the BBC's Torin Douglas was its media expert.

But most importantly in the Sixties Michael Heseltine spotted Lindsay Masters, the man he has just made a multi-millionaire by buying out his shares. It was Masters who borrowed the well designed aesthetic of Town, a consumer magazine, and had the revolutionary idea of applying it to a trade magazine.

Before Campaign's birth in September 1968 trade magazines were little more than mucky reprints of press releases. Campaign's glossy paper and stylish design - virtually unchanged to this day - combined with a Fleet Street attitude to news made the magazine an instant success with the gossipy, booming world of advertising.

There are three strands to Haymarket's success, Campaign, Management Today and Accountancy Age and they all illustrated Heseltine's other business strength - seizing the moment. In all three cases a market niche was spotted and grabbed quickly. In the case of Management Today a 96-page dummy magazine was designed, written and printed in a weekend to impress the British Institute of Management which was awarding the publishing contract.

After Heseltine's departure for politics in the early Seventies, however, something of the pace went out of Haymarket's growth. Like many private companies it favoured steady organic growth and used the template of Campaign and Accountancy Age to move into new trade sectors.

Rather than buying up magazines like its rival publisher EMAP, it created lots of highly profitable backroom spin-offs and directories. But as Michael Crick quotes Maurice Saatchi, if Michael Heseltine had held the reins Haymarket might have been a "Murdoch sized operation" today.

Instead what he finds as he returns is a respectable company which saw profits jump in 1995 - the latest year for which there are figures - by 51 per cent to pounds 11m. Competition in the trade press is tighter than ever before and the "Champagne" days ended in the Eighties when rivals such as Marketing Week and Creative Review started stealing recruitment advertising from the flagship.

Insiders report more focus on the bottom line and much staff unhappiness at a new, skimpy, office complex in Hammersmith.

The consumer magazine division, which publishes the cash cow Autocar and other motoring titles has had a patchy time trying to be more than an car bore's specialist publisher. With the exception of the irreverent football magazine FourFourTwo, it has largely missed out on the lads' mag publishing boom that is making money for rivals EMAP, Dennis and IPC.

Three recent lifestyle magazine launches - The Box, Encore and Sky Sports magazine all closed quickly and there is a sense of crisis at the consumer publishing division in Teddington. Sky Sports magazine's licensing deal with BSkyB cost a lot of money and BSkyB was disappointed not to repeat the success of Sky TV Guide.

Insiders claim that Sky Sports magazine's failure was a disappointment for Heseltine also because it was the first real management role given to the next generation of the family. Its advertising sales director was 30-year-old Rupert Heseltine. With the failure of the magazine he had to be found another job, and is now a lowly sales executive on Revolution, Haymarket's new media spin-off from Campaign.

"Lindsay Masters is not going anywhere soon," says one insider. "Rupert is working his way slowly up the tree, but it'll be 20 years before he's ready to run the company." Insiders acknowledge that Heseltine junior has received few favours at the company, something which keeps him popular with his workmates.

The problem for Heseltine is that the world of publishing has changed so much in the past 30 years: "Few people realise there are more than 100 trade magazines which make over pounds 1m profit a year," says Graham Sherrin, owner of rival Centaur Publishing and a friend of Heseltine's since 1968. "There are only about eight consumer magazines that do that, which means trade press is fantastically competitive. Twenty or 30 years ago it was a piece of cake. Now the competition is relentless."

It is not clear in which direction Haymarket's expansion will go, but it may just be competition that Heseltine seeks.

Michael Crick believes the clue to understanding the man who, as Alan Clark snootily said, "had to buy his own furniture" is good old-fashioned class snobbery. "When he was at Oxford he was very conscious of his Swansea bourgeois roots and was the victim of appalling snobbery by the Christ Church aristocrats who dominated the Conservative Party."

Back at the helm of Haymarket, the one-time "Brilliantine boy" wants to make sure his family will inherit more than a few armchairs.