After the deal-a-Hollick, where does UBM go from here?

For 30 years, he hasn't stopped, building up assets in TV and newspapers, and along the way making £1.75bn on one sale alone. And even as he stands down, his departure could herald another change of direction for the group. Tim Webb reports

When asked about the acquisition strategy of United Business Media under its founder, chief executive and sometime deal junkie Lord Hollick, a former finance director once replied: "One year, UBM breathes in - the next it breathes out."

When asked about the acquisition strategy of United Business Media under its founder, chief executive and sometime deal junkie Lord Hollick, a former finance director once replied: "One year, UBM breathes in - the next it breathes out."

In its various incarnations, UBM has bought - and then sold - a moneybroking business, Express Newspapers and three ITV television licences. In 2000 it famously tried to buy Carlton and be the architect of a unified ITV, but was blocked on competition grounds (Carlton and Granada merged four years later).

In a few weeks, Lord Hollick will breathe his last, at least as far as UBM is concerned, when he retires and hands over the reins to new chief executive David Levin, who currently runs the mobile phone technology company Symbian. Today, UBM is a jumble of consumer and business-to-business magazines, market research, exhibition, news distribution and minority television interests.

It is unlikely that the Labour peer - who is leaving to join the legendary US buyout firm KKR - ever envisaged bequeathing such a legacy when he was in his pomp as the owner of three national newspapers and bidding for Carlton. UBM is profitable: on Friday, in Lord Hollick's results swansong, it announced annual pre-tax profits of £141m, up more than a third on last year. But how should his legacy be judged? And what does the future hold for the company that is soon to be without him for the first time in its 30-year history?

First the past. Lord Hollick has been called many things in his time. People who have worked for him agree that he is straight-talking, can be gruff and does not suffer fools gladly. Some have accused him of doing deals for the sake of it. But he has never frittered money away. It is rumoured that during his weekly board meeting with the directors of Express Newspapers, when on one occasion they ordered another round of coffees, he had to sign a chit before it could be authorised. And even if he did like doing deals, they were mostly successful and shareholders reaped the rewards.

David Urch, investment director at Scottish Widows Investment Partnership and a top-10 UBM shareholder, says: "Lord Hollick has definitely been a deal maker. But he has also sold assets well and returned a lot of cash to shareholders."

Lord Hollick's best deal was the sale of UBM's television licences, Meridian, Anglian and HTV, to Granada in 2000 for £1.75bn, £1.25bn of which was returned to shareholders a year later. It was one of the largest single payouts to shareholders in British corporate history.

The result of the flurry of deals has been an ever-evolving company. Paul Richards, analyst at broker Numis, says: "There has been a considerable change in the company's profile over the last 10 years. One of the few constants has been change. But it has not always been of his own making."

The biggest U-turn was forced on Lord Hollick in 2000 by the Government when it blocked his merger with Carlton. Lord Hollick could see that a merged ITV was inevitable and he wanted to be a key player when it happened. When the deal was rejected, UBM's television licences were fair game for Granada, which threatened to launch a hostile bid for the whole of UBM if Lord Hollick did not sell up.

Selling UBM's television interests (apart from a 20 per cent stake in the news broadcaster ITN and a 35 per cent stake in Channel 5) also spelt the end of Lord Hollick's multimedia strategy and led to the sale of Express Newspapers, which he had bought in 1996. He had wanted the newspapers to promote his television interests in much the way Rupert Murdoch's News International newspapers promote Sky. But with the television licences gone, Express Newspapers - which did not become as profitable as Lord Hollick had hoped - was sold to Richard Desmond in 2001 for £125m.

Paul Woolfenden, commercial director of the Daily Express under Lord Hollick, and now managing director of The Business, explains: "He was probably under pressure from shareholders and other directors on the board about where it fitted into the business as a whole. It can be difficult for a plc to run national newspapers. They have different priorities."

Mr Desmond has made the Express many times more profitable that it was under Lord Hollick.

Going back to the drawing board, Lord Hollick refocused on UBM's remaining businesses: market information, exhibitions and business-to-business publishing. For the next three years, he made bolt-on acquisitions in these areas, also moving into consumer publishing. Acquiring titles such as care homes publication This Caring Business was a far cry from the glamour days of the Express and ITV.

And so to the future. Even as Lord Hollick prepares to stand down, there is no pause in UBM's evolution. Earlier this year, it began formally seeking bids for its market research business, NOP World, which is no longer seen as core and could fetch £300m. UBM's legacy television assets - principally the stake in Channel 5 won in 1996 - will also go on the block. UBM has always maintained that it would be sold at the right price, but bankers have complained that Lord Hollick's high valuation and his emotional attachment to 5 have put off potential bidders.

Mr Levin may benefit from this strategy. In the past, the Luxembourg-based broadcaster RTL - owner of the remaining 65 per cent of 5 - has been the only other likely bidder. Now, with the rapid growth of Freeview, Rupert Murdoch, who lobbied so hard to win the clause in the Communications Act to allow newspaper owners to buy broadcasters (the so-called "Murdoch clause"), sees owning 5 as a way of gaining another foothold on the free-to-air digital television platform. Bankers close to UBM are licking their lips at the prospect of a bidding war developing between RTL and Mr Murdoch.

Mr Urch from Scottish Widows Investment Partnerships says: "It is pretty clear that 5 has been one of Clive's real babies. That has been viewed as a stumbling block, yet its value has been rising. When you have a colourful personality involved, speculation is fuelled but very few of us really know the facts about what goes on in the boardroom and what price for assets may or may not have been offered.

"But 5 is doing very well, and there is a fantastic opportunity to sell the stake in the next 12 months, given its success on Freeview."

And what of the man waiting in the wings, Mr Levin? He has been an executive at the publisher Euromoney, but having run Symbian and Psion, the makers of handheld computers, he knows how to use different platforms to distribute content.

Ed Shedd, a partner in the TMT practice at consultancy Deloitte, says: "Mr Levin has the opportunity to turn UBM from a traditional publisher into a business information publisher providing multimedia services." This could include providing moving images on the web and publishing on other platforms such as mobile phones, areas UBM has yet to exploit.

Whatever he decides, Mr Levin will not be haunted by Lord Hollick's ghost, nor is he there to merely manage his legacy. As one friend puts it: "David is not a technical geek. Unlike UBM's current management, he has the vision to access new markets for its publishing division. He has not just joined to sell off parts of the business."

It was never dull with Lord Hollick at the helm of UBM, but that doesn't mean shareholders should bank on a quiet life once he is gone.

THE BUILDING OF A MEDIA EMPIRE

1974: Clive Hollick, a 29-year-old director of Hambros investment bank, is parachuted in as chief executive of JH Vavasseur, a troubled financial services and media group.

1978: Renamed MAI plc, the company grows into an international money and securities broker, with advertising and film production businesses.

1980: MAI launches market research firm Mediamark Research.

1990: MAI enters the UK terrestrial television market by winning the franchise for the ITV licence in the south and south-east of England.

1991: Hollick is created a life peer, sitting on the Labour benches in the Upper House as Lord Hollick of Notting Hill.

1995: MAI is a founder and major shareholder in the group that wins the Channel 5 terrestrial television franchise for the UK.

1996: MAI merges with United News and Media (UNM), adding Express Newspapers (also including a regional newspaper group, sold two years later), the news distribution business PR Newswire and an exhibitions business to Lord Hollick's empire.

1998: MAI's securities business spun off and floated as ICAP plc.

1999: UNM buys hi-tech publisher CMP Media.

2000: UNM tries to merge with Michael Green's Carlton Television, but is blocked on competition grounds. Lord Hollick then sells UNM's three ITV licences to Granada for £1.75bn and renames the company United Business Media (UBM).

2001-03: Lord Hollick is on the acquisition trail, expanding his publishing, news distribution, market research and exhibitions businesses in Europe, the US and Asia.

2004: Lord Hollick announces his intention to step down in April 2005.

2005: David Levin, chief executive of mobile technology firm Symbian, is named as his successor. The company seeks buyers for its market research division NOP World.

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