The Lord of Alli that he surveys

Business Profile: For a gay Asian from a poor background, Chorion's chairman has come a long way
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The Independent Online

Waheed Alli has had to "learn to live in the car", he says, as we race from his offices in Holborn to an appointment in the City in a chauffeur-driven Range Rover.

While many businessmen have gone "plural" in pursuing a range of interests, few can have as diverse a portfolio as Lord Alli of Norbury. Aged just 38, the millionaire chairman of Chorion, the rights group behind Noddy and Agatha Christie, is an active Labour peer and is on the boards of Elizabeth Murdoch's Shine Productions and of the London School of Economics. He is also vice-president of Unicef and sits on the consumer panel of Abbey National. His previous lives included founding Planet 24, the television production house, and running the content arm of Carlton, the ITV giant.

Lord Alli has made it to the heart of Britain's political and media establishments, with few advantages in life: a gay Asian man from an unprivileged background. Self-made men are often synonymous with reactionary politics, arrogance, and bullying, know-it-all opinions. Lord Alli is quite different. He is softly-spoken and unfailingly liberal but manages to be engaging with it and is happy to argue his case patiently. Down-to-earth and unpretentious, he is inquisitive and has a mind for detail that marks him out from the typical media "luvvie".

There is an enthusiasm about everything he does - he "loves" this thing or person or thinks they are "fantastic". Despite a high profile, he says that he does not like giving interviews, unless he is supplying the "oxygen of publicity" to one of his causes: in this case it's Chorion. He now bases himself at the company, though he's only in its offices for a day and a half a week at most - he spends much time doing rights deals in the US, often for Shine, where he holds a stake.

At Chorion he can combine his fierce business skills with his great love of content - creating it and exploiting it. He was appointed to the company's board in May last year (followed days later by a profits warning) and this April he became chairman.

He has big plans for the company, which has been through a restructuring, separating off its non-media assets. "When I arrived, this was quite unfocused, not a media-led company at all," he says."But underneath [the board] there was a layer of fantastic management".

This year, Chorion is expected to report a doubling of profits and there is a share consolidation that will mean that it is no longer a spivvy penny share (it is currently the most traded share on the AIM). However, Lord Alli knows the company, with its current stock market value of £35m, has to aim much higher still.

"We've got this issue of critical mass. If we cannot grow to £100m-plus [market value], in the short to medium term, institutions will say we're off the radar. We've got to build mass, otherwise we should not be a public company," he says.

In that time frame, the only way to pull it off, it would seem, is to buy other companies and Lord Alli says that Chorion is on the look-out for deals, though he adds that he is "not going on a huge acquisition trail".

Lord Alli may sit on the board of the LSE, but he had to skip university, leaving his comprehensive school at 16 after his parents split up, with an urgent need to start earning some money. A visit to a "grim" job centre in London's King's Cross led to a job as a researcher at the financial magazine Planned Savings, measuring the performance of shares and covering the reception at lunchtime.

Three or four years later, he got a call from the head of investment at Saver & Prosper, the institutional investor, who read the column and offered him a job - to run its research department. So, at the age of 20, he found himself in the City. "I had an earring and only had two suits, one brown and one white. I got the shock of my life. But I really wanted to understand money and how it works," he said. Lord Alli went back to the magazine after about three years, ending up as publisher and, by the age of 24, he was "earning quite a lot of money", had put his brothers through university and wanted to do something else.

Lord Alli's partner, Charlie Parsons, whom he met when he was 17, was a TV producer. Mr Parsons wanted to set up his own production company and, after some persuasion, Lord Alli joined him (as did Bob Geldof) in 1992, in what became Planet 24. For the first few years, Lord Alli ran the business side, while Mr Parsons was the creative guy, then, in the mid-90s, they swapped jobs. Lord Alli says that the change was a "liberating" experience and suggests that businesses should move people to whole new areas in this way. The company made a series of hit "yoof" programmes including The Big Breakfast, TFI Friday and Don't Forget Your Toothbrush.

A classic New Labour man, Lord Alli's political connections and popular culture nous saw him take a leading behind-the-scenes role in the 1997 election (Peter Mandelson is reputed to have planned the campaign from Lord Alli's Kent mansion). He was rewarded with a peerage.

Planet 24 was sold to Carlton for £15m in 1999, making Lord Alli some £5m (though cleverly he kept the hit Survivor programme out of the deal). He was appointed head of the production business at the ITV giant, and was responsible for bringing back Crossroads. He was shocked by what he discovered. "I found out how uncommercial commercial television is when you try to talk about margins or cashflow. The feeling is that they only have to be better than the BBC to be successful".

Just 18 months later, Lord Alli left, though he says there was no management bust-up, he simply wanted to devote more time to the next general election campaign. And he certainly does not seem to have fallen out with Michael Green, Carlton's founder and chairman, a man who is reputed to be very difficult to work with.

"I'd never have a word said against him...With [Mr Green] at the head of [a merged] ITV, it has a very exciting future," says Lord Alli.

Lord Alli's politics remain close to Government. Though it is the bigger picture that excites him:"I first got involved in politics when Norman Tebbit was talking about voluntary repatriation [of immigrants]. The change that we have made is that this kind of politics has no place in British politics".

LORD ALLI OF NORBURY: TOP BILLING FOR TV OUTSIDER

Position: Chairman of Chorion (part-time)

Age: 38

Salary: £70,000 (part-time)

Career: Lord Alli left school at 16 to become a researcher on Planned Savings, a financial magazine.

He was hired by Save & Prosper, the City fund manager, at the age of 20 and ran the investment research department for about three years, before returning to the magazine, where he was made publisher.

At the age of 24, he started Planet 24, selling the company to Carlton in 1998, which made him head of production (he quit that job in 2000).

He was made a peer in 1998. Last year he joined the board of Chorion and became chairman this year. He has 'big plans' for the company, which is expected to report a doubling of profits.

His other positions include vice-president of Unicef and he is on the board of Shine Productions and the London School of Economics.

Interests: Politics.

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