City tiger in a paper jungle: Chris Blackhurst and Nick Gilbert on the struggles of Lord Stevens

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The Independent Online
Every December, a memo is sent to staff at the Express Newspapers building forbidding any display of Christmas decorations in the windows overlooking Blackfriars Road.

Along with a rigid clear-desk policy, which is scrupulously enforced (to the extent that an apple left overnight will be replaced in the morning by a note saying it can be collected from security), the Christmas reminder is another example of the standards expected of staff by Lord Stevens, their chairman.

In the marble-clad reception, a uniformed commissionaire snaps to attention when his lordship arrives. At one end stands a bronze bust of Lord Stevens of Ludgate. The old building had one of Lord Beaverbrook, the legendary Express chief, so in the new premises there is one of Stevens.

The bust, and the large portrait that greets visitors to Stevens' ninth-floor suite, complete with uniformed butler, do not do him justice. They make him out to be a bit crumpled.

He is nothing of the sort. Small and perfectly formed, he is almost doll-like in appearance, with not a hair out of place, not a blemish.

He runs his newspapers with similar attention to detail, except . . . except he is not a newspaperman.

He is not a Maxwell or a Murdoch. Nor will he ever be a Beaverbrook. He is a City financier who happens to run a newspaper group.

Until last week, the distinction was not important. Then his prop was suddenly kicked from under him as he was ousted as chairman of Invesco MIM, the fund management group.

It was a swift exit that spoke volumes. Not a shot was fired, no formal vote was needed at Monday's board meeting when power was seized by an American, Charles Brady - an executive both larger than Stevens (not difficult) and tougher (difficult). For now, and until a new chief can be found, His Lordship remains a figurehead chairman, as powerless as his bust in the Invesco MIM boardroom. (Yes, he has one there as well.)

It is not clear whether Stevens - salary pounds 354,000 a year - will receive a pay-off to smooth his leaving. But if he had not gone quietly, he would still have gone.

Mr Brady held all the aces, notably control over Invesco in the US. He built up the worldwide company before selling out to MIM in the late 1980s for a hefty slice of dollars 200m.

But pensions management is a people business, so when Brady, the driving force behind Invesco, stayed on to manage North America, profits suffered elsewhere in the group from his diverted attentions.

In the past five years the group's US operations, masterminded by Brady, hoisted profits from pounds 10m to pounds 27m. But in 1990, Lord Stevens' end, Europe and the Far East, sank from pounds 22m to pounds 8m.

Last year, North America continued to do well; Europe under Stevens lost around pounds 10m.

As one leading shareholder in Invesco MIM put it: 'Political power in the boardroom flows to those who make the money.'

The institutions finally signalled enough. Their faith in Stevens had not been rewarded. Before the 1987 crash, Invesco MIM shares sold for around 200p. Early last week they were just 66p - though, in a sad epitaph for a leading City figure, the price improved 9p to 75p when he resigned.

Stevens' fate was sealed by a wave of adverse publicity which Brady hated as much as his former boss. 'It was Drayton, followed by Maxwell, followed by Imro,' said a source close to the board. Drayton, one of Invesco's funds, lost a fortune and was a disastrous advertisement for a company that sells investment expertise.

Then there were the links with Robert Maxwell. The late press baron was a long-time associate of Lord Stevens. He helped him gain control of Express Newspapers and assisted in the merger of Britannia Arrow with MIM.

Maxwell later held 20 per cent of Invesco MIM, which handled part of the Mirror Group pension fund. Both the Mirror and Maxwell-dominated MCC pension schemes were themselves big investors in Invesco MIM. There is no suggestion that Invesco or Stevens suspected Maxwell was a thief.

Despite, or perhaps because of, a writ from the Mirror pension fund, Stevens bluntly stated recently that Invesco MIM had no intention of helping out the pensioners.

Ironically, Imro, the City watchdog which failed to bark at Maxwell, nipped the heels of Stevens last November when it fined Invesco MIM pounds 75,000 for sloppy bookkeeping - more bad advertising for the group.

No longer the City magnate, Stevens is likely to fight to keep his press- baron's mantle. A stockbroker once asked him: 'What did buying the Express do for United Newspapers . . . Lord Stevens?'

His reply was quick: 'You just said it.' Even his enemies admit he can crack a good joke when it suits.

Some of his actions to date do not augur well for a would-be full-time press baron.

Robin Morgan applied to be editor of the Yorkshire Post, one of Stevens' lesser titles, only to be surprisingly appointed editor of the Sunday Express, the group's fading flagship. Circulation continued to fall and Morgan was fired within two years.

Stevens then kept the paper in limbo for months while a new editor was found. Under its acting editor, Henry Macrory, the paper did well, and he had the support of all the staff.

But Macrory did not get the job, which went to Eve Pollard. After spending millions promoting the paper as a broadsheet, she has taken it tabloid in a 'do or die' move. His other national titles, the Star and Daily Express, are not doing any better.

Stevens is his own boss. He once called senior Sunday Express executives to a meeting on a Friday afternoon, when the paper's week was reaching its climax, to discuss his idea for a supplement on the European Community.

Originally the meeting was scheduled for Invesco's office, but was finally switched to Blackfriars where, like a latter-day meeting of the Brains Trust, they spent two hours discussing how Britain came to enter the EC.

The papers have given him immense influence within the Tory Party. He is not afraid of sharing his thoughts with readers. Early in 1990 he wrote an article spitting venom at Michael Heseltine, in the run-up to what became the exit of Margaret Thatcher.

But, like Maxwell, his political instincts are not always sound, nor are his forecasting powers the best advertisement for Cambridge, where he read economics. Having disposed of Heseltine, Stevens opined that 'the economy should be back on track well before' Mrs Thatcher might call an election in May 1992. Wrong prime minister, wrong election date, wrong state of the economy.

Investors are less forgiving. He does not have much longer to start getting something right.

(Photograph omitted)