Business View: The sun set on Emap when its brightest stars slipped through its fingers

A decade ago, Emap was considered to be the best managed media company in Britain. With the dynamic duo of chief executive Robin (now Sir Robin) Miller and managing director David Arculus, along with a reservoir of bright young talent, it gained a reputation for not only making the right strategic decisions, but also executing them with a heady mixture of verve and cost effectiveness. Magazines such as Smash Hits and Q opened up new audiences; radio stations such as Kiss changed listening habits; and Emap's constantly stellar returns had the City's eyes popping.

But then, slowly but surely, the wheels started coming off the Emap wagon. Some point to the disastrous US adventure, which cost the group over £500m, but in truth the decline of Emap can be traced to a board meeting in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, in 1996. Then a deal to sort out the future management structure of Emap was bodged. Rather than dealing with the simmering issue of how to accommodate the ambitions of Mr Arculus while keeping Mr Miller involved with the company as he approached retirement, Emap's board decided that the younger of the two architects of its success was dispensable.

Since 1996, Emap has lost both Mr Arculus and Mr Miller - who became chairman but then had to return as emergency chief executive after the resignation of the man blamed for the US debacle, Kevin Hand. Along with Mr Hand we've seen the departure of David Grigson, the finance director; David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, the brains behind the success of Emap's consumer magazine business (and the turning of Heat from a failing title to one of the publishing sensations of recent years); Mike Souter, the editor who transformed FHM into a massive money-spinner; and now Tim Schoonmaker, who masterminded Emap's successful move into radio. Mr Schoonmaker's departure may, or may not, be related to the decision by Emap's current chief executive, Tom Maloney, to foist a deputy on him in the shape of Marcus Rich, who is rather close to Mr Maloney.

Emap likes to grow its own talent, but faced with such a brain drain it is surprising that it has recruited only one top executive from outside the group - finance director Gary Hughes. I'm sure MR Maloney is a brilliant media boss, but a once enviable management team is now looking a little thin on top.

Standard Life isn't finished yet

If an award were given for stating the bleedin' obvious, then it would go to Hewitt Bacon & Woodrow for telling us that rising stock markets are cutting pension fund deficits and could soon eliminate most of them. But this warning has a serious point, one that has a bearing on the bitter row between Standard Life and the Financial Services Authority.

Between March 2000 and March 2003, world stock markets suffered one of the longest and deepest bear phases in recent history. But since March, the FTSE 100 has risen a reassuring 36 per cent, refloating many a lost investment fund and filling in large holes in company pension funds.

At the Canary Wharf home of the FSA, the bear market has been vexing the regulator. Stung by the collapse of Equitable Life, it has been working on a new way of assessing how healthy life assurance companies are. Its "realistic reporting" regime is an honest attempt to grasp what has been a particularly stinging nettle.

Standard Life, though, is rather unhappy about its application, not least because it cuts the cushion of capital the Edinburgh mutual claims to have for a rainy day from £5.6bn to £2.5bn. This worry that Standard could be running out of the readies has had policyholders rushing to their phones to get reassurance, and the City salivating over the possibility that a committed mutual will finally have to give up its principles and either float or put itself up for sale.

However, may I point out that the row is concerned with Standard's financial position at the end if its last financial year, which was more than three months ago. The stock market has risen nearly a tenth since then, and as the vast majority of Standard's £90bn of funds under management are in equities, this will bolster its finances no end.

I have to declare an interest here - I am a Standard Life policyholder. I'm not worried about its financial situation. This is a technical row, not one that should spill over into headlines.

j.nisse@independent.co.uk

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