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Giant of the small screen: Profile: Michael Green

The media-shy boss of Carlton Television has made his share of enemies. By David Bowen
Michael Green is Britain's best-known media-shy tycoon. The most powerful man in television does what he can to shun his own medium, and all the others as well. He gives precious few interviews and refused point blank to co-operate with the Financial Times' Raymond Snoddy on a biography.

The trouble is, Green operates in an industry where people like to talk and where a good few have received their P45s from him. Snoddy wrote his book anyway (Greenfinger, published by Faber & Faber), providing an ample diet of Green's past and peccadilloes.

Even so, he is not well-known among the public. He has a forgettable name, shared by the man who ran Radio Four until recently. And he does not fly round the world in balloons like Richard Branson. Forty-nine tomorrow, he still has soft eyes and a melodic voice, but he would hardly stand out in a crowd.

Where he does excel is in his industry. He was an outsider who battered his way into the establishment and is now so important that he is almost, but not quite, part of it. Last weekend he whisked Westcountry Television from under the nose of United News and Media - the Express group - tweaking a few sensibilities as he went.

Carlton Communications, the company Green chairs, is by far the biggest commercial television operator in the country. It holds the London weekday franchise and owns Central in the Midlands as well as Westcountry. It is the biggest producer of programmes - its subsidiary Zenith makes Inspector Morse. It is also involved in the technical side: it owns Technicolor, which processes films and churns out duplicated videos.

Carlton's turnover was pounds 1.58bn in 1995, with pre-tax profit of pounds 247m and market capitalisation of pounds 2.8bn. Green owns only 2.3 per cent, having issued vast amounts of paper to finance acquisitions and keep himself in cigars and cars. In 1989 he sold a 20 per cent stake for pounds 10.7m, which contributed to his pounds 100m fortune. He used to believe it was possible to keep control without having a large shareholding. Now he does not. His greatest regret, according to a recent Guardian interview, was "reducing my stake below 50.1 per cent". He has already been ousted from the chairmanship of ITN and came within a whisker of losing his Carlton post in 1990.

Green's grandparents came from the Ukraine and his father built a successful shirt-making business. Like many London Jewish boys, he was sent to Haberdashers' Aske's School. His academic career was undistinguished and he left school at 17, soon starting a business with his elder brother David. Their company, Tangent, offered a direct mail service to estate agents. It was modestly successful and made its first takeover, of the Facsimile Letter Printing Company, when Michael was 23.

He married Janet Wolfson, of the Great Universal Stores family, and in 1973 bought one of GUS's assets, a photographic studio called Carlton. The brothers spent the Seventies building Tangent, frequently taking time off to play backgammon in the offices of another small Jewish company, Saatchi & Saatchi.

In the late Seventies they bought their first printing company - though Michael had decided even then that he wanted to get into television. With excellent timing, Tangent Industries floated in 1983 and only two years later Green - whose brother had slipped out of the mainstream - stunned the media world by bidding for Thames Television. During the bid, which he gave up after the Independent Broadcasting Authority objected, his strengths and weaknesses became clear.

The bid was bold, because no-one else had thought of trying to buy an ITV company part way through a franchise period. Green realised that he just needed an agreement with two major shareholders, Thorn and BET, who both wanted to sell. They agreed a price but Green lost out through a strange mixture of over-aggression and over-caution. He pulled all the strings he could: his cousin Stuart Young, the BBC's chairman, rang the IBA chairman to support the bid. But when the IBA said no, he withdrew despite urgings from colleagues to call the authority's bluff.

This mix of aggression and caution is part of Green's complex character. He is also nasty and nice. Most people like Green when they meet him and some continue to do so. But many become disenchanted, especially when they discover his view of an agreement and theirs do not coincide. An ex-manager of a company taken over by Green, who left in unhappy circumstances, brims with bitterness. "He promised each of the directors what they wanted to get them to agree to the takeover," he says. "He can be very charming and plausible, or he can be an absolute four-letter man if he wants to be."

Green is, to a coin a cliche, a paradox. The bitter former manager says he could show genuine kindness and sympathy, yet treat people abominably, screaming at them in public and dismissing them without ceremony. He has a mind like a computer, yet his judgment is sometimes poor - his relentless use of his many Jewish and other contacts has created much ill will. And he is flash - he loves parties and fast cars - and retiring, at least from the press. Jeananne Crowley, his lover in the late Eighties, said there are only two things Green fears: poverty and personal publicity.

If we are looking for a single reason for his success, it is a boring one. "He is a wizard at the balance sheet," the ex-manager says. "Everything in our company was measured all the time, so for the first time we knew where we were making profits." In other words, Green was just another Eighties-style accountant - in mentality if not qualification.

In 1987 he finally cracked the television network, buying Ladbroke's 20 per cent stake in Central Television: he had passed a note to Ladbroke's chairman Cyril Stein on Concorde suggesting the deal. That year he bought Central's subsidiary Zenith, turning Carlton into the biggest independent production company in Britain. That year, Green was included in a meeting with Margaret Thatcher about the future of ITV, and the next year a White Paper proposed that licences should thenceforth be sold to the highest bidder. It was the green light for Green's broadcasting ambitions.

Two years later he bought Technicolor, the American film processing and duplicating company, for $780m. Even his closest colleagues were worried about the high price, but Green had got it right: the retail video market was about to boom and Technicolor has since been a steady generator of cash.

In 1990 the City started to fall out of love with Carlton, because it was seen as an "Eighties ephemera". The share price fell by 36 per cent in six months, helped on its way by analysts' suspicions about Green's investor relations manager - his new fiancee. The recession hit sales and Green's position at Carlton looked precarious after institutions gathered to examine its weaknesses in detail.

But this did not dent his ambition to become a broadcaster. In 1990 he just failed to buy TVS and later that year almost clinched a deal with Thames. In the great franchise battle of 1991, Carlton beat Thames for the London weekday slot and succeeded, after much manoeuvring, in getting a stake in the winning breakfast TV consortium, GMTV.

These franchises left Green at the centre of the new ITV establishment, a position burnished by his chairmanship of ITN. His next coup came in November 1993, when the Government announced changes in the law to enable a company to own two franchises and have stakes in others. Less than a week later, Green bought Central for pounds 758m, making Carlton by far the biggest ITV company and himself the most powerful man in British television.

But he is not as secure as he would like. His low personal shareholding has made him vulnerable and in January 1995 he was voted out of his ITN job. Analysts remain worried about Carlton and there is a feeling that it may not have long term staying power. On the other hand, much the same has been said about all fast-growing media companies - not least Mr Murdoch's News Corporation.