Grade rules out early leisure acquisitions

John Conlon to quit top post at First Leisure as the former head of Channel 4 prepares to take executive control

Michael Grade ruled out an acquisition of Rank's film distribution arm yesterday as First Leisure, the owner of the Blackpool Tower, confirmed he was to become executive chairman in July replacing John Conlan, the company's chief executive. He refused to cast any more light on his ambitions for the pounds 500m leisure group, however, promising a continuation of the company's low profile strategy.

Mr Grade, who announced earlier this week that he would be leaving Channel 4, where he has been chief executive for nine years, said: "Anyone who expects radical change will be disappointed. This is about continuity, not change."

His comments came after he had been linked with reports that Rank planned to sell its film distribution subsidiary. Rank refused to comment on the speculation.

Mr Grade will overlap with Mr Conlan, who said yesterday he planned to improve his golf handicap after he left, probably at the end of 1997. Both insisted the handover was amicable and said Mr Grade's elevation from the non-executive position he had held since January 1995 was prompted by, not the cause of, Mr Conlan's decision to go.

The attempt to present the replacement of Mr Conlan by Mr Grade in those friendly terms was greeted with scepticism yesterday. Despite the united front the two presented, it has come as no surprise to observers that there was no room at the top for both men.

Mr Grade, whose uncle, the late Lord Delfont, bought First Leisure out of Trusthouse Forte in 1982, said the appointment of a chief executive was "an issue that may arise at some point". He refuted allegations that he was taking over the "family firm". Mr Conlan added: "If I were being winkled out, I would not be here today."

Mr Conlan is employed on a two-year contract and earned more than pounds 500,000 in 1995, the latest year for which salary information has been published.

Mr Grade denied that there would be any change of strategy at the company, which has been one of the leisure sector's most steady and, its critics claim, dullest businesses. It owns a collection of unrelated mass market leisure operations including bingo halls, marinas, nightclubs, and live music pubs.

Recent acquisitions have taken it into indoor skiing and it has been linked with several pub chains, although it has so far failed to acquire any. It has prided itself on its ability to continue increasing profits through the recession by organic growth rather than acquisition.

Mr Grade's move into mainstream business follows 23 years in broadcasting, most recently as chief executive of Channel 4, where he was instrumental in investing in a number of British films, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Trainspotting and Secrets and Lies.

He said Mr Conlan had first approached him just before Christmas to say he wanted to move on. That, Mr Grade said, had started him worrying that he might start to get stale himself at Channel 4. His tenure there had been his longest ever appointment in a career that started with a stint as a sports writer for the Daily Mirror.

Mr Grade refused to be drawn on what he might earn. He said: "I have never taken a job for the money. But I am not so self-effacing that I'm prepared to do it for nothing." Mr Grade is understood to have been tempted back into business by the sort of stock options that would not be available to him at Channel 4.

Comment, page 19

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