ME AND MY PARTNER: ROHAN COURTNEY AND JOHN MCEWAN
Rohan Courtney switched from banking to take the London chairmanship of West 175, a US TV production company founded by John McEwen, based in New Zealand. They are in publishing and merchandising and are taking MasterChef to the US
Wednesday 28 July 1999
It was the first of five company work-outs. I'd always had an interest in newspapers, but didn't think I'd be good in a big company: I've been the boss for so long. I didn't want a collection of non-executive directorships, but a contact said there was this guy who needed a chairman. I knew of nobody who had made it in America, but John had this huge reputation in public broadcasting.
When we met, I could tell that a chairman was the last thing John wanted. I'd seen him come to the door, then walk away before buzzing the buzzer. I thought, "What the hell is he doing?" When he came in, we were like a couple of warring bulls, waiting to see who would attack first. I listened to his story and said: "You've got a tiger by the tail - you can make this into something fantastic."
We had dinner and something clicked. Suddenly, we hit it off and there was an exciting relationship. I was the City connection, with a logical mind; he's very creative. I understood why he was suspicious. The ego thing had gone a long time ago, but we wanted this to be successful: a flat management structure and no politics.
It took five months to raise paltry amounts of money. John was stuck here: the benefit was that we got to know each other. We got to know the BBC as well. One thing about running an Australian bank is that you become used to time zones. E-mails are a lifesaver. I've never needed a nine- to-five existence, and can't stand going to an office.
Americans think long-term: they want 52 programmes for 10 years. You've got to prove it works before you start. That's why the BBC weren't able to sell their cookery programmes individually, but it was our idea to put it all into one and take away the British label. Middle Americans don't like swearing, booze, or talking about sex on TV, so you have to be terribly careful to produce homespun programmes that are going to last. Our first celebrity chef was Graham Kerr, the gadget man and the Galloping Gourmet.
John is incredibly enthusiastic; he not only knows his product but loves it. He's spent years commuting to the States, trying to break into a new market. You can get depressed when you realise you don't understand it at all. John got there through sheer perseverance, getting the public broadcasting stations to believe in him. These days, he doesn't even have to make a programme to get a slot.
In business you need to integrate to maximise. Disney started with cartoons, sold to the same audience through a theme park, then sold the concept again through merchandise. Media is really about that. In the 1970s, I was invited to talk to Rupert Murdoch: he said there would come a day when people paid for TV viewing, and media companies would look to groups with a common interest to get a message across. He had an absolutely clear vision.
People split their companies into divisions which don't talk to each other. But John and I talk all the time, and constantly push our view down everyone's throats. Everybody, whether making a programme or publishing a book, knows we are trying to sell a number of products on the back of it.
John is getting more relaxed: he rushes through things but he is so sincere. I have to translate his e-mails: he tends to miss out important words like "don't". My wife calls him my other half.
I'm good at motivating people but I don't particularly like them reporting to me, so they report to John. Sometimes people try to play us off, but it doesn't work because we're open and we talk on the phone every day. Though we're more than 10,000 miles apart, there are no worries about stabbings in the back. I sleep well knowing the company is in capable hands.
JOHN McEWEN: Television was a hobby for me; I saw no logic in having a career in New Zealand because there were no alternatives to working for the government corporation. America was a place you could carve out independence. In NZ, I broke all the rules.
I got experience by working with retailers, taking the rights to a consumer chemical product and launching that. Then I created a programme called This Is New Zealand, a wonderful wildlife documentary. That's how I started - buying advertising time, then getting a product deal. It opened me up to the lifestyle possibilities. I learnt how to survive, but it was frustrating because nobody knew what I was doing.
I did a show about travel, then started on food. I've delivered 900 shows across American television and I know what not to do; you can't treat the American market the same as others. It takes years to understand the dynamics. It's well organised and has specific rules. If you don't follow them to the letter, it won't work. I've seen companies go in saying, "I know what I'm doing", and that's a big mistake because those rules don't apply.
In Britain you go to a commissioning editor and get a deal. You can't do that in the US: it's a closed shop. Luckily, my background was in marketing and that made a big difference in my approach. You're working with people who are also trying to get in and will try to screw you. I've been screwed by the best of them. But I have such credibility now I hardly ever write deals down. You just say you want to do it, and people expect you to deliver
I saw an immense opportunity to serve a significant share of the leisure and lifestyle category. The company wasn't big enough to sustain that gestation, so I was looking around for the next tier of investment to grow the business. Rohan understood what I was trying to do because he didn't have his head in the sand.
I'd always chaired my own things, but I was told I had to have a local chairman. I said: "Over my dead body." I'd already bought out a former chairman, who saw the role as a major ego thing, and didn't understand what had to be done. I was warned having a chairman in London could be a disaster.
With Rohan, it was just right. He was quite comfortable with what I call informal reporting - being thousands of miles away. I knew what I wanted to do, but Rohan was entrenched in the City here and that meant he could do a lot of things I didn't have time to do - and do them better. You can't be a one-man band.
I've had other partners but they were hanging on my coat-tails. My asset has been my ideas. You can spend so much time worrying about what the other person is doing, it's counter-productive. Rohan brings years of working with the investment community, and brings respect for my ability into the marketplace. It's safe for me because I know the dynamics, so I'm able to plough myself in. We have multiple roles: he's chairman of the group, but he's also chairman of one of the companies that reports to me.
Rohan comes from a banking background, which he calls stuffy, but the good thing about media is that it combines finance, law, marketing, distribution and art. I am not a foodie, but I get very involved in the creation of our concepts with chefs. They are a different breed, like orchestral conductors. My focus is to make sure we lever every opportunity we've got, and don't miss out on the Internet explosion.
Rohan has also educated me about London and we've become good friends. He has admiration that I have been able to pull off activity in America, and respect for my judgement. I couldn't sleep at night if I thought someone was going behind my back. Neither of us has a hidden agenda. Both of us want to make this work.
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