Sly Bailey: Hands-on approach improves Mirror image

By Saeed Shah
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The Independent Online

Sly Bailey may be hobbling around on crutches, having broken her leg in three places, but that has not diminished her energy and determination to knock Trinity Mirror into shape.

Sly Bailey may be hobbling around on crutches, having broken her leg in three places, but that has not diminished her energy and determination to knock Trinity Mirror into shape.

A year after she took the chief executive job at Britain's biggest newspaper group, the results are showing through. She has proved to be a very active boss, and promises to transform Trinity Mirror.

"It's fair to say that we have a more interventionist approach to management. We are not a holding company," she says, referring to the previous regime at the company. "We want to make sure the businesses are aligned to group strategy and that there are clear performance expectations."

This week she presented the best operating results the company has seen since it was formed in 1999, through the merger of the Trinity regional newspapers with the Mirror Group of national tabloid titles.

Ms Bailey has a leg still in plaster. She fell down some steps after visiting a dentist in November. The break is very painful and she has a pin through her ankle. It meant that she had to work from home for two months. She is now back behind her desk and the results were accompanied by a flurry of further announcements.

Her reign at Trinity Mirror has been characterised by frank speaking about the company's past failures, injecting good common sense into group strategy and taking the Daily Mirror back to its populist tabloid roots.

She now has a following in the City and has even managed to bring round Tweedy Browne, the US shareholder that had previously been demanding the company sell off the Mirror. One seasoned City media analyst said: "Sly on crutches is better than most able-bodied men. With her in charge, maybe one day the whole could be worth more than the sum of parts."

Ms Bailey has ended the Mirror's disastrous price war with The Sun. And she has stopped what she calls the "destructive price competition" between the Scottish edition of the newspaper and the company's Daily Record "Scottish national". Group-wide costs have been cut, with 550 job losses announced so far. Titles in Northern Ireland have been sold off. The 12 print sites are being reorganised to make them more efficient. There is also a new magazine unit producing supplements for the company's national titles. Standards of best practice are being demanded across the regional paper groups.

"This is a start," she says. "The growth phase is yet to come. We are thinking about our longer-term growth options. What are core competences? How do we grow above and beyond what we have today?"

Ms Bailey says she has delved into every aspect of the company's business. She has made countless managers across the country explain what they do and how their market works.

There was a lot of scepticism about her appointment, given her lack of senior-level newspaper experience - she had made her name as the chief executive of IPC, the consumer magazine publisher.

Again, when she presented her strategy for the group in July last year, there was more scepticism, with one media commentator branding it an "awful lot of corporate waffle".

It is true that Ms Bailey does lapse into marketing speak at times, and she has not been able to stop the falling circulation at the company's most important title, the Daily Mirror. Her reliance on focus groups was also a shock for some.

However, what is striking, when she talks about what she has been doing at Trinity Mirror, is the extent to which she has got her hands dirty. She has also brought a whole new style of management to the company, where the disparate parts had never really engaged with the centre in the past.

Ms Bailey has toured every business centre in Trinity Mirror's huge stable of local and regional newspapers, travelling up and down the country. She has spoken to not just the top managers, but, in bigger gatherings, to some 4,000 of the company's 11,500 employees.

She has not just concentrated on the high-profile parts of the business. She believes the company must get the basics right, before it can progress. That means tackling printing, procurement and the supply chain.

"The company hadn't previously got the fundamental principles right," she says. Ms Bailey's arrival from a consumer magazine publisher led some to suppose that these less glamorous parts of the business would not be of great interest to her. However, it is clear she has spent a great deal of time and energy focusing on these dry matters.

"For the first time, this company is looking, holistically, at the supply chain. It just hadn't been done before," she says.

Ms Bailey, 42, worked her way up in the media industry and has acquired not only a sound grasp of the commercial side of the business but also an acute sense of what makes good editorial product.

She ended up in media more by accident than design. After leaving her south London Church of England grammar school, she drifted between different jobs, including a spell as a shop assistant, in a phase in her life that was about having fun, rather than a career.

Then, in 1984, she saw an advertisement for a sales position at The Guardian and got the job. She had discovered her vocation. She moved on to The Independent three years later but it was at IPC, which she joined in 1989, that her career really took off. Starting in sales again, she was then made managing director of the publisher's key television listings magazines. By 1999 she was the chief executive and led a management buyout. Sshe sold the business at a big profit to Time Warner just two years later.

Her magazine experience has shone through at Trinity Mirror. Most obviously she has taken direct control of the national papers and reorientated the Daily Mirror, the flagship title. Piers Morgan, the Mirror's editor, had tried to take the title upmarket and make it more serious. But she has brought it back to populist journalism - what she calls "seriously good tabloid journalism". Piers Morgan reports directly to her.

Ms Bailey denies that it is all her idea and that it is only the result of work with focus groups. "We have concentrated very hard on the stickiness of the [ Mirror] newspaper and the positioning is now broadly right. We have done this partly through research but we are not editing this newspaper by research, by focus groups."

She has made the editors of the national papers engage face-to-face with groups of readers on a quarterly basis. "This is not about what I thought. It is what the readers thought. I'm not always right," she says.

Not only has she ended the Mirror's price war with The Sun, but from next week, the price of the Mirror will increase3p to 35p, making it 5p more expensive than The Sun.

The price rise will not help the Mirror's sliding circulation, which dropped below 2 million for the first time last year. However, the entire newspaper market is in long-term decline and she says "the important thing is to maintain market share."

Ms Bailey believes that by giving readers more of what they want and providing a differentiated product (new magazine supplements have been launched) the nationals can raise cover prices - that is also the strategy with the local papers.

An ability to make decisions quickly, see them carried out, and deft management of people are the strengths that are singled out by people who have seen her operate. A revolution is underway at Trinity Mirror.