The incumbent in 1975 was Tim Hely Hutchinson. Contemporaries remember him as a fastidious young man, cultured, a bit fogeyish, almost effete. An Old Etonian and the son of an earl, he was seen at all the right undergraduate parties. He liked Flaubert and adored George Eliot's Middlemarch.
Could this be the same Hely Hutchinson who now publishes Bride of the Slime Monster and the Rothmans Football Yearbook? The man who will this autumn deliver to a voracious reading public the Hello] cookbook and Cilla Black's illustrated autobiography?
The very same, say his rivals with glee, relishing the incongruity. But there is more jealousy than disdain in their voices. For Hely Hutchinson last week clinched the publishing deal of a lifetime. His company, Headline Book Publishing, seven years old and barely out of short trousers, announced it had successfully wooed the venerable house of Hodder & Stoughton, which this year celebrates its 125th anniversary. Headline was to buy the much larger Hodder for pounds 49m in cash and shares. The enlarged group would be renamed Hodder Headline.
Hodder's appeal lay in its backlist - the rights to previously published titles that can be wheeled out again and again at minimum cost. It is a treasure trove: every John le Carre since 1971; 23 titles by Stephen King; classics by Dorothy Sayers and Ian Fleming; every Famous Five and Secret Seven title by Enid Blyton; the Asterix books; and an unparalleled stable of religious writers, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Rabbi Lionel Blue. There were also attractive new works in the pipeline, including le Carre's The Night Manager, due out this month, and Terry Waite's Taken on Trust, an account of his years as a hostage, due in the autumn.
The deal was seen as a coup for Hely Hutchinson. Publishing giants such as Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Transworld have all cast hungry eyes at Hodder's mouthwatering list. When Headline shares were relisted on Friday, they rocketed by 115p to 405p, increasing the value of Headline's paper offer for Hodder from pounds 49m to pounds 68m - and incidentally lifting Hely Hutchinson's personal stake to pounds 2.5m, plus lucrative options.
When 50 of the 160 descendants of Matthew Hodder, who founded the business with Thomas Stoughton in 1868, met privately at Brown's Hotel in London last month, they were virtually unanimous in agreeing to Hely Hutchinson's offer. Here was a way of realising some value and giving the business access to needed capital, but without selling out to a conglomerate.
And when distant cousins picked up the threads after the meeting, the warm glow they felt might not have come solely from the wine and sandwiches. The Headline offer valued each Hodder share at pounds 108.75 (and since Friday pounds 151.87) - not bad, considering they were changing hands eight months earlier for less than pounds 10.
But try as they may to portray the deal as a merger of equals, it is Hely Hutchinson who remains firmly in the driving seat as chief executive, with his father, the Earl of Donoughmore, as chairman. Hodder shareholders are diluted to less than 30 per cent of the enlarged group.
Philip Attenborough, chairman of Hodder, steps down to become deputy chairman of Hodder Headline. His chief executive, Patrick Wright, becomes deputy chief executive. Attenborough says of Hely Hutchinson: 'He's a man of extraordinary energy, ability and enthusiasm. And in conjunction with Patrick Wright, they'll make a formidable duo.'
Hely Hutchinson, still only 39, has carved a reputation out of all proportion to the modest size of Headline, which last year had sales of just pounds 16m. He set up the business in 1986 with family money and venture capital, bringing with him two colleagues from his old employer, Macdonald.
One of them, Sue Fletcher, recalls the early days in their office near Harrods, when she bid pounds 40,000 at auction for the UK and Commonwealth rights to a book called Watchers by the horror writer Dean Koontz. 'I remember having sweaty palms when I made the pounds 40,000 bid.' She need not have worried. It sold half a million copies. Koontz is now one of the best-selling authors in the English language, with 90 million copies of his books. Headline subsequently bought his backlist and now has 30 Koontz titles.
She says of Hely Hutchinson: 'His great strength is his combination of business skills, marketing skills and editorial enthusiasm. You very rarely find these three things in one person.'
It's a view echoed elsewhere on Grub Street. His success has been built on two pillars: recognition that authors were increasingly fed up with the offhand service of mainstream publishers, and an understanding that the profitable and fastest- growing sector of consumer book publishing was decidedly low-brow. As one rival put it: 'You won't find any of Hely Hutchinson's authors winning the Booker. He focuses on the C1s and C2s.'
According to Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors: 'He hit a chord at the right time, when authors were getting discontented with the impersonal nature of conglomerates, who were cutting back on editorial staff. Authors want to be nurtured and cared for and Hely Hutchinson was shrewd enough to realise that.' The society voted Headline the best large publisher last year.
Another industry watcher says: 'It was all good commonsense stuff. He focused on a particular range - W H Smith rather than Waterstone's. He led from the front. The atmosphere at Great Tichfield Street (where Headline later moved) was terrific. Everyone was highly motivated. Editors were left to get on with it, so long as they kept within budget.
There were a few mistakes. In a moment of budgetary zeal, Hely Hutchinson tried to ban the traditional long lunch, believing business could equally be transacted in alcohol-free office meetings. But most of his innovations, such as monthly rather than half-yearly statements telling authors about sales, were welcomed.
Headline grew rapidly, helped along the way with a few capital injections. It floated in 1991. Pre-tax profits had grown to more than pounds 2m by last year. Investors from the early days have now seen their money grow 30-fold.
Hely Hutchinson's upbringing offers some clues to his later career. The second of four sons, he spent holidays from his hated prep school at the family seat in County Tipperary, now a hotel. He loved Eton, where he edited the school magazine and acquired his characteristic self-assurance. 'I know Etonians are all expected to be arrogant sods, but it's a by-product of the confidence training they give you.'
At Magdelen, Oxford, he gave up politics, philosophy and economics after the first year, unable to summon up the same passion for the subject that he saw in fellow students. He switched to French and philosophy. And then there was Isis. 'I knew I wanted to be in journalism or publishing. I realised I was capable of writing neatly, but I was not an inspired writer.' Tellingly, his proudest achievement with the magazine was that in his term as editor, the overdraft was cleared and it made a modest profit.
He joined Macmillan as a graduate trainee. He worked on the publicity side, occasionally rubbing shoulders with authors such as Joyce Grenfell and Muriel Spark. He spent two years in the Melbourne office in Australia, returning to become marketing manager of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a thumping 20-volume work, which helped fuel his interest in opera.
In 1982 Robert Maxwell headhunted him to become marketing director of his loss-making book publishing arm, Macdonald. Within six weeks he was offered the job of managing director. He was 28, and in charge of 150 people. 'I was very ambitious,' he says. 'Suddenly Robert Maxwell came along and offered me all I could want. He told me I could either accept the job or pick up my P45. I was as terrified as anyone. My mother cried.'
He stayed for three years, turning the business round. By year three, however, Maxwell - something of a fan - was asking him to write his speeches and answer his correspondence. 'I became a victim of my own success with him.' It was then he decided to leave to found Headline.
He is single-minded about making a success of the business. According to one associate: 'He's a driven man. He's got one overwhelming interest in life and that is to build the business. He doesn't feel comfortable unless he's on top of everything. He likes meeting authors, but he doesn't suffer fools gladly.' Another says, despite his cuddly teddy bear appearance: 'There's a sharp, abrasive side to him.'
It is his ability to attend to detail that singles him out from most publishers. Meeting dozens of institutional investors over the last two weeks, he impressed them most by having all the financial facts at his fingertips, a facility not expected of publishers. He won industry plaudits in March when he addressed a private meeting, attended by Peter Brooke, the National Heritage Secretary, and articulately argued against VAT on books.
He is unmarried and has little time for outside pursuits. But his silver Alfa Romeo is sometimes to be seen at the racetrack. He owns a share of a horse, Flaming Miracle.
A few publishing sceptics believe that will precisely describe his achievement if he manages the smooth absorption of sleepy Hodder into lively Headline. They say the intimate personal service on which Headline built its reputation is bound to suffer, and that a lot of Hodder heads will have to roll.
But the majority view is that Hely Hutchinson will succeed. The obvious parallel is Anthony Cheetham, the Old Etonian who worked for Robert Maxwell and then founded a small publisher, Century, which took over a much bigger one, Hutchinson. He later sold out to the US giant Random House.
As one industry watcher said of the Hodder deal, 'This is a big meal to digest. It's going to be an uncomfortable few years. But if anyone can do it, it is Tim Hely Hutchinson.'