'He's the kindof man who can be rude to waiters,' sighs one acquaintance. 'It makes me cringe sometimes. It's a very unendearing characteristic and I wonder what he is trying to prove by it.'
A noted bon viveur, Irvine appears at his happiest wining and dining celebrities such as David Frost, or entertaining the great and good at his Kensington home.
Yet hoi polloi rarely benefit from such gregariousness. He seems to make little effort to put lesser beings at their ease, snapping tetchily if displeased. 'Sullen' was the typical verdict of analysts meeting the new co-chairman of the publishing giant Reed Elsevier last week.
There are those who interpret his brusqueness as the defensive reaction of a reserved man who began at the bottom and has had to battle his way to the top.
'I think he is genuinely shy and that's how his shyness comes across,' says a colleague. 'Ian wants to see himself as the bluff northerner who speaks his mind.'
Yet the accuracy of such assessments is difficult to gauge, especially for journalists. He refuses to be interviewed about matters personal or to provide clues as to his motivations or ambitions. 'If they build you up, they'll pull you down,' he has been heard to observe.
His 'official' biography eschews personal facts almost entirely; there are no details of where he was born, no information about his family or background. Most of it is a litany of qualifications and appointments.
The only chink appears in the list of 'other activities': he is, it transpires, a former chairman of the British Sub-Aqua Club. He is rumoured to be fond of pursuing this rather unexpected hobby (he is short and rather round of physique) in the balmy waters of the Pacific - Noelle, his wife, is a 'gorgeous and very intelligent' Australian, says an acquaintance.
But such skimpy glimpses apart, Irvine maintains as blank a public front as he can get away with, protecting his boundaries with the fierce determination of a rottweiler.
His irritation is palpable, for instance, when questioned about the huge pay-off to be offered to Peter Davis, his predecessor, whose shock departure from Reed six weeks ago stunned the City. 'Why are you asking me questions of something that happened in history? It's got nothing to do with the company or the results, which is why you're supposed to be here,' he barked last week. Shareholders might beg to differ. Davis, who was on a three- year contract, will receive an estimated pounds 800,000.
Yet Davis went under his own steam, resigning because of the set-up following the merger of Reed International, the UK company he headed, with Elsevier, the Dutch giant, 18 months ago.
It had been widely assumed that Davis would gather all the reins of power into his hands when Pierre Vinken, his Dutch co- chairman, retired next year. But the Elsevier camp was opposed to an all-powerful Anglo Saxon-style chief executive and insisted on a Continental-style, four-strong supervisory board.
This would have meant Davis and his Dutch opposite taking back-seat 'strategic' roles, while the other two board members handled day-to-day operations.
Disliking this collegiate approach, Davis quit and Irvine slipped immediately into his shoes. Ironic, given that much of the surrounding publicity stressed the way the austerely egalitarian attitudes of the Dutch half of the business had clashed with Davis's lavish and autocratic management style. For Irvine's own management style looks a lot closer to Davis's than to Vinken's.
His role in Davis's departure remains unclear, but he supports the pay-off, arguing that Davis deserves it because of the successful tripling of Reed's share price while he was at the helm and the fact he was 'one of the participants in what we consider a very successful merger'. But he declines to address the key issue of whether companies have the right to make ex gratia payments to their directors simply because they feel they have done well the job they were already paid a very large salary to do.
He offers instead the baffling observation: 'The use of the word 'resign' is a mutually agreed term relating to resignation. It usually indicates an evolution of change has gone on from the time of the first contract to the time of the termination.'
Unusually, the company plans to issue details of the exact sum it will pay Davis this week rather than, as is normal, in the annual report, shortly before the annual meeting next spring.
It says it is taking this step because it has been asked repeatedly. But it also means the heat is likely to have gone out of the issue by the time shareholders gather to quiz the board - and Irvine.
Irvine himself is said to relish his new job. 'I get the impression of a man who's reached his career objectives,' says a friend. 'It's such a vast job. He'll want to leave Reed in better shape than it's in - he will want Reed to bear the scars of his presence.' It is certainly possible to see his career to date as a preparation for running Reed.
He is an accountant by training - he spent 20 years with Touche Ross, one of the big accountancy firms. In 1982, he slipped smoothly into industry, when Lord Matthews offered him the job of managing director of Fleet Holdings, his Express Newspapers and Morgan Grampian magazines group.
Careful husbandry saw the pounds 13m value of Fleet explode - it was eventually bought by United Newspapers for pounds 317m in 1985.
Irvine then helped Paul Hamlyn to perform a similar trick with Octopus, the publisher. This time the buyer was Reed, which paid pounds 528m for the company, two years after Irvine took over as chief executive. Irvine moved to Reed with Octopus, running its book division until earlier this year.
His spell at Fleet had also opened the boardroom door to television - specifically to TV-am, the ill-fated morning broadcaster, where the newspaper group had a 34 per cent stake.
Irvine chaired the company for nearly three years until the role clashed with his subsequent chairmanship of the merged BSkyB. This came in 1990: Reed had a holding in the loss-making British Satellite Broadcasting, and the company was a key player in the forced marriage of BSB and Rupert Murdoch's Sky.
Reed's reluctance to participate in the subsequent BSkyB refinancing - with the benefit of hindsight a disastrous decision - and the group's subsequent sale of its holding put an end to Irvine's chairmanship in April 1991.
But he is still involved with Capital Radio, where he replaced Lord Attenborough as chairman in 1992, and he is said to have proved a force for good.
It is this cross-media exposure that raises one of the most intriguing questions about what he will make of Reed. After the nerve- racking exposure of its investment in BSB, Reed has determinedly stuck to its knitting.
Acquisitions have been firmly in the technical field, such as Official Airline Guides. The company has stressed its reluctance to move into the fast-changing world of electronic delivery systems.
Irvine is well placed to see the bigger picture, though. As well as his background in television and radio, he has a sound grasp of the hardware involved. Until his elevation, he was responsible for new technology at Reed - the group already has more than 250 experiments in electronic delivery up and running.
One way or another, Irvine is likely to make his mark on Reed. Whether the scars will be superficial or deep is impossible to guess.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content