Profile: The man on top of the box: Cash may be king at Carlton, but Michael Green is still the boss, writes Nick Gilbert
Sunday 31 January 1993
It's exhausting stuff. The energetic (and thin) couple must have read Carlton's winning franchise application - 'no broadcasting service can stand still creatively or technically' - which helped it to oust Thames TV from the London weekday contract. The duo are indeed, in the spirit of the application, a constant 'moving target in the pursuit of quality'.
They may even remind Green, who made the headlines last week with an 87 per cent pay rise to pounds 520,000, of his reputation at north London parties when he was a schoolboy at Haberdashers' Aske's public school. Otherwise he failed to shine, which cannot have impressed his father Cyril, a successful businessman who ran the Tern shirts company, nor Irene, his pyschologist mother.
Almost as famous as the Princess of Wales for his lack of academic credentials, the 45-year-old Green has proved himself an emeritus professor in the University of Life. Carlton TV, which won its franchise through a hefty pounds 43m-a-year bid, is merely the most visible part of Carlton Communications. The footprints from his elegant loafers are all over television.
Carlton owns 20 per cent of Central TV, which paid just pounds 2,000 to keep its Midlands franchise. Central gives Green an indirect stake in Meridian, which won the new franchise in the South. Carlton also has 20 per cent of GMTV, which won the breakfast television contract.
In little more than a decade, Green has assembled, largely via the pounds 1bn takeovers of UEI, the electronics group, and Technicolor in California, a company that is now valued on the stock market at more than pounds 1.5bn. His own stake is worth more than pounds 41m.
A tallish handsome man with greying dark hair, he enjoys his money. He runs a fleet of luxury cars, and lives during the week in a Mayfair mews house virtually next door to poker chum Gerald Ratner. The weekends are spent in a beautiful mill house in Berkshire. He has excellent taste in furniture and 20th-century art, which he collects avidly, if not on the Gulbenkian scale of Charles Saatchi, another old friend and poker player. But unlike the laid-back Saatchi, Green's taste runs to single-breasted suits. The image is corporate City, not media Groucho Club.
The communications giant he has built is a textbook example of vertical integration. Behind the screen, Carlton makes commercials and its Zenith offshoot produces programmes, including the Inspector Morse series.
The UEI acquisition involved Carlton in hi- tech imaging special effects for video, television and films. Techicolor produces video for the big Hollywood studios, notably Disney, and also owns a north Hollywood film lab.
For a man who is now in pole position to dominate the future of British commercial television, networking started early. The first Mrs Green was Janet Wolfson, daughter of the immensely wealthy Lord Wolfson, of the Great Universal Stores family. Green, then running a small printing and photographic company, was given the job of turning out many of the millions of GUS catalogues. Another side benefit was getting to know David Young, Janet's cousin, later a property developer and much later, as Lord Young, the Tory minister who helped set up the now infamous Broadcasting Act - from which Green has done so well.
Now he knows everybody in television. Michael Grade, the Channel 4 boss, made the main speech at Green's lavish marriage to his second wife, Tessa Buckmaster, a former employee, who has recently produced a brother for his two daughters by Janet Wolfson. Other friends include Alan Yentob, head of BBC 2, and film executive Linda Agran, who helped produce Minder.
'Michael is charming and relaxing to be around,' Ms Agran says. 'If you are invited to dinner, you don't have to put on your best frock and you can expect a good meal and plenty to drink. And unlike other men of money and power, he likes the company of intelligent women and doesn't talk down.'
There are few in television who will say a bad word against Green. 'I like Michael very much, though I've no doubt he might be difficult and demanding to work for,' says Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of LWT, whose business links with Carlton are about as close as current legislation permits. 'He is very bright indeed and I wouldn't play poker with him, because I'd lose.'
Those who have played and lost are less flattering. 'Michael can be absolutely charming but a tyrant with those who work for him,' says a former employee. 'He has a raging temper and can shout and scream, but he would probably say he lets it all out and avoids a heart attack.'
There is a long list of senior staff who have fallen out with Green. Mike Luckwell, who sold his Moving Picture Company commercials outfit to Carlton, quit and sold his pounds 25m of Carlton shares. Bob Phillis of ITN used to work for Green, but as soon as a Green consortium came to the rescue of the financially strapped company, Phillis announced he was off to the BBC as John Birt's deputy director-general.
The simple truth is that there is room for only one boss at Carlton. Green's elder brother David, who helped him start the company, stepped down as an executive director two years ago to concentrate on running the upmarket decoration company Colefax and Fowler. Michael Grade is said to have turned down a pounds 1m signing-on fee to run Carlton TV, opting to stay with Channel 4 even though his famous 'golden handcuffs' were only pounds 500,000.
There is no room for employees, however senior, who go over budget. Green runs a small head office where cash is king. All the divisions report weekly financial figures to him and his managing director, Keith Edelman, recruited from Ladbroke. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that the 13-year-old Green was better able to read a balance sheet than interpret Shakespeare; another was that his father gave him a fixed sum of pocket money once a year and when that was gone the well was dry. It was an early lesson in cash flow.
Some say he runs Carlton like a private company. His huge pay rise was awarded by a three-man remuneration committee of the main board - which included Green himself. But Green is not on the audit committee, which is about to be beefed up by the considerable presence of Sir Derek Birkin, chairman of RTZ, who is nobody's idea of a pushover.
This is of some importance in the media world, in which seemingly arcane business and auditing practices are rife. Few Carlton shareholders are aware, for example, that the power of the Hollywood studios is so great that Carlton has to pay millions up-front to win contracts to produce their videos. The money is treated in the balance sheet as an asset, on the basis that lots of money will flow back later as it churns out the product. To the uninitiated it looks more like an exercise in turning a cost into a benefit. Carlton says the treatment is normal and the money invested winning the contract is like buying a machine tool, with its cost amortised by future profits.
If Sir Derek is no fool, neither is Green. 'He is a tough, clever negotiator,' recalls Sir Peter Michael, who built up UEI before selling the quoted company to Carlton. 'He has a clear idea of where he is going and he won't let anything stand in his way. He has an excellent chance of success.'
That goal, more or less baldly stated by Green, is to help erase remaining restrictions on takeovers among the ITV companies. He wants big companies such as Carlton to swallow up lots of other ITV companies and cut costs. Carlton TV already shares facilities with LWT, and one jointly owned news service provides London news for the two 'rivals' for advertising money.
There can be little doubt that Green would also like, at some point, to consolidate all those ITV cross-holdings. Business associates agree. Lord Hollick, the City's best-known Labour peer, who chairs Meridian, says: ' There is a powerful economic argument for consolidation in ITV. Why should the TV companies be under a set of takeover rules which don't apply to other companies?' (For the answer, see the Tory press barons).
Like his chum Ratner, Green knows what it is to be crucified in the City. But unlike Ratner, who suffered from making a half-decent joke about his jewellery, Green must be the only businessman around whose use of the word 'respectable' got him into enormous trouble.
Throughout the 1980s, Carlton was one of the City's wonder stocks, with the shares racing to nearly pounds 10 in 1989, on the back of profits that had soared to pounds 112m from just pounds 3.5m in 1983. To the shock of the City, which was expecting a further spectacular leap, Green chose 'respectable' in forecasting his next profit figure.
Carlton shares fell to little more than 300p in a few months, and his holding plunged from pounds 50m to pounds 15m.
In the event, profits took a severe tumble only in 1991, when the recession hit and Carlton turned in pounds 89m before tax. Since then the shares have recovered strongly to 774p and Carlton's profits are expected to hit pounds 128m this year. Even so, earnings of 42.3p a share will still be way off the 53.2p earned in 1989.
Green has to prove once again that Carlton is a quality stock. Whether he can show he is as committed to high-quality TV as strongly as the profitable kind is less clear. Carlton's biggest success after a month of broadcasting is Dave Allen. The Irish stand-up is still a big draw - though he is not as funny as when Green was a young man - and his presence hardly represents the 'highly original' choice of series of which Carlton boasted in its franchise application.
According to cynics, Carlton wrested its franchise from Thames only because Thames had dared to infuriate Margaret Thatcher with its Death on the Rock investigation into the Gibraltar shootings of IRA members. Carlton Television, in contrast, has carefully cultivated the powers-that-be. It has found a place on its board for Lord Armstrong, the former Cabinet Secretary who shot to fame when the Thatcher government tried to suppress the Spycatcher revelations in the UK. And whatever the bottom line, the shoddy quality of some of Carlton's programmes has led some viewers to question whether Carlton is a worthy successor to Thames. The Good Sex Guide is just one facet of its apparent enthusiasm to pander to the lowest common denominator in its programmes. On the other hand, after only a few weeks on air, the shortcomings at Carlton TV may be no more than teething troubles. For millions of viewers in London, Green's commitment to quality television is still on trial.
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