Profile; The man who would be a mogul

The inspiration behind Britain's newest broadsheet paper is preparing to launch his guerrilla force. Patrick Tooher reports; Tom Rubython
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The Independent Online
TOM RUBYTHON'S chauffeur-driven Jaguar Sovereign takes 15 minutes to crawl the short distance from the Cavendish Square offices of Sunday Business, Britain's newest national newspaper, through the usual London log-jam to his top-floor mews flat near Baker Street.

We could have walked it in half the time, and he is already half an hour late for the interview, but foot-slogging around W1 is not what a wannabe media mogul should be seen doing. First impressions are everything and he wants to be taken seriously.

Rubython is a driven man in other ways, too. He yearns for membership of that exclusive club of national press barons, a select band of half a dozen proprietors whose views in this multimedia age still dictate what readers digest over breakfast or on the train into work.

His latest publishing vehicle is Sunday Business, a six-section, 200- page broadsheet due to be launched next month with target sales of 150,000 - just 40,000 less, Rubython notes, than the Financial Times sells daily in this country. Despite clear evidence that the newspaper market is in long-term if gentle decline, Rubython retains a robust faith in the commercial viability of his new venture.

"We are a newspaper nation," he asserts, warming to his theme by bouncing his pint-sized frame up and down on the sofa. "We are the highest per capita consumers of newspapers in the world. Television has become so fragmented with all these satellite and cable channels. Papers will come back strongly in five years' time because only they can deliver large numbers to advertisers."

And Rubython has no problem with the admission that Sunday Business will be no more than an additional read in an already crowded, and fiercely competitive, market: "Buying a newspaper on a Sunday is a habit. Business people will just add ours to the pile."

Indeed, he expects half of Sunday Business's readers to defect from the Sunday Times, the Rupert Murdoch-owned brand leader. A David and Goliath image is conjured up to illus- trate his point: "It's going to be a great battle between us and the Sunday Times. Rupert Murdoch will roll out his army, but what he'll find is a guerrilla force. He'll cut the cover price of the Sunday Times but it is not going to work."

Sunday Business will even break the mould of newspaper publishing. "We will be the first specialist newspaper," he proclaims, "and we will be fol-lowed by a dedicated Sunday sports newspaper."

This starry-eyed vision of the future is not widely shared by hard-nosed investors in the City and elsewhere in the newspaper and advertising worlds. Plans to float Business Newspapers, publisher of Sunday Business, on the AIM junior stock market as part of a pounds 12m fund-raising exercise ahead of the launch have had to be dropped for the time being after they encountered a cool response from potential investors, though Rubython says the float could yet be resurrected. They are concerned that newspapers are old media still reeling from the twin blows of sky-high newsprint prices and the Murdoch-inspired price war launched 18 months ago.

Undeterred, Rubython is ploughing ahead. He says he has 65 journalists lined up, while initial funding for the project is thought to have come from Nigel Jagger, the Jersey-based financier who backed Rubython when he set up Business Age magazine four years ago. The title was sold last year to Dutch publisher VNU for a reported pounds 3m. Rubython says other backers have pledged financial support, but he declines to say who they are or how much they have committed.

Sunday Business is Rubython's first flirtation with newspapers. The son of a successful sailing boat distributor, Rubython left technical college in his home town of Northampton with little idea of what to do with himself - his only publishing experience was limited to running the school magazine.

After setting up a sales and marketing business, he launched and edited his first publication, Marketeer, in 1981, aged just 25. The title was sold to Centaur Communications, Rubython using the proceeds in 1984 to set up Amusement Business, a magazine specialising in the fruit machine industry. Four years later it was re-launched as Leisure Week, which was sold to Centaur in 1990. Rubython was left with Marcus Publishing, a Business Expansion Scheme holding company which went into receivership in 1991, owing creditors pounds 1.5m.

In typical fashion, Rubython bounced back in no time to set up Management Week. Its majority shareholder was Paul Judge, the former Conservative party director-general who made a fortune selling the Premier Brands foods business for pounds 310m three years after negotiating a pounds 97m management buy- out. The title, launched as a monthly, was meant to become a British version of Forbes but quickly acquired a controversial reputation, attracting writs from a wide variety of personalities. Faced with mounting legal costs, a growing credibility problem and sagging sales as recession deepened, Judge and venture capitalist partner Richard Koch took the helm to try and tone down the content. Rubython was booted upstairs.

But Rubython continued to write for the magazine, under the nom de plume William Barrett, complete with a photo by-line made up of two different faces. Differences with Judge proved irreconcilable and when no agreement could be reached on the value of Rubython's stake, Management Week was liquidated in December 1991 with debts of pounds 1.2m.

Remarkably, within just eight weeks Rubython was back, announcing plans for a new monthly magazine. Early issues of Business Age bore an uncanny similarity to Management Week in production style and editorial content. This time, though, Rubython ensured he ran the show even if resources were thin and early sales were as low as 4,000. "It was like pushing water uphill," he remembers.

Sadly, there was one lesson Rubython refused to learn. "He thought you needed writs to get publicity," says Kevin Cahill, who worked closely with Rubython for several years on the title. "At Business Age he had a pounds 6,000-a-week budget for legal costs. He would send back the most abusive letters and 90 per cent of the time it worked. But when Business Age published a list of Britain's richest women, circulation soared to 24,000 and we received no writs."

Rubython is happy to defend his record. "I've never paid out more than pounds 5,000 on anything," he boasts, but acknowledges two outstanding libel cases against him from his time at Business Age involving Chelsea football club chairman Ken Bates and Kelvin MacKenzie, boss of cable channel L!VE TV and a former editor of The Sun.

Rubython's own by-line is conspicuous by its absence from the latest dummy issue of Sunday Business, suggesting the editor may want to adopt a slightly lower editorial profile than before. Nevertheless, the paper is full of references to Business Age. The magazine section, Business & Fortune, is mischievously named after the holding company that owned Business Age and includes several tongue-in-cheek allusions to Rubython himself. An interview with Stephen Glover, one of the founders of the Independent and first editor of the Independent on Sunday, quotes him as saying of his former partner, Andreas Whittam Smith: "Normal, well- adjusted people don't launch newspapers."

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the unorthodox Rubython as an English eccentric whose latest grandiose scheme is bound to end in tears.

"He is one of the most talented editor/ publishers of his generation," says Kevin Cahill. "He is in the mould of a classic British newspaper proprietor like Beaverbrook and Northcliffe. They all traded on the margin and took short cuts at the start. There is a serious danger that Tom will succeed."