THE HILARY CLARKE INTERVIEW: ERIC NICOLI - From Jaffa Cakes to the Rolling Stones

The man known as Big Luigi to his friends is determined to prove the sceptics wrong as he takes over the reins at EMI
It wasn't much of a welcome. Even though he doesn't take up the job for another five months, the knives were out for Eric Nicoli, chairman designate at EMI, as soon as his appointment was announced. The share price of Britain's only music "major" fell 4.45 per cent through the week. There were jibes in some of the press lamenting the "lacklustre" appointment. The City, it was said, had been waiting for an industry big hitter, possibly from Hollywood, to follow in the footsteps of Sir Colin Southgate.

But the burly Nicoli, currently chief executive at United Biscuits, seems confident that he can ride the transition from selling Jaffa Cakes to selling Mick Jagger records. "All they have to do is give me a chance to join," he says.

Nicoli emphasises that the two men running EMI's recorded music and music publishing businesses, Ken Berry and Marty Bandier, are among the best in the business and his role will be to bring in the necessary financial and management skills. "I'll deliver and those who are sceptical presumably will be persuaded and those who have been abusive will presumably go into hiding and those who think its a good idea will presumably feel good about themselves."

EMI's troubles have been well documented, exaggerated even as falling world record sales globally hit the company's profits. The third largest music company in the world, its share price had been feeling the strain long before Nicoli's appointment. Then, like a bolt out of the blue, came the takeover of EMI's biggest rival PolyGram by Seagram. This fuelled speculation that EMI too may be about to drop like a ripe fig into the clasps of another media giant. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation has been cited as a suitor although EMI denies any talks have been taking place. BMG of Germany, another name in the frame, says it doesn't want to buy EMI. The speculation at least boosted EMI stocks.

Nicoli, who has been a non-executive director at EMI for five and a half years, refuses to be drawn on the subject of a take-over although it is hard to believe he doesn't know what is going on. "Speculating that [a takeover] will happen is good fun but it hasn't happened and I don't really see why it's any more likely to happen in the future than it has been in the past," he says.

Nicoli has weathered this kind of market chitter chatter before. In the first half of the decade UB too was cited as a candidate for a possible take-over, but in the event that didn't happen either. "If there is merit in any of these ideas I am sure they will emerge as real ideas in the future. At the moment I'm focusing on what we have got rather than what we haven't got," says Nicoli.

EMI became the target of takeover speculation because it is now the only international music company not to have other media interests.

According to Nicoli, 48, however, the fact EMI "is a tightly focused British-owned music business" is also a strength. "The first priority is to build that business organically. Our responsibility as a top team is then to explore strategic options for growing beyond organic growth," he says, sounding very corporate and measured. "Within existing business, there will be some expansion opportunities - a joint venture or other initiatives. But outside our existing categories there may be opportunities to broaden the base. It won't be difficult to come up with a range of theoretical options for doing that. What's more difficult is to make them happen in a way that creates value."

Among the crueller jibes in the press last week was an article that claimed some people in the City had already nicknamed Nicoli "E-Coli". He laughs it off. "That's a new one. I'm surprised they didn't think of when I was chief executive of UB. My friends call me Big Luigi."

The Luigi tag stems from Nicoli's Italian parentage. His father was a prisoner of war in Norfolk and came back after the war to run a small farm there. "He was very well treated, which is why he came back." Both Nicoli's parents came from northern Italy which, he says, "is why I am big and fair. I used to be blond with curly hair - if you can imagine that," he says laughing and stroking his bald patch. As a kid, he and his brother helped out on the farm. "They never had staff. They did it all themselves. That's why I'm big and strong."

Even though he says his childhood was a happy one, it wasn't always easy being the son of immigrants in deepest Norfolk. "At primary school I used to come in the bottom three out of 48. Not because there was a problem but because there was prejudice which I wasn't aware of. The headmaster was a racist, but I didn't know it. I just knew he didn't like me or my brother. It was probably because we were Italian and Catholic or any other thing that wasn't welcome in a village church school but I somehow knew he was wrong and never lost faith. I was one of only two to pass the 11- plus exam."

Nicoli's Italian credentials will probably help EMI's businesses abroad. Indeed Nicoli has proved himself to be a keen European and was one of the first British businessmen to urge the new Labour Government to sign up to the Social Chapter. That doesn't mean he can't be tough when necessary, though. He says one of his worst experiences was when, as chief executive of UB, he had to close a factory in Liverpool laying off 1,000 people.

This has earned him a reputation for being a bit of a bruiser. "I think I'm a fair man. Some people will think I'm unkind because I make decisions they don't like. But you can't run any business without being tough. I'm very prepared to do what's right for the business and not afraid to make those calls and not afraid to confront people when they need to be confronted," he says. I get the impression that despite his jocular air, he is not a man to be crossed lightly.

Nicoli studied at King's College, London, in the Strand. His first job was working for Rowntree Mackintosh in York in market research, moving into marketing after a year. After seven years he was head-hunted by UB to take up a marketing role, and then after another four years he moved into general management, where he's been ever since.

Nicoli has been chief executive at UB for 19 years. The low point of his career at UB was in 1995, when the food group reported pre-tax losses of pounds 100.6m. "My biggest mistake in business was to under estimate the competition," which at that time was Pepsi-Cola, says Nicoli. The company took a while to sort out the mess. The rescue operation included the disposal of its US operation. Last week UB reported a 4 per cent rise in pre-tax profit to pounds 110m. "The time was right for me to move," says Nicoli.