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The skill of United's star signing

Profile; David Arculus; He spent 25 years turning round Emap, and now he hopes to inspire the publisher of the Express. Paul Farrelly reports
It is an unknown fact outside the tightest of media circles that four years ago Emap, the magazine and radio group, was in full-blown merger talks with Lord Stevens' United Newspapers.

David Arculus, Emap's managing director, was all for it after spending the best part of a year mapping the deal out, Emap sources say. But ult- imately he was overruled by the board.United, publisher of the Express, fell instead to the financial services group MAI last year and took on the new name of United News & Media.

Meanwhile Emap, which publishes everything from Smash Hits to Country Walking, has continued to wend its way towards its long-held ambition: membership of that elite City club, the FT-SE 100 index. And now, ranked 112th among the country's quoted companies, it is well-placed to achieve it.

When it does, Arculus will not be around to see it. After 25 years with the group, he is leaving to become chief operating officer at United News & Media itself.

It is a measure of the respect that the towering Arculus, all six feet six of him, commands in the industry that the news wiped pounds 70m off the value of Emap last week and added pounds 150m on to United. A pounds 220m man. He must be pleased? Sure, but the smile of satisfaction is a quiet one.

"I've always hankered after a really big challenge and this is it," he says. "Sir Denys Henderson, the former chairman of ICI and one of my great mentors, telephoned me last night and joked that when many top executives leave, shares actually go up. Thank God, it didn't happen like that."

Arculus is not a man to stir controversy, in public at least, and certainly not to gloat. Upstairs at his London club, the Groucho, he is not about to spill the beans on why United eluded him before (answer: Stevens and Emap's chief executive, Robin Miller, could not agree on who'd get the top job).

Nor does he want to be drawn on spats at the top of Emap last year that pitted Miller and chairman Sir John Hoskyns against two rebel non-executives who were thrown off the board. He tried - but failed, then - to act as peacemaker.

Arculus is a strategic thinker, who likes to get things done quietly but effectively. The Groucho may be the stage and literati's favourite haunt, but he is a suit-and-tie man and hardly a luvvie. His second great mentor, Felix Dennis - ex-hippy, veteran of the Oz obscenity trial and computer magazine multi-millionaire - is light years away in image. But their closeness testifies to Arculus's deep admiration for creativity, however unconventional.

He was 25 when he joined the old East Midland Allied Press as a corporate planner in 1972 via a roundabout route that included two years as a scriptwriter and producer with the BBC World Service and an MBA at the London Business School.

After studying at Oxford, Arculus might have followed many of his contemporaries into the City, but he spurned an offer from a merchant bank: "I might have made a lot more money then, but if I hadn't taken a job in journalism, I wouldn't have lived."

He also once toyed with politics, considering applying to join the list of official Conservative candidates before his wife Anne - a former teacher and now a magistrate - put a stop to all that.

Instead, Arculus and Miller have spent the past 25 years transforming Emap from a sleepy regional newspaper outfit into a pounds 1.6bn giant through a series of launches and deals - in newspapers, magazines, exhibitions and radio - that most bankers can only dream of.

Along the way, Emap has lost none of the enterprise and sparkle that have long made it the tipsters' favourite media play. As head of the magazine division, he launched Smash Hits in 1978 and it was soon selling a million copies a week.

Every publication has its day, but as the circulation of one magazine has fallen, Emap has launched a host of successors. Like soap powder makers, it also had the foresight to launch competing titles to its own to keep rivals off the shelves.

The group is legendary for being tough on budgets, but also for devolving responsibilty. It is a firm believer in "small is beautiful" and will chop a division in two rather than let it grow too big. It is a trick, fostering a team spirit, that has certainly paid off for Richard Branson's Virgin, the operation to which Emap has most been likened. "My great strength is to have a loose management style and let people develop beneath me," says Arculus. "It's all about backing creative teams of people."

As a team, Miller and Arculus have clearly delivered, so it came as a surprise during the board hiccups last year to learn that they did not always get on. It was always a strange arrangement - managing director beneath Miller as chief executive - but after Arculus turned down the plum position of Controller of ITV in 1992, it looked one set to last for eternity. "I turned it down because I like to be the instigator of events rather than a spectator. The one thing ITV did, though, is open my eyes to the possibilities of television."

It also introduced him to the Labour peer Lord Hollick at MAI, one of the triumvirate along with Granada and Carlton that would rule ITV's roost.

He joins at a time, however, when United appears number three of the three after Granada, Carlton, BSkyB and the BBC joined forces on digital terrestrial television last month, leaving United out in the cold. But Arculus insists the group still has great exposure to DTTV through its Anglia, Meridien and Channel 5 franchises and its programming output.

Nevertheless, digital TV is one of his top responsibilities, as is United's trade magazine and conference side, Miller Freeman. Exhibitions - United bought Blenheim for pounds 590m last October - also gels with his Emap experience. That leaves Hollick to continue with the medication at the Express, whose circulation is still in the doldrums despite last year's move to a seven- day operation.

It is not Arculus's consensual style to admit it, but the move to United undoubtedly frees him from Miller's shadow. But only to swap it for Hollick's? Despite the inevitable speculation - Hollick to succeed Stevens, or take a post in a Labour government - Arculus insists the question of his slipping into the chief executive's job has never arisen.

"There have been no pledges made, nor asked for," he says. "I think we'll make an effective partnership. He's got inspiration. He's put a tremendous company together. That spark of creativity is what I most admire about people in business."

It may also be pleasing to Hollick's ears, though certainly not to those of Stevens, that like the voters of Wirral South his traditional political allegiance may be up for grabs this time.

"My political leanings are conservative with a small 'c'. By far the most important issue we face is Europe. I'm a great European. I'll vote for the party that best reflects that."