A career built on chutzpah and charm
BOOK REVIEW; Greenfinger: The Rise of Michael Green and Carlton Communications by Raymond Snoddy, Faber & Faber, pounds 17.50
Tuesday 17 September 1996
Raymond Snoddy's long-awaited unauthorised biography of Green is both hard-hitting and remarkably even- handed. Despite the range of criticisms of Green's business methods and personality ("shit" is the most frequent epithet) from a list of former associates or employees, the publicity- shy tycoon emerges as a formidable and resourceful character who has earned respect and admiration from both friend and foe.
Snoddy's book will win no prizes for style: but his meticulous research and informed judgments make Greenfinger an easy and fascinating read. Perhaps the only person in broadcasting who will find nothing surprising in the book is Michael Green himself.
It is the first decade after Green left school at the age of 17 that offers most insight. The grandson of four refugees from Kiev and the son of a modestly successful businessman, Green had enough ambition, confidence, charm and connections to more than to make up for his meagre qualifications. He and his brother started a small direct-mail and office-supplies firm, largely serving the north London estate agents who were part of their prosperous Jewish social circle.
Their friends included the Saatchi brothers, Gerald Ratner, Stuart Lipton and Martin Sorrell, long before any of these became famous or seriously rich. Success was assumed: even as teenagers, the Green brothers drove an AC Cobra and an Aston Martin. In 1968, their company's profits - pounds 8,720 - were less than the book value of their cars. Michael's first marriage - to the daughter of a Wolfson - led the brothers to the acquisition from the GUS empire of the Carlton photographic studio that became the vehicle of their expansion.
As recently as the late 1970s, though, the Greens' company was still making less than pounds 200,000 a year in profits. It was the takeover of two print firms which quadrupled that figure, and allowed the opportunistic purchase of a tiny TV facility which conveniently coincided with the reversal of Carlton into Fleet Street Newsletter - deals which gave the Greens their long-sought stock market listing and a glamorous (if marginal) association with the television industry. Thereafter, a series of mergers and takeovers, largely financed by rights issues and always accompanied by careful preparation of City opinion, enabled the company to grow rapidly in size and value.
Each deal - MPC, Cox, UEI, Abekas, Technicolor - is carefully described by Snoddy. Familiar names regularly appear, such as Michael Sorkin of Hambros and, unobtrusively, June de Moller, who joined Green almost at the outset as a temporary secretary and is now group managing director. Other names take the stage only briefly. The pattern is unmistakeable: Michael Green is simply unable to share power. After his older brother bowed to Green's fiercer ambition, Michael Luckwell, Bob Phillis and Peter Michael all departed from Carlton in unhappy circumstances. Remarkably, Green controls his company despite having, these days, only a small percentage of the equity.
The story of the collapse in Carlton's share price after Green sold 20 per cent of his stake at the peak of the market (to fund his divorce settlement, he insisted) is one of many well told. This episode led to Peter Michael's abortive attempt to dislodge Green from Carlton, and the precipitate fall in the company's value from pounds 1.7bn in May 1989 to pounds 500m 16 months later. But Green survived and, thanks to a series of changes in the rules for controlling ITV, re-built Carlton's fortunes. First, the London weekday franchise was captured, then a stake seized in GMTV, then the ITN takeover masterminded, then Central (and, with it 20 per cent of Meridian) snaffled before the ink was dry on the necessary legislation, then cable channels launched even before the new rules permitted.
Not everything, though, has gone according to plan. Snoddy describes how Green might well have saved Carlton half a billion pounds by offering just 25p a share more for Thames than he did only months before the franchise round: thereby acquiring prime assets cheaply and possibly being able to bid pounds 1,000 rather than pounds 43m a year for the licence in a competitive auction.
The failure to have bought Robert Maxwell's 20 per cent share of Central when it was on offer looks equally unfortunate. The absence of any meaningful overseas broadcast venture is noted. And Snoddy reminds us of assessments by market analysts such as Bronwen Maddox and Katherine Pelly, who found Carlton's return on capital employed to be singularly unimpressive. So up-to-date is the book that such recent setbacks as the failure to win MGM cinemas and the Premier League football contract, or to intervene in the MAI/United merger, are woven into the pattern of doubt as to Carlton's long-term strategy and opportunities for growth.
Would Green have enjoyed more sympathetic treatment if he and his immediate circle had talked to Snoddy? Perhaps - but at least he can be thankful that Jeananne Crowley (the Irish writer/actress he dumped to marry his second wife) resisted the temptation to tell all. The oddest feature of the book, though, is the regular appearance of the unnamed media correspondent of the Financial Times, who manages (among other coups) to expose many of the top-secret bids for the ITV franchises. Non-expert readers might find this elaborate modesty on Snoddy's part a little puzzling.
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