Lord Hollick has had a lot on his mind, but The Express is still a priority

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The Independent Online
United's chief executive, Lord Hollick, has been busy in recent months, taking hardly a moment to rest before he plunges into yet another share purchase, takeover or corporate restructuring. But aside from a flurry of attention on his newspaper businesses when he fired his editor at the Sunday Express, Sue Douglas, and merged the daily and Sunday titles into a seven-day operation, the print side of the media and financial services conglomerate hasn't appeared to be the focus of the Labour Peer's efforts. Instead, Lord Hollick has worked to widen the company's holdings in the lucrative conference business, buying Blenheim in October for nearly pounds 600m. United is now busy integrating Blenheim with Miller Freeman, its own conference company.

Much work has also gone into the television side of United, which takes in Meridian and Anglia, the ITV franchises, as well as a 30 per cent stake in Channel 5, the new terrestrial service. Just two weeks ago, United spent pounds 37m building its stake in HTV, the Wales and West of England ITV company, to 29.9 per cent, and will probably buy it outright in 1997.

So what about the newspapers? There is no doubt that the Express titles are under pressure. Two relaunches - the first under Lord Stevens, the outgoing chairman, and the second under Lord Hollick himself - may or may not have stopped the circulation rot. It is too early to say. The mid-market leader among dailies, the mighty Mail, has reacted with typical gusto to even the whiff of increased competition from United in what the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, see as his fiefdom. In the words of one media analyst: "The Mail no longer wants to stay ahead of the Express, it wants to kill it off."

Against that kind of competition, can the Express titles be turned around? Hollick is certainly going to try. One clear sign that he cares is the attention he pays to the newspaper on a daily basis. He is known to speak directly with his editors and takes a keen interest in the stories the Express plans to run.Hollick is also intimately involved in one of the crucial questions facing the Express: its stance at the next election. It might be hard to have the newspapers endorse Tony Blair, the man Lord Hollick would most like to see at 10 Downing Street. After all, the typical Express reader votes Tory, distrusts the left, and is wary of Europe. You can't ignore your readers' views. But insiders at the newspaper sense a change in the air, and wouldn't be surprised to see some softening of the Tory tinge.

However, Hollick wears his politics lightly in the boardroom. The commercial future of the newspapers are far more important to him than the tone of the leader page.

He has already made some moves toward increasing the profitability of the titles - not least the controversial restructuring that gave Britain its first seven-day newspaper. Profits might be improved on the order of pounds 15m a year, according to United's own estimates.

But that assumes circulation will hold steady or rise. Moreover, there may be demands for fresh investment, more than the pounds 10m already set aside. The newspapers have already spent their 1996 budgets, and editors have been asked to cut back, at least until the end of the year. Improving the editorial product costs money, and the new supplements and magazines recently launched will need potentially expensive nurturing.

Lord Hollick could be helped by two factors, at least in the short term. Newsprint prices have come down by about 12 per cent since their peak earlier this year and the price war has abated. But there is always a risk that Rupert Murdoch's News International, which has been calling all the shots on cover price, unveils yet another secret weapon to accompany Murdoch's "cheap Monday" wheeze. And newsprint price declines aren't much help if new supplements require the use of more, rather than less, of the primary product. Indeed, the recent changes at the Express, particularly the new-look Saturday (and very nice it is too), have used up enough additional newsprint to wipe out the effects of the price decline.

Lord Hollick has options. He can continue to invest in the titles, aiming to recover some of the ground lost to the Mail. In so doing, he can improve both margins and cash flow. While he owns the newspapers, he can also parrot Mr Murdoch, by using the Express to promote his television interests. And if he can't turn the newspapers around, he can always sell them. They will be worth more once the current round of investment has worked through.

The view in the City is that Lord Hollick would sell if the right offer came along, but that he is not uncomfortable in the medium term. Indeed, he may actually enjoy being a newspaper proprietor. But if, in five years' time, there are no obvious improvements in terms of circulation and margins, you can expect to see the Express on the auction block n