Twenty Questions

Tony Elliot, 53, started 'Time Out', London's first listings magazine, in 1968. In 1990, he began publishing travel guides, then five years later launched the 'Time Out' magazine, in New York. His company has an annual turnover of £14.4m
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The Independent Online

1 What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed?

1 What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed?

I was at boarding school most of my life but the times I was at home were always frightening because you had to be careful what you did when my father was around. He wasn't violent, he was just unpleasant and didn't want to have a relationship with his family. When I was 18, he left my mother and disappeared with a mistress he'd had for years.

As I'd never had a relationship with him, I saw no need to see him, and I haven't spoken to him since the day he left. In a way, that sterile upbringing was a driving factor because I always wanted to be independent and free and totally in control.

It's ironic that in running your own business you're never actually free because you have responsibilities and obligations, but it has given me the option to say "No" to situations, which I didn't have when I was growing up

2 What gave you the idea for Time Out?

When I started the magazine in 1968 there was tons of stuff happening in the underground culture, which was not being covered by any of the existing magazines. There was a gap in the market for a thoroughly interesting guide, which is where the idea came from for Time Out.

Also, I've always been very interested in information, it's just the way I am. If I go to a strange place, I drive my wife mad because I won't go in the first restaurant we find, I have to check them all out to make sure I choose the right one.

3 What's the first lesson you learned in business?

That the cash flow required to run a business doesn't bear any relationship to the profitability. You can have a business that makes £100,000 a year, but you may need a £1m bank overdraft to operate that.

It took me a long time to come to terms with the importance of managing cash flow. I was spoilt to some extent because it was possible in those days to get away with running up quite a lot of credit with the printer. You couldn't do that now.

4 If you didn't run Time Out, which company would you most like to run?

If I could have my life again I would have liked to have been a film producer. Not a director, or a writer, because I don't think I've got that sort of talent.

I see my role here as more of a film producer than a director because I'm constantly creating a structure and looking after people.

5 What was the worst investment you made?

The worst investment was in 1988 when we decided to take over a bankrupt French magazine called Paris Passion. The mistake we made was in keeping the incumbent regime where in retrospect we should have cleaned out existing staff and started again.

We struggled for more than a year, then fired the staff and tried to rebuild the magazine from scratch. Unfortunately, by then it was too late and we ended up losing £800,000, which was a lot of money at the time.

6 And what was your best investment?

It's easy to say now, but the best was launching Time Out in New York in September 1995. I'd wanted to do that since I first went there in 1974 but for a long time we didn't have the money or the time.

In the end, we did it with the help of the bank. They were extremely nervous, because if it had all gone wrong, we would have lost an awful lot of money. In fact, it turned out to be an extremely successful investment, which impacted on the Time Out brand as a whole. People started calling from all over the world asking us if we'd consider licensing the name.

7 Is there a difference between the British and American markets?

There's a complete contrast between the American and British markets. In the States, 90 per cent of our sales are through subscriptions and 10 per cent are through the newsstands, and in the UK that figure is reversed. Subscriptions are efficient because there's no wastage: every copy you print you've already sold, but through the newsstand you almost throw away a copy for every one you sell.

The cost of subscribing to a magazine in America is much lower than here because their postage is only 19 cents, and we pay 72p for every subscription issue. Even if we lowered our subscription price, we'd still pay more in the UK because the Post Office refuses to subsidise the rates.

8 Do you have a business philosophy?

To tell people the truth because they always find out in the end. A lot of people treat business like a poker game and they're always trying to score points and get an edge to make more money.

I'm not like that and neither are the people who work with me. Maybe if I'd been more crudely driven by the bottom line from day one, I'd be a lot richer but that's not been my philosophy.

9 Which single task or thing do you hate doing the most?

I don't like having long meetings. I get slightly irritated when somebody comes in to talk about something and your mental expectations are that it will take half an hour and one and a half hours later you're thinking: "Oh my God".

I should be tough and say: "Let's call it a day, this is a waste of time." but I think that would be destructive and bad-mannered, particularly as we work in a creative industry.

I'm a great believer in that crude old Sixties expression: "The love you make is the love you take." In other words, what goes around, certainly comes around.

10 What was the happiest day of your working life, and the most miserable?

One of the most memorable, happy days was in May 1981, which marked the end of an enormous pay strike. There had been about seven, hardcore, militant staff who had occupied the offices of Time Out and were refusing to leave.

We eventually gave them all the necessary warning letters and got rid of them. There was an incredible feeling of relief the moment we locked the door and the staff were outside. Nobody knew what would happen next, but we knew it was the beginning of a new era.

The worst days were the ones leading up to the strike because it was such a struggle trying to accommodate all the pressures from the unions. We had to deal with so many different factions, like the radical lesbian people, the International Marxists and those who wanted to turn the magazine into some sort of collective. That whole period was a nightmare because everyone bitterly resisted us changing the pay structure. Up until then, everyone was paid the same salary.

11 What's the best piece of advice anyone has given you?

To trust your instincts and know when to stop. People sometimes come to me with a magazine that's losing money and they want to keep it going. I have to tell them to suspend publication because people won't notice. I'm still guilty of that today because it's difficult knowing when to stop something.

12 Are you easy to work for and what makes you lose your temper?

I think I'm easy to work for. Over the last five years I've become a lot more relaxed and tolerant about other people making decisions because I've realised that they do make good decisions. I rarely lose my temper; although I do get extremely irritated when one thinks one has established a way of how things should be done, then find that people haven't followed it.

13 Who do you most respect in the industry?

Without question, it has to be Rupert Murdoch. I often end up defending him to all those dreary people who moan on about the erosion of media standards. I think it's fabulous that he takes the risks he does. His business is well structured with a lot of delegation of responsibility. The thing I'm most envious about is that he has a huge business, yet he seems to know everything that's going on.The other thing that cheers me up is that he only really started to get going when he was 53, which is the same age as I am.

14 In terms of personal wealth how much is enough?

I have a fairly healthy view about what my business is worth, but it's all academic until I sell it. The Sunday Times Rich list put the figure at £80m, which is a huge amount of money. I'd much rather have the business, than the £80m in cash.

15 Have you ever been tempted to float Time Out?

No. I'd never want to float because you end up working for some arseholes in the City. The moment you go public you spend all your time in a cab going to the City to justify your existence to a bunch of people who haven't a clue what you're talking about. I have an academic attraction to flotation but that is all.

16 If your briefcase were about to be confiscated, which three things would you retrieve?

My Filofax, my mobile phone and my passport.

17 Will Time Out ever become a completely online magazine?

It would be a perfect situation to have the magazine online with people paying for the content. The present situation is a nightmare because you're wholly dependant on advertising, which is an obnoxious position to be in.

I don't think the printed magazine will totally disappear - I think it will become a hybrid between the electronic version and print.

18 Where do you want to be five years from now?

Hopefully, I will have structured the business so I can have more options and more flexibility on my personal time. I also hope that the whole electronic world will have become ubiquitous in the sense that people throughout the world will be consuming Time Out branded information.

19 If you went bankrupt tomorrow would you start again?

Absolutely.

20 Do you ever think about retiring?

No it's not an option I think about.

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