Twenty Questions: Adam Singer'I buy guitars as an act of stress relief. This year I've bought more than ever'

Adam Singer, 48, was chairman and chief executive of Flextech until it merged with Telewest Communications, the broadband cable communications operator. He is now group chief executive of Telewest.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

1 Is there a skill that you haven't yet mastered that you would like to?

1 Is there a skill that you haven't yet mastered that you would like to?

There are lots of skills that I haven't yet mastered - B flat augmented on the guitar, some of the more arcane and deeper mysteries of finance and taxation, the skill of being better organised. I'd like to be able to master any of those.

 

2If you didn't run Telewest which company would you like to run?

Channel 5, but with a slightly more aggressive shareholder base. I think it has a fantastic strategic position - it has the last national frequency - and, given a little "courage" by its investors to really go out and do some decent programming, it could be a great channel. I have to say that Dawn Airey has done a great job with the hand she's played - but Channel 5 has the potential to be a very interesting business. It should be the channel that stops Sky One and Channel 4's e4 in their tracks, it should be the channel which really starts to integrate websites and national reach. Would I do it better than the existing management? I wouldn't claim that for a minute, but that wasn't the question.

 

3 What was the best investment you ever made - and the worst?

The best investment I think was the original one which took us into Flextech where we got in at £2.20 and exited at £14 a number of years later when Telewest acquired Flextech. The worst investment was probably getting into European Business News. That was a bad investment because it was a business where the market was already too competitive and the market wasn't large enough for the amount of competition.

 

4Which single task do you hate doing the most?

Reviewing large quantities of operational numbers.

 

5What was the happiest day of your working life and the worst?

It's hard to single out a happiest day. There have been a lot of happy days, like working with Video Arts with Tony Jay and John Cleese many years ago, or the day I started working for Tele-Communications International (TCI).

The worst day is easy - it was when I was a lowly production assistant and I lost a day's worth of film rushes on the Tube. My job was to take the negative from the shoot to the laboratory and about 10 minutes after I got off the Tube I thought "Oh my God!", by which time the train had long gone.

It turned up at Lost Property - that wasn't the problem - but they had obviously wondered what it was and had opened it, exposing the film.

 

6You once said that "the latent cable subscriber cannot get a cable company to answer the phone, so they can turn up on the wrong day to install cable by strip-mining the garden so that the subscriber can find out how terrible the programming is and disconnect". Where is the cable industry in relation to that remark now?

The programming is considerably better - not least because Sky is spending a lot more on production, we're spending a lot more on production and programming is significantly better on all the new BBC channels and things like ITV2. Levels of service have improved but they are nothing like good enough. I would say the quality of the product is better and the quality of the service is getting better, but there's still a long way to go. It's still not an industry we can be completely proud of, but we are getting there.

 

7Who do you most admire in the industry?

That's easy - John Malone at Liberty. Not only has he vision, but he has the ability to focus in on detail. He also has a brain that is capable of grasping both small and big facts and then putting them into a picture which envisages a future beyond that which most of us can see. Working for him at TCI from 1992 to 1997 really was an intellectually humbling experience.

 

8 In terms of personal wealth, how much is enough?

It's an ever-moving target. It's to be able to have enough money to take care of your family - as much as money can. Enough is to know that you can actually walk out of a job that you hated and you won't starve - because that gives you a certain amount of intellectual freedom.

And really enough is to be able to maintain your current lifestyle on the interest on your investments.

9Is there a luxury you would be particularly reluctant to give up?

Eating in good restaurants.

 

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

I'd like this business to be successful and for the shareholders in this business to feel that I have delivered them some serious value which is a bit of a cliché - but I really would. I take pride in the fact that when we were Flextech we delivered good value to our shareholders. We haven't yet done it since I've joined Telewest, but I'm going to make sure that we do.

Having done that, the thing that interests me most is to spend more time in developing new forms of high speed broadband content because I believe passionately that a mixture of television, sound and text, combined with constant connection at high speed will become a whole new medium.

 

11 If you went bankrupt tomorrow what would you do?

Get a job. Start working. I believe passionately that one's first duty is to feed and clothe one's family regardless of anything else. I'd go out and do whatever it takes to put bread on the table. It's old-fashioned and boring, but it's what I believe.

 

12 How do you relax?

I play guitar badly, drink wine, watch DVDs, listen to opera, go to the theatre and do some reading when I have the energy. I have a guitar that lives in the office but I've got about eight in total. They breed. During times of extreme stress, when I'm really worried about the business and I don't know what I'm going to do, the way I cope is by going for a walk. I invariably go down to Charing Cross Road, where the guitar shops are, and I buy guitars as an act of major stress relief. I have to say that this year I have probably bought more guitars than in any other year. I really am the world's worst guitarist but there's something very therapeutic about going home, pouring yourself a whisky, plugging a guitar in, turning the amp right up and just hitting a few chords - until the kids rush in and say, "Turn it down, Dad!"

 

13Do you have a business philosophy?

By and large it is to treat people as you wish to be treated yourself and be as to honest as you have the courage to be. Some people have more courage than others.

 

14What's your favourite quotation?

I've always liked Marshal Vicomte de Turenne's "God is always on the side of the big battalions".

 

15 You've worked in America and in the Far East - what did you bring back from those experiences?

I've had several stints of living in the US and I've spent a lot of time in the Far East making investments there. The great thing about working in the Far East and, especially in Japan, is that it taught you patience and a lot about being tolerant of other people's cultures. Working with the Japanese, you are dealing with a complicated culture with lots of nuances that you know will escape you. There are also complicated issues which you simply would not tolerate in the West. Occasionally, you have to deal with things that just don't make any sense to you at all, and all of that was useful.

America taught me that it's actually all right to be emotional about things and that focus is as important as intellect. Tremendous credence is placed in this country on the ability to enunciate and articulate thoughts clearly with an essay-like manner but, in the US, people don't care as long as you can get the content across and actually do it.

 

16 You only got one O-level. If you had your time again at school would you do it differently?

If I could go back in time I might have liked to have done it differently, but I don't think I could have. I so hated school, I found it so difficult to cope with. I hated the authority and I still hate authority, I hated the structure and I still hate structure. I just didn't understand what people were saying to me. If I went back to school as a 48 year-old, of course I'd do it differently, but if you put me back into that situation again as a 12-13-14-year-old, I can't imagine I'd behave any differently, no matter how much I would want to.

 

17 How much TV do you watch?

By TV you really mean TV channels, but I watch a lot of DVDs, I'm a compulsive DVD buyer. I watch about three or four hours a week.

 

18What are your feelings about the TV licence fee?

While there is a political will to maintain the BBC, it has proven to be a very successful way of funding it. The licence fee works while a large part of the population pay the licence fee as a way of utilising public spectrum. As of next year 50 per cent of the population will be getting all their television signals through private spectra such as SKY and cable. When, at some point in the future, you have virtually all the population receiving their signal through private spectra, I wonder how you are going to maintain a universal public spectrum tax. Luckily, it's not my problem!

 

19 What's the best piece of advice that anyone has ever given you?

Guner Ruggenheimer was my boss when I was at the BBC for a couple of years. He was the man who bought Gone with the Wind for the BBC and he was quite a legend. He said: "Adam, if you think you've done a deal and you've shaken hands and everything, and then they seem slow to take your money - at that stage, be worried!" That was good advice.

 

20 Your quarterly results are published tomorrow - are your shareholders going to like you in the morning?

I think the answer to that question is that I will expect a certain consistency of feeling from my shareholders.

Comments