Behind the screens

Carlton's Bambi-eyed chief has a habit of creeping up on his media rivals, says Patrick Hosking; profile; Michael Green
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The Independent Online
ACCORDING to a former girlfriend, Michael Green, the chairman and founder of Carlton Communications, fears only two things in life: poverty and personal publicity. He need hardly, for the moment, fear the first. Last year, he was paid pounds 636,000 plus a pounds 133,000 contribution to his pension. His shareholding in Carlton is worth pounds 51m. He has homes in Mayfair, Berkshire and France, and a large collection of contemporary art.

But for the most powerful man in commercial television - he controls what 20 million people watch when they press the ITV button in London and the Midlands - Green remains remarkably successful in evading public scrutiny. He rarely gives interviews and his business moves remain enigmatic.

Last week was a good example. He had been the subject of media tittle- tattle for months. He was manoeuvring, some said, to buy the Daily Express. Others thought that was nonsense; he would move into cable or satellite television, they said. Instead he re-emerged as a serious candidate to buy the MGM cinema chain in Britain - only to be pipped at the post by Richard Branson. For a moment Green, who boasts of a youth spent in the Baker Street Classic, looked set to become Britain's biggest cinema proprietor.

Green's eye for a good deal has rarely let him down. He has built Carlton Communications into a pounds 1.4bn-turnover business. His empire touches everyone's lives. As well as Carlton, which operates the London weekday franchise, and Central Television (the Midlands), he has stakes in GMTV, the breakfast channel; Meridian, the channel serving 5 million viewers on the South Coast; and ITN. Even the commercials between programmes are touched by the ubiquitous Carlton hand. Its Moving Picture Company creates the dancing cows in the butter ads. His US-based Technicolor subsidiary processes a large chunk of Hollywood's output and churns out pre-recorded videos by the truckload. Snow White and Pinocchio are both Carlton-made.

Carlton is not noted for quality or originality: its standards were sharply criticised by the Independent Television Commission in 1993. Literature leaves Green cold. Jeananne Crowley, the Irish actress (Tenko, Educating Rita) who was his partner for three years between his first and second marriages, told the Daily Mail: "I got him to read only two books in all the time I was with him: Bob Geldof's autobiography and Bonfire of the Vanities."

SO IS there anything more to this man than a sharp business brain and a desire to make money? Media tycoon he undoubtedly is, but he is no fledgling Murdoch. He has neither the global vision, nor the appetite for risk-taking (unlike his friends Gerald Ratner and the Saatchi brothers who borrowed to the hilt in the 1980s and nearly went bust in the process).

Nor is he a Berlusconi. He does not see his empire as a platform for personal political ambition. He has made a point of wooing Michael Heseltine at the Department of Trade and Industry, but politics is merely a means to an end - furthering his business ambitions.

Rupert Murdoch likes to paint him as an Establishment figure. In a fury last month over the proposed new cross-media ownership rules, the head of News International and BSkyB lumped together Carlton, Pearson (the Financial Times group) and Associated Newspapers (the Daily Mail) as "the old vested and often unsuccessful interests". Yet only a few years ago Green was complaining of an Establishment plot to block his ambitions. His attempt to win a franchise in 1980 failed. His takeover bid for Thames Television in 1985 was blocked by the then regulator, the IBA. An application to run a satellite venture was passed over in 1986. He still sometimes plays the unloved Jewish outsider.

People often say that Green is short. This is probably because of his habit of padding around the office in stockinged feet. In fact, he is of medium height. He is also dapper and dark. He has Bambi-like eyes, a Michael Portillo quiff and a curiously melodic voice. He smokes fat, pungent cigars, evoking an image of Lew Grade. "You could always smell him coming," recalls one employee.

He is more likely to be seen of an evening playing cards for high stakes at the Portland Club in Piccadilly than attending a luvvie bash. Though he makes it his business to be friends with media heavyweights like Alan Yentob and Michael Grade, his bridge-playing companions include people like the financiers Jim Slater and Sir Mark Weinberg, and businessmen like Sir Rocco Forte. One fellow bridge player at the Portland remarks: "He's always completely cheerful and enthusiastic at cards. He's got boundless energy and ideas. He's not the greatest bridge player, nor would he claim to be." He loses more often than he wins, a bad evening setting him back a few thousand pounds.

The unthreatening exterior is deceptive. Ministers and fellow board members see the boyish, charming, energetic Michael. His staff see another side. His temper, which rises to the point of screaming and shouting, is legendary within his St George Street headquarters near Bond Street, London.

According to one former colleague, "he could explode at big things and little things - from the receptionist who forgot to switch on the Christmas tree lights in the reception area to a manager presenting figures badly." One former manager, summoned to his office, dawdled on the way. Green bellowed "Run when I call you'' and sacked him. The company cook was sacked after a series of meals that displeased him.

One associate remembers a meeting to finalise details of a crucial deal for Carlton. Around two dozen employees, advisers and consultants were called in. Green took exception to the comments of a junior consultant. "He just shredded him to pieces. You could almost tell it was a device. He was being made an example of. Everyone in the room from that point on was worrying who was going to be next. His technique is to control by fear."

Jeananne Crowley puts it more kindly: "He has a tremendous life- force, a sheer energy and absolute aliveness. He also has a very bad temper and not much control over his emotions."

MICHAEL Philip Green was born on 2 December 1947, the youngest son of Cyril, founder of the Tern shirts business, and Irene, a child psychologist. It was a prosperous upbringing. The young Michael was given a year's supply of pocket money and told to make it last the full 12 months. He could read a balance sheet by the age of 12. His schooldays at the fee- paying Haberdashers' Aske's were more remarkable for his romantic conquests among local girls - those Bambi eyes - than any academic success. He left at 17, with four O-levels.

He found work as a compositor with a small printing firm. After three years he bought an ailing business, the Direct Mail Centre, made a profit on selling the premises and at the same time revived the business. Next, came the purchase of a photographic business, Carlton. He was 23 and going out with the woman who would become his first wife, Janet Wolfson, daughter of Lord Wolfson, head of Great Universal Stores. A big break came when he won the contract to print some GUS mail-order catalogues.

By 1982 he had merged his hotchpotch of print and video businesses into the quoted company Fleet Street Letter, which published investment tipsheets. Carlton had a stock market quotation and took off. It became a glamour stock. The acquisitions came thick and fast - and included Zenith Productions, makers of Inspector Morse and The Paradise Club. Zenith was subsequently sold, but it had boosted Green's reputation as a serious programme maker.

There was a lurch in 1989. The stock market panicked that Green had over-extended himself, especially with the $780m purchase of Technicolor. The shares collapsed from a peak of 941p to only 301p. But Green weathered the storm and the shares have recently recovered to new highs.

The financial rewards enable Green to indulge his taste for expensive cars. These have included a Bentley Turbo, a rare Aston Martin and a Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible. He and his second wife, Tessa Buckmaster, have two small sons. (He has two daughters from his first marriage.) Tessa is a former employee of Carlton, a member of the Buckmaster stock- broking family and a barrister. According to a friend, "she is not the bimbo or trophy wife you might expect, but very bright and an intellectual sparring partner for Michael."

The future is looking bright for Green. He emerged as a winner from the cross-media ownership review, free to expand into newspapers and cable television. He still has to reduce his stake in ITN from 36 per cent to 20 per cent, but will remain the equal-biggest shareholder (with Granada Group). Carlton recently reported its best ever interim profit figures and is forecast to make pounds 250m this year. The failure to capture MGM will have been a disappointment, but there will be plenty more media acquisitions to come. Michael Green may never be as familiar to the public as Rupert Murdoch is now or as Lew Grade once was. But his influence on our culture may eventually be almost as great; still only 47, he is here to stay.

MGM sale, Business, page 1