The Monday Interview: Rise of a two-headed giant: They may be the odd couple of business, but Gail Counsell finds Emap's chiefs are happy to keep on arguing in the boardroom - Robin Miller and David Arculus

Gail Counsell
Sunday 10 July 1994 23:02

Robin Miller, 53, and David Arculus, 48, are chief executive and managing director respectively of Emap, the publishing group. Mr Miller joined Emap in 1965 as a reporter on Motor Cycle News, rising to chief executive in 1985. Mr Arculus is a former BBC producer who joined Emap in 1972. In 1985 he became Mr Miller's deputy and in 1990 managing director. They divide Emap duties, with Robin Miller looking after its newspaper, print and radio interests, and David Arculus responsible for the fast-growing consumer and business magazines. Both are married with children, and live near Emap's Peterborough base.

THEY are an odd couple in more ways than one. To begin with, you can count on one hand the number of big companies run by a duopoly. There is the pairing of Hanson and White at Hanson and until recently there were McGowan and Rudd at Williams Holdings. But Hanson and Williams are financially driven conglomorates.

Emap is not of that ilk. The stringency of its budgetary regime may be legendary, and it has become increasingly acquisitive as it has matured, yet its remarkable success has been organically driven by creative, rather than predatory, impulses.

Miller and Arculus are the double act responsible for this defining characteristic; their 20-year partnership has transformed Emap from a plodding Midlands newspaper company to one of the most admired publishing groups.

In many ways they are chalk and cheese. Robin Miller is thin, wiry, sharp, a Cumberland-born pragmatist who left grammar school at 17 and whose spartan offical profile accords the same importance to his first job as a British Rail weighbridge attendant as to his appointment to Emap's board.

As indeed it does to a year or so on Angling Times. But then he is proud of his gritty journalistic background, first as a reporter on the Penrith Observer, and at Emap where he made his name working for Motor Cycle News.

David Arculus is a bear of a man, six foot six inches and built like an American footballer, an obvious high-flyer, Oxbridge and London Business School educated, with an accent to match. A former BBC producer and a thinker, albeit one with a reputation for charm, he joined Emap in 1972 as a 'corporate planner'.

'That was just an excuse by the company to get in some new blood really,' he says apologetically.

'I suppose if you want to pigeon-hole us, I was the journalist and David was sort of the business guy,' says Robin Miller.

Recalling his first impression of David Arculus in characteristically blunt terms, he says he was 'bloody big'.

David Arculus ponders long and hard before recalling the altogether more diplomatic assessment he made of his collegue: 'A pretty tough operator.'

Why? Since he pauses again for thought, Robin Miller supplies the answer. 'He bought the beer.' David Arculus nods. 'I bought the beer.'

They sound at times like an old married couple. Indeed they have a reputation for bickering in the boardroom, which can apparently make Question Time seem like a meeting of the Peace Corps.

That is the Emap way of doing things, however. This is a company where disagreements exist to be resolved by the power of the argument; it is the secret of its success. 'Mostly the best argument will win,' says Robin Miller. 'Emap is not an autocratic company. We don't just hand things down and say 'this will happen'.'

To which David Arculus, nodding vigorously, adds: 'The people that do the work in Emap are people who run the divisions. The key thing is for them to own the decisions they are party to.'

If that means the centre losing an argument or two then so be it, he says. 'Sometimes it doesn't matter anyway because if people have convinced themselves that their way is the right way, they will make it work regardless.'

Anyway, unlike almost every other product, every issue of a magazine is different. Get the first one wrong and you can still get the second one on track, he adds.

By rights they ought to think of each other as rivals, and in some ways they do. But they seem to have established an eminently stable relationship, even if Robin Miller is primus inter pares. Certainly it survived David Arculus being offered the juicy post of ITV's controller two years ago. Many say Miller was the main reason he elected to stay.

But then Emap is not a company to work for unless you are a committed team player. Emap- speak has screeds to say about the importance of personal development. To which end there are training schemes galore for everyone - the target is a day's training per month per employee.

Advertising managers and editors alike may find themselves leading teams through wet tunnels on Dartmoor in the dark in miniature versions of the Duke of Edinburgh awards.

Cynics might call it brainwashing, but the rewards are there too. There are generous share option and savings schemes, to which more than half the staff subscribe. Miller and Arculus do an egalitarian road show each year to be quizzed by all 5,000 employees on the results. For those who cannot work out whether this life is for them, there is a corporate shrink.

Love it or loathe it, as a corporate strategy it has been highly successful. Since Robin Miller was appointed chief executive in 1985 turnover has trippled to pounds 380m, operating profits have risen fivefold to pounds 43m, and the market capitalisation tenfold.

Its latest adventure - a pounds 100m assault on the French magazine market - is its most ambitious yet. Especially since it comes hard on the heels of a contentious, and as yet unresolved, pounds 70m attempt to double its radio interests.

But equally important to Emap's continued success in the long run will be the example set by Miller and Arculus. Emap is in many ways a puritanical company. Its offices are notoriously shabby and there is none of the conspicious executive greed that has characterised so many other big corporations.

Robin Miller's take-home pay last year was pounds 213,000, slightly down on the year before. David Arculus's salary is thought to have been just under pounds 200,000. They own around 300,000 shares each worth just over pounds 1m and have options which, netted out, would be worth about pounds 475,000 in Robin Miller's case and pounds 368,000 in David Arculus's. Given Emap's success it is a relatively modest reward. Both could probably earn more elsewhere.

'You can only sleep in one bed at a time,' says Robin Miller. Other things motivate him, he observes. 'Emap really is a rather special company. When I go to one of the awards nights and see 90 consumer magazines on the screen and then go through all the business magazines . . . well, tears don't easily come to my eyes but you can imagine how it happens.'

David Arculus is also driven by things other than money. One is a tantalising 'after Emap I'd like to change the world a bit', though he refuses to expound on how. The other is a more mundane urge to make Emap an FT-SE 100 company.

He might have added a third, though: to overtake Reed International. 'When we got in the saddle here it was much smaller than Reed. We clawed our way up until Emap had almost caught Reed and then suddenly they merged with Elsevier and were vastly bigger and it really was tremendously frustrating,' he says with passion. He is an admirer of Reed's just departed chief executive, Peter Davis.

While Mr Davis has his fans, most agree on his autocratic and abrasive style. It would be hard to imagine him working in harness as Miller and Arculus have done.

But no sooner has Mr Arculus opened his mouth to reply to this observation, than Robin Miller leaps into the gap, tapping the table with a pencil to change this fascinating subject. Which, like errant schoolchildren in class, we obediently did.

(Photograph omitted)

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