Roger Parry: Talking loud and clear

He has his fingers in media pies across the nation. Raymond Snoddy finds ClearChannel's chairman Roger Parry hungry for more...

Monday 20 June 2005 00:00

As a media quiz question it would be a stinker. What have the following got in common? A U2 concert, Live8, Johnston Press, the regional newspaper group, magazine publisher Future, ClearChannel, the largest outdoor company in the world and biggest radio owner in the US, iTouch, the ringtone operator, and the new hit musical Guys and Dolls.

As a media quiz question it would be a stinker. What have the following got in common? A U2 concert, Live8, Johnston Press, the regional newspaper group, magazine publisher Future, ClearChannel, the largest outdoor company in the world and biggest radio owner in the US, iTouch, the ringtone operator, and the new hit musical Guys and Dolls.

Top marks for the right answer - the common factor is Roger Parry, former Radio 4 Today programme reporter turned multimillionaire, who has been called a one-man media sector and who has fingers in as many pies as he has fingers.

Even by Parry standards, last week was a busy one. On Tuesday he held his summer party which provided a platform for the likes of Kelvin MacKenzie and David Montgomery to hold forth. On Wednesday evening he escorted guests to the ClearChannel-backed Guys and Dolls. Parry is chairman of ClearChannel International. During the day, Roger Parry was wearing a different hat - chairman of Future Publishing - and announcing annual results and the completion of the purchase of 38 magazines from Highbury House for £30.5m. This coincided with a trading statement from Johnston Press (chairman R Parry) warning of an advertising slump. The week was rounded off by the Japanese firm completing its purchase of iTouch (in which Independent News and Media was a shareholder) for £180m. Until the deal Roger Parry was a non-executive director of iTouch. And then it was off to the ClearChannel U2 concert at Twickenham yesterday. Beyond business Parry is a big fan of U2. At the beginning of next month he has Live8 to look forward to. ClearChannel, which runs live music events and owns 22 theatres including the Lyceum and the Dominion, is a co-sponsor of Bob Geldof's epic event.

"Last week was busy for me," admits Parry, chairman of ClearChannel International, with more than a touch of British understatement. His reach into British life, not just media, is breathtaking. "If you go and have a pee in Westminster it's in one of our toilets," he notes with pride. "I have to say I never thought I'd find myself in the toilet business. If I am brutally honest I have never been able to work up much enthusiasm for the public toilet but I recognise that's part of our business as well. It's not the one I dream about at night," he adds quickly.

Fifteen years ago the outdoor - or poster - business was just about that, posters. Paper stuck on plywood. Then ClearChannel's great rival JCDecaux, was the innovator with back-lit screens and indeed a profusion of street toilets in exchange for municipal advertising space.

Now, apart from the latest scrolling screens, in order to win municipal advertising space ClearChannel provides for "free" everything from flower pots, trees, sculpture to street internet systems - and, yes, toilets.

"As a business person I have always liked those niches of the media that don't suffer from glamour ratings and oversupply. The problem with television as a business is that there is just too much of it and it's bloody difficult to make money," says Parr. "The beauty of outdoor was it was largely ignored which allowed us (ClearChannel) to build up this very strong worldwide business."

Last year the US company had revenues of more than $9bn of which commercial radio accounted for $3.7bn, outdoor $2.4bn and live entertainment $2.7bn. Parry is responsible for all the ClearChannel businesses outside the US. While his role in spending $2.5bn to build outdoor businesses in Europe, Asia and China is interesting, it is his range of media roles and the knowledge they bring that is even more significant.

"I am very privileged and lucky in that I am exposed to the newspaper sector, the magazine sector, the advertising sector, the radio sector and you learn a lot from just listening from what is going on in world economics," says Parry, who wanted to be a petroleum geologist because that was where the big money was at the time. It only took one trip to a North Sea oil field to disabuse him of that notion. At his day job - ClearChannel - Parry is an enthusiast for outdoor, the sector where much of the company's growth and profits are currently coming from. The reasons are very clear. As the television audience fragments it is becoming more costly for advertisers to reach the mass audience. The outdoor industry argues it is more cost-effective in reaching the masses.

"It's a bit more of a blunt instrument than magazines or newspapers, but for most campaigns there is no harm in being a relatively blunt instrument because they want to get across a broadcast message," explains Parry.

The international world of outdoor is now dominated by three companies led by ClearChannel and followed by the French group JCDecaux and the American multimedia player Viacom. Once an advertiser might have bought a handful of poster sites. Now every object on the street has its own GPS code and detailed figures for potential audiences. An advertiser can buy a package of 500 bus shelters and the package can be skewed towards shelters close to Marks & Spencer or Tesco for different advertising campaigns. ClearChannel itself is undergoing a major restructuring in the US with its three business being floated separately. Live entertainment is being sold with outdoor floated and the 1,200 radio stations and 38 TV stations in the US turned into a totally separate quoted business.

The resulting turmoil means that an early entry into the UK radio market - long rumoured - is extremely unlikely. When bankers want to sell a commercial radio station they always come to Roger Parry.

ClearChannel has the financial firepower to take over GCap, the merged Capital-GWR business, almost any time it wanted to but in recent years Parry has always come to the conclusion that UK radio stocks are overvalued.

But is a big deal still possible some day - if not this year? "I'd have to give you a politician's answer. ClearChannel has an absolute and demonstrable commitment to radio as a medium. They believe in it. They like it. They love it," replies Parry who points out that the company already owns stations in Australia, New Zealand and Mexico as well as in the US.

"If there was to be another overseas expansion I think we would go to an English-language market such as the UK or Canada but there are no plans at the moment," he adds firmly.

As non-executive chairman of Johnston Press, Parry is optimistic about the future of the regional newspaper industry and sees the internet more of an opportunity than a threat. The company addresses, for example, a market such as Leeds with a daily newspaper, a weekly newspaper, a couple of free newspapers, specialist lifestyle magazines and a website. It will be very difficult for anyone else to replicate that.

"As long as we are good with technology, as long as we are not myopic, as long as we are not old-fashioned, we are in a better position to migrate our services [to the internet] than anyone coming in completely from scratch," he insists.

In the very, very long run the company might print fewer newspapers but it will take a long time. One of Johnston's titles, The Stamford Mercury, is celebrating its 200th anniversary.

As non-executive chairman of Future who took over when the company was "days from bankruptcy", Parry was very surprised that the competition authorities did not immediately approve the acquisition of Highbury House. Nevertheless, plan B - buying 38 of their titles - was "very attractive and viable." This week's results for the six months to March showed a 5 per cent rise in Future's turnover to £104.3m, although pre-tax profits of £12.8m were up by only 1 per cent.

Roger Parry got to where he is now through a particularly rich mixture of luck and judgement. And at almost every stage of the way he has stumbled into larger and larger piles of money.

After studying geology at Bristol he went to Oxford to do a business degree and worked on a thesis on applying professional management techniques to the advertising industry. For a time he was Maurice and Charles Saatchi's first male personal assistant. One of his jobs was to pay the parking tickets on the finance director's purple Alfa Romeo. That finance director was Martin Sorrell, now the billionaire head of the WPP advertising empire.

"Maurice and Charles were simply the smartest and most glamorous people I had even seen, and they were just inventing an industry," says Parry.

He got a summer job at the BBC as a researcher on the holiday programme Going Places after his then girlfriend, the editor of the Oxford student newspaper Cherwell, showed him the ad that was going to appear in the next issue. Parry rang up immediately, got the job and was soon a freelance reporter on the Today programme and later combined the job with BBC television news reporting.

"It was the happiest, most enjoyable period of my working life. In your 20s and working for the Today programme and you ring up cabinet ministers and they jump," says Parry, who believes he was the first reporter to appear on BBC Breakfast.

In the early 1980s he was responsible for the new business slot at 6.50am that displaced Prayer for Today. A monsignor wrote to The Times describing him as the young man "who replaced God with Mammon".

A lot of the time he was a general television news reporter - "the bloke in the mac outside a building". It was fun but not as much fun as Today. His pot started to grow when he was sacked by Thames TV - where he had an unhappy spell as a news reporter - for joining a consortium that bid unsuccessfully for the LBC radio franchise. He left with " a paper bag full of money".

His career as a journalist effectively ended when consultants McKinsey, who were looking for journalists with business degrees, came calling. The reason why he gave up journalism? McKinsey offered to triple his income, and anyway at the time there was a mantra among some BBC people that you don't really want to be on television much after the age of 30.

McKinsey put him in touch with the real world of business including being involved in the restructuring of the advertising industry companies WCRS and Aegis. As part of the changes he had to be fired one Tuesday morning and rehired the same afternoon. In between he "picked up £100,000 for passing Go".

On the back of his original Oxford thesis on people businesses, published as a book, he created a consultancy business and made a bob or two more.

The old bid for the LBC franchise was then dusted down and, with broadcaster Ron Onions and banker Bruce Fireman, Parry struck gold. They won and, without broadcasting a single word, the licence was then sold on to Reuters for £10m - something that was perfectly permissible under the rules.

"Bruce extracted a sum from Reuters that genuinely caused me to have a minor palpitation," says Parry, who adds that the resulting celebration party was spectacular.

Using his growing pot he bought into the outdoor advertising company More O'Ferrell at £3 a share. It was later sold to ClearChannel for £11.10 a share and Parry was invited to stay and run the enlarged company for the American purchasers.

He had also bought a personal stake in the Jazz FM radio stations and then - donning his ClearChannel hat again - the company bought a 30 per cent stake in the broadcaster for 30p a share. After restructuring and sorting out the programming, the entire company was sold to the Guardian Media group for 180p a share.

In recent years, Parry's financial touch doesn't seem to have deserted him. As a non-executive chairman he does not accept share options but he does use his own money to buy shares in the companies he is associated with. He put a lot of his own money into the emergency rights issue that raised £56m for Future at 20p a share. The shares are now trading at around 80p. He is also ahead in a Johnston Press investment after buying at £3 compared with the current price of 480p.

Parry has also become a specialist on the nature of business leadership and recently published a book on the subject, Enterprise. One of his strong beliefs is that there should be a clear separation between the role of chief executive and chairman.

"I have a deep prejudice against chairmen who have offices and drivers and secretaries. I have none of those things. I take a fee; I turn up; I run the board meeting and I am available in the day, any day, to the chief executive," he says.

Apart from its very silly name he observes that GCap is one of those mergers where there are few real synergies and limited opportunity for cost-cutting, although you do have the benefits of scale.

"I still think the merger is a good idea. If I was Ralph [Bernard] or David [Mansfield] I would have done exactly the same thing, but in the end it is in that category of huddling together for warmth because you have two businesses both facing a difficult trading environment," says Parry.

He has now reached the stage in his varied career where, although he does not have a high profile, the headhunters call when almost any senior job in the media comes up - from director-general of the BBC to the chief executive of United Business Media, and, memorably, the chief executive's seat at BSkyB.

Parry believes that he was the only external candidate to make it to the final round of the BSkyB job, which ultimately went to James Murdoch.

"I actually think James Murdoch has been a superb chief executive. If you think about it, what better qualification than to have the trust of the largest shareholder [Rupert Murdoch]," he says.

Parry says he is happy where he is at ClearChannel and that it would have to be something special to persuade him to move. Clearly Sky fitted the special category. "It would have been foolish not to say I might be interested," he admits. He has a respect for Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

"I think they are gutsy and I do think they do allow journalists and editors to get on with it," he says in a view not universally shared.

The only remaining question now is whether there will be one final big media job for Roger Parry - one that brings together the elements of his past so that he really does become more than the sum of his parts.

"If Les Hinton [executive chairman of News International] retired I would like his job. I have always admired News Corporation," says Roger Parry with due deliberation.

The cv

BRIGHT SPARK: Born in 1953, Parry achieves five A levels at Sutton Grammar School, before going to Bristol University to read geology. He does a masters at Oxford University and writes his thesis on "Organisation of Advertising Agencies".

SAATCHIS: In 1976 he goes to work as a personal assistant to the advertising legends Maurice and Charles Saatchi, who are busy revolutionising the advertising industry. Parry also works for the Saatchi brothers's finance director Martin Sorrell, now head of WPP, the world's biggest advertising company.

JOURNALIST: For eight years Parry works as a reporter on radio and television, most notably on the Radio4 'Today' programme and as a business reporter for BBC Breakfast television. He has a less than happy spell reporting for Thames TV.

BUSINESSMAN: After being recruited by McKinsey & Co in 1985, Parry develops his business antennae. After helping to restructure the advertising companies WCRS and Aegis, he forms part of a 1993 bid for the LBC radio franchise. Parry and his partners make £10m from the venture without even going on air.

MEDIA MOGUL: Having being appointed president of the media company Carat North America in 1994 and then chief executive of UK media company More Group the following year, Parry is offered the non-executive chairmanship of UK regional newspaper group Johnston Press in 1997. The following year he leaves More and joins global media giant Clear Channel as chairman of its international operation, retaining the position at Johnston Press and then adding the non-executive chairman's role at expanding UK magazine publishing company Future.

SHAKESPEAREAN: For the past 18 years Parry has been a trustee of the Shakespeare's Globe Trust, which supports the Bard's reconstructed theatre by the Thames.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in