By Alasdair Reid, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 18 January 2008 12:00AM
Right from the off, Stephen Grabiner proves difficult to pin down for an interview. His spokesperson explains that Grabiner is not just head of Apax's global media sector team, but is also the boss of the whole London office - and it's still in the process of settling in to some swanky new premises in Jermyn Street. So, plenty of bright orange plastic crates still to unpack, then.
A fine excuse, but it seems that Grabiner, who has just pulled off a joint bid (alongside Guardian Media Group) for Emap's business-to-business arm, has a general aversion to interviews. It's not exactly as if he's shy - he is, after all, one of the best connected people in the media business, and also happens to be one of its more genial and approachable characters.
Nor is his reticence down to his experience at the hands of the press during his most high-profile role in public life, when he was the chief executive of ONdigital (the digital terrestrial platform that became ITV Digital, before collapsing rather ignominiously) between April 1998 and July 1999. Although it's probably true to write that he was reported as saying things that probably still make him cringe.
Back then, digital television was perceived to be a straight fight between ONdigital and BSkyB, and, in an attempt to show he was up for a scrap with big bad Rupert Murdoch, Grabiner started to come out with "ya-booh stuff" such as: "Sky is for sad people who live in lofts."
No. He doesn't do interviews because he likes, some say, to move in mysterious ways. "It's sort of like a code of practice," one observer says. "Venture capitalists pride themselves on their ability to remain in the background."
But actually, we're probably getting to the stage when this will no longer do. Venture capitalists in general, and Grabiner in particular, are wielding a growing power within the media sector, as has been amply demonstrated by the Emap deal he brokered with GMG back in December.
In the late 20th century, there was a widespread assumption that sustained media company success could best be underwritten by stock market flotation; but, as the new century has unfolded, that model has become increasingly unfashionable.
So perhaps it's time to become reacquainted with the man who, as he moved from The Daily Telegraph via the Daily Express to ONdigital, was reckoned by some to be the most talented media manager of his generation.
Interestingly, though, he started out as a management consultant. In 1985, as Andrew Knight engineered a takeover of the Telegraph Group with the help of backing from Conrad Black, Grabiner was at Coopers & Lybrand. Knight brought him in to help restructure what was, at that stage, an ailing company, liked what he saw and persuaded him to stay.
Grabiner became the managing director, and was at the helm during the ferocious cover price war that erupted as Murdoch's The Times tried to usurp The Daily Telegraph as the UK's biggest-selling quality daily. In 1996, still only 37, he moved on, becoming the executive director at United News and Media, responsible for its regional and national newspapers, including the Express titles.
When he baled out of the thankless task that was ONdigital, there was actually speculation he was to join eVentures, a digital media investment company backed by his bete noir, Murdoch. Apax made much more sense.
His first big deal saw Apax buying Yell Group from BT in June 2001; more recent deals have included Hit Entertainment, Incisive Media (which may now be merged with Emap's business-to-business interests), and a previous deal with GMG that saw it become a joint venture partner in Trader Media Group. Last year, it backed an unsuccessful £1.6 billion bid for ITV.
Acquaintances say that although he works ferociously hard, he still manages to be a devoted family man - no small commitment given that he not only has two sons and a daughter, but is also a member of an extremely tight-knit extended North London family. He worships at White Hart Lane, with a seat in that media and advertising ghetto known as the Upper West Stand.
Len Sanderson, formerly his deputy managing director at the Telegraph Group, says there was always an unswerving belief on the paper that Grabiner was one of the best media managers around, not just in print, but also across the whole media sector. He adds: "The truly impressive thing back then was that the newspaper industry was full of terribly autocratic characters - he really stood out as a team player who respected the input of others. He balanced the interests of the journalistic side brilliantly with the commercial side. He loved getting involved in all aspects of the business. All sorts of things genuinely interest him."
That rather begs the question as to why he's not in a high-profile role at one of the world's big media corporations. Apart from the fact that he has probably made more money than he could ever hope to make in management, however lofty. Others say that staying in the background and pulling strings suits his temperament. He is easily bored, loves new challenges and adores being able to make telling interventions across a whole range of different companies.
As for the pros and cons of the seemingly inexorable rise of venture capital - that's the subject for a whole book. The paradox is that although venture capital companies plan to have only a brief involvement with the companies they become engaged with (typically they want to come in, set things on course and then sell within a five-year period), they actually take a more long-term view than the investors in a plc, who think only in terms of weeks and months.
But there's little doubt that many believe Grabiner to be the best of the bunch. The thing that sets him apart, Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of GMG, says, is the fact he has had so much direct management expertise. She concludes: "Most people in private equity don't actually know what that's like. He's a fantastic dealmaker, and the Apax media team as a whole is very good. They know the sector inside out. They are absolutely committed to creating better businesses with more returns."
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk