Feature

Haymarket 50 Years: One man - one vision

The Haymarket chairman, Lord Heseltine, gives Andrew Davidson his views on the internet, reveals who inspired his dash for overseas growth and why he has no plans to step down soon.

Lord Heseltine is at his desk, writing a thank-you letter. "Hang on a minute," he says, carefully handwriting the card. "Thank-you letters are very important. What can I do for you?"

I am here - I explain - to interview him for his special supplement, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Haymarket, his publishing company.

He glances at his watch, as if I am already taking too long. "But I am going to the theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon," he protests. King Lear will not wait. Then, characteristically, he offers a brisk compromise. He'll talk. "But I have to leave at 3.30pm."

Brisk is a way of life for Heseltine. He built a Parliamentary career quickly, rising to become defence minister under Margaret Thatcher and deputy prime minister in John Major's government, and now he's at it again, back in his magazine publishing business.

At age 74, most people would be spending more time in the garden. But Heseltine, whose garden is bigger than most (including a 50-acre arboretum), has his eyes on a different prize. It's not coincidental that even his arboretum is owned by Haymarket. Business, it seems, consumes him.

Since he left politics and returned to Haymarket ten years ago, taking up the chairman's role, the change in direction for the company has been considerable. More titles, more countries, a world perspective.

Heseltine, sitting in his sixth floor office at Haymarket's base in west London, nods appreciatively at my description. "There is a good saying: we've turned ourselves from a large small company into a small large company, and now we have all the necessary apparatus - HR, communications, accountancy systems, R&D - to run a company twice this size."

The business, with its professional and leisure titles including Campaign, Management Today and Autocar, now has a turnover of £250 million. And he wants to double it again.

Is he a man in a hurry? He shrugs. Impatience, he says, is in his nature. Others close to him argue the briskness is a cover. The Haymarket founder is now playing a longer game: reinvesting, building, worrying less about the bottom line and more about the future.

So he has planted Haymarket subsi-diaries overseas - "all are profitable now, and increasingly so" - and snaffled up the outstanding shares in his company. Soon it will be 100 per cent Heseltine-owned. While everyone else is rushing to private equity or the stock market, where it is easier to raise capital and attract and retain key executives with equity, Heseltine plots his own, idiosyncratic course. Why?

"It's peace of mind," he says. He can get the money he needs by borrowing from the bank, he doesn't want to waste time explaining himself to shareholders and journalists, and he can use bonus and profit-sharing schemes to reward executives. "And you only have to look at the period our managers have been with us to know there is something about Haymarket they like," he says. That gives his private company strengths that quoted rivals lack. "We can take a decision in hours," he says, "because everyone is here."

Tall and lean, blond hair brushed back, Heseltine speaks fast and clearly, and rarely deviates from the point, offering little humour, and no asides. Those around him say his experience in government makes him adroit at cutting through verbiage.

"He has the ability to ask the killer question," his son Rupert Heseltine, Haymarket's deputy chairman, says. "That comes from the years in politics."

Rupert Heseltine, 40, will succeed his father as chairman, another example of the wished-for clarity. There will be no division of empire - Lord Heseltine's daughters Annabel and Alexandra will not be involved. "It's about keeping it simple," Rupert Heseltine says, pointing out that many family businesses stumble when responsibility is shared between siblings.

Less clear is when the chairman might step down. "Well," Lord Heseltine says, with a sly smile, "you can ask 'when', but my characteristic of immortality makes it unnecessary." Does his son ask? "He never asks, but he may think it," he says, giving me a look.

It's a singular way to run a company and the word "cussed" springs to mind. That has long been a Heseltine trait, as political rivals will testify. He has no time for media industry experts who say you cannot be a medium-sized magazine publisher, and that print will soon be overwhelmed by the internet.

"I will say this to you. Wireless didn't destroy the printed word. Television didn't destroy the printed word. I don't think the worldwide web will either.

"What is happening across the world is that six billion people are better educated and growing economically at 4 per cent per annum, that is one hell of a lot of spending power. What the internet is doing is just what wireless and television did - stimulating human curiosity. Against a background of higher education and increasing wealth, curiosity stimulates demand, we are in the business of satisfying that demand."

Then he adds: "I think the generalist media are more exposed than we are."

He has a point. He wants Haymarket to develop a mix of printed and online offerings, backed by conferences and exhibitions, giving advertisers a variety of ways to reach target audiences.

But why the sudden dash for growth overseas? He says it was simply about opportunity, and stemmed from a chance meeting with Terry Mansfield, the former managing director at The National Magazine Company.

"I saw the Cosmopolitans from different countries in his magazine rack and thought 'why can't we do that?'" Heseltine says. "My ministerial experience was important. I'd travelled sufficiently to see that what Britain looked like as an advanced economy was similar to what others looked like. If we could do it here, we could do it there."

So now Haymarket has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Germany, Mumbai, Hong Kong and Sydney. It also has 110 different magazine licences in 31 languages working with more than 60 publishers in 40 different countries, producing titles like Autocar, Stuff, F1 Racing, Campaign, PrintWeek and Packaging News.

That's brought the company a long way from its roots, publishing a directory of job opportunities for graduates in 1957. Back then, Heseltine admits, it was chance that took him into magazines. "Two extraordinary decisions came out of the blue," Heseltine says of his years after Oxford. "I bought a boarding house with a friend" - a prelude to his foray into property development - "and I joined Clive Labovitch in a publishing venture. Both were student mates. It coincided with me being an articled clerk at an accountancy firm, but I was just so much happier working for myself."

That entrepreneurial nous is in his genes. "My mother's father started his own business and on my father's side; we were involved in a grocery business, Heseltine, Kearley and Tonge."

Heseltine's father was an engineer and Army officer. Some think Heseltine's drive to do his own thing must have been about proving a point to him - the long mop of hair, the insistence on creating his own business, his political career. Heseltine is unconvinced when I put that to him, but says there were family frictions that pushed him on. He hates internal politics, for instance, whether in his company or organisations around him. "That stems from my family when I was growing up. There could be bad feeling between aunts and uncles and money was often at the heart of it." He just wanted to be financially independent.

Those who have known him for decades say his character is key. "Michael has a charisma that makes people want to do well for him. That's important," says Lindsay Masters, who ran Haymarket when Heseltine was absorbed in government and politics. "He'll also take the long view, and he has incredible stamina." This, remember, is a man whose 1993 heart attack made front-page headlines. "Look at Michael now, he's always flying off somewhere."

David Fraser, who joined Haymarket as the finance director in the late 60s and became a close friend, says trust is also important. It's rare to see someone put a business in the hands of others for virtually three decades, and trust them to get on with it, he says.

"But Michael was always good at creating a great can-do atmosphere, and pulling together talented people," Fraser says. "That stems from him."

And now he is back, he's not letting go any time soon. When I ask if he would consider selling Haymarket, he says no, never, not even for a stupidly large sum. "What would I do with the money? Would life be as exciting, waiting to see what the stockbroker told me was up or down? I couldn't plant any more trees. I'm not going anywhere."

Any regrets? Only not taking a share of Maurice Saatchi's start-up ad agency in the 70s, and selling Accountancy Age and Computing in 1991. "All sorts of good things came out of selling the titles, but they went on to make so much money. I was in government and my colleagues felt strongly we had to make the decision."

Should he have interfered more? No, he says. His directors "kept the show on the road" and his gratitude is profound. But now, the buck stops with him, and that's how he likes it.

Anyway, King Lear beckons, though I suspect Hesetine will not be a sympathetic audience. When I ask if he's prepared for Sir Ian McKellen dropping his trousers, he says: "What? King Lear takes his clothes off? Oh my God." And he dashes off. Heseltine's plans for empire are rather different.

- Andrew Davidson started his journalistic career at Haymarket in 1983, and edited Marketing magazine from 1988-89. He now writes a weekly interview column in The Sunday Times.

HESELTINE: ESSENTIAL TRIVIA

First deal: As a schoolboy, selling fizzy drinks to thirsty schoolmates, having purchased them at a local post office.

First Jaguar: Bought in 1956, second-hand, for £1,750. Traded in a year later for the same price, and a brand-new model.

First garden: As a schoolboy at Broughton Hall, a square yard of garden and a packet of Virginia stock seeds. Later planted one of the larger British arboretums, created in the second half of the 20th century, on 50 acres in Northamptonshire.

Nicknames: Tarzan - coined by Stanley Clinton-David, a political opponent, who told the Commons Heseltine reminded him of Johnny Weissmuller, the actor who had played the original role in the Hollywood films. Hezza - borrowed from the footballer Gazza, and invented in his journalistic days by Tony Blair's former press secretary Alastair Campbell.