Feature

Literary schemer offers home for fart jokes and UFOs

Felix Dennis is buying the publisher of Fortean Times and Viz, writes Ian Darby.

It could be a marriage made in heaven. Felix Dennis, the chairman of Dennis Publishing, and James Brown, the chief executive of I Feel Good, seem to have more in common than most husbands and wives.

In particular, both men have shown a capacity for bad taste and a tendency to flirt with calamity and survive. Dennis, as an editor of Oz magazine, was sent to prison in 1971 for publishing a cartoon of Rupert Bear shagging Gypsy Granny. Brown, too, has often sailed close to the wind, particularly as the editor of GQ, and had the gall to take on the larger publishers by launching his own men's magazine, Jack.

It's not surprising, then, that Dennis, who previously owned 7 per cent of IFG and acted as its chairman, should want to buy IFG, which also publishes Viz, Bizarre and Fortean Times.

The final details of the deal are being ironed out, but IFG has agreed to Dennis Publishing's offer of £5.1m in cash, valuing its shares at 8p. IFG floated in 2000 with a share price of 32p. It paid £6.4m for John Brown Publishing's consumer titles, including Viz, two years ago. Brown's 40% share of IFG is now worth £1.2m, against almost £5m three years ago.

Dennis, a man with a personal fortune of around £500 million, is committed to growing Dennis Publishing through acquisition, particularly after the success of Maxim's US edition. In IFG's case, he appears to have ridden in just in time. The publisher had sales of £7.96 million last year and made a pre-tax loss of £750,000. However, Brown points out that last year IFG's bottom line improved by £1m and that it was due to break even by next year.

For IFG, then, the deal was motivated more by a desire to achieve greater newsstand sales for Jack against the promotional clout of larger publishers. Brown says: "Dennis is a better home for Jack if we are to achieve what we want for it. The guys at Dennis in New York are really behind the magazine and if you look at the way they've licensed Maxim around the world it shows the potential."

Peter Howarth, a former editor of Esquire magazine and now the managing director of Show Media, agrees. "For IFG, there will be incredible potential for cross-promotion and Felix has always been incredibly good at this. It's lovely to have lots of new readers to target," he says.

At Dennis, presumably, the view was that IFG was undervalued, since its offer represents a premium of 88% of IFG's share price.

Dennis himself, who was in his Caribbean bolt-hole of Mustique and not available for comment, has said he is looking forward to working with Brown and his team. On the ground, however, IFG staff may have closer dealings with Alistair Ramsay, Dennis' UK managing director and IFG's chairman, of whom Brown jokes: "I think of him as very like David Brent. He can say things that are utterly meaningless."

Dennis' personality is stamped all over his company's culture. A free-wheeler who launched his company on the back of Kung-Fu Monthly (designed to cash in on the popularity of Bruce Lee), Dennis eschews the usual corporate cliches. His style is rooted in eco-friendly hippy ideals with a streak of hedonism -- the days of his crack cocaine addiction are well behind him, though.

Dennis has never provided the company with a mission statement. Instead, he wrote a poem called The Bearded Dwarf. It sums up his ethos with lines such as: "I've skated where the ice was thin/And once or twice have tumbled in." And, like many of the poems in Dennis' recent collection, 'A Glass Half Full', it even has some literary merit.

But behind the Byronic flamboyance lies a shrewd business brain. Summing up at the Oz trial, Judge Michael Argyle famously sentenced Dennis to less porridge than the other Oz editors on the grounds that he was "very much less intelligent than his fellow defendants". In fact, this judgment was thrown out a week later on appeal, but it lost all credence in light of Dennis' subsequent achievements.

Though Dennis and Brown may have traits in common, Brown refutes suggestions that they are close friends. "We're business partners. He's been great but I've only spoken to him twice in the past year. When we did speak, he gave great advice. He's a maverick and, through his poetry readings, people have got to know much more about him. He's very interested in creativity but he has a hard business side and it's not often that you find these hand in hand."

Dennis' stated -- though tongue-in-cheek -- position on the IFG deal is: "I have always loved flying saucers and Fortean Times is one of my favourite magazines."

Nothing to do with Viz having a strip called Felix and His Amazing Underpants, then?

The Dennis file

1971 Oz, co-editor, tried on obscenity charges

1973 Dennis Publishing, founder

1997 Dennis Publishing launches Maxim in the US

2000 I Feel Good, chairman

2003 Bids to acquire I Feel Good

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