Maiden's alpha male nurses his baby into diverse future

Ron Zeghibe isn't what you might expect from Maiden Outdoor, Alasdair Reid says.

The main question you keep asking yourself when you interview Ron Zeghibe is: what on earth is he doing in the UK outdoor advertising business? You've asked him this a couple of times already and each time he's given you an answer, a perfectly good answer, but you can't help feeling that you don't understand it. Not really.

The outdoor business has grown up enormously over the past decade or so, but it still has more than its fair share of chancers, rough diamonds, duckers and divers. And then there's Zeghibe. Even in a high-powered gathering of businessmen, he'd be a class apart -- but in the context of the poster business he seems to come from an entirely different planet.

A Bostonian, he's a graduate of Harvard College and Oxford (Middle-Eastern studies, Arabic) and of the Harvard Business School, where he picked up an MBA. While at Oxford, he was a member of the lightweight rowing club and remains a member of the Leander club. After the Harvard Business School, he took a well-trodden route into merchant banking and combined that with his interest in the Middle East, working for a couple of Saudi banks.

For his Harvard thesis on the Lebanese civil war, he spent almost six months in the region, interviewing all the major power brokers, including Yasser Arafat. He maintains contacts with the region and is helping Harvard set up a Middle-Eastern centre.

He still counts Middle-Eastern politics among his interests, but these days his more immediate focus is charity work and the arts, especially opera. He's a board member of the Royal Academy as well as the Royal National Institute of the Blind and is a prominent fundraiser both for his Oxford college and for Harvard. In his spare time, does he lounge about watching telly? Not exactly. He's learning French -- a gap in his education that he's always regretted.

As one colleague puts it: "He's a polymath and an alpha male. It's as simple as that." So you can't get around this -- what's an alpha male doing in the outdoor business? What, in particular, is he doing leading the parochial tribe that is Maiden, the least muscular of the major UK outdoor media owners, one that risks getting sand kicked in its face by its rivals?

The past few months, when some of Maiden's most important contracts were up for renewal, provide an excellent case in point. Sources from Maiden's multinational rivals, Clear Channel, Viacom and JCDecaux, saw this as an opportunity to sow discord and poison wells in the City (Maiden, remember, is a publicly quoted company).

Their line was that Maiden would offer too much in its desperation to retain the contracts, which would then become unprofitable and Maiden would hit a wall. Alternatively, Maiden would lose the contracts, hastening the same end -- a knock-down sale to, funnily enough, Clear Channel or Viacom or JCDecaux.

Not for the first time, Maiden prevailed, being reappointed to two Network Rail contracts worth on average just under £50m a year in revenues. Zeghibe says the results bear huge testament to the team led by the managing director, David Pugh, and the boss of the company's rail division, Roger Fernley, who handled the pitch.

But the question remains. Why? Why is he running Maiden instead of advising the US secretary of defence or chairing some United Nations commission or other? After all, he's been in the Maiden job for more than a decade now.

During a period where he was working as a consultant, he was brought in to advise Ian Maiden, the last family owner of the company that still bears his name. Zeghibe ended up leading a management buyout, which was completed in 1993, subsequently taking the company to a full Stock Exchange listing in 1996.

In a sense, then (though he would never be immodest enough to suggest this himself), the company is his baby. And it's true that, despite his myriad interests, the 48-year-old Zeghibe still finds time to be a consummate family man (he has twin five-year-old daughters and a son, newly arrived in January).

What he does say, though, is that there's plenty in the outdoor business to engage him. He talks of the challenge of staying ahead of the game. In order to survive, Maiden has had to be the most innovative in the market. It was the first to treat outdoor as a media business rather than a glorified property business. It has also been early to diversify into outdoor digital media with its network of Transvision screens.

And there's something exhilarating in that, he suggests. And you can imagine that this might be true. But really, why is he the chief executive of Maiden? "People always said I was in this for a fast buck," he says. There's a pause, then a dry laugh. "Some fast buck."

The Zeghibe file

1981 Various roles in merchant banking, including spells at the Saudi International Bank and the Central Bank of Saudi Arabia

1991 Consultant, including work on the turnaround of the Dutch outdoor company Mediamax

1993 Maiden Outdoor, chief executive