MEDIA: HEADLINER - Emap chief endures the heat for taking the hard decisions. Kevin Hand believes in his plans despite what critics predict. Ian Darby reports

Oscar Wilde's observation that 'ambition is the last refuge of the failure' seems to sum up the current situation at Emap. Critics say the stock market darling of the 90s is struggling because it has over-reached itself in attempting to grow in overseas markets.

Oscar Wilde's observation that 'ambition is the last refuge of the failure' seems to sum up the current situation at Emap. Critics say the stock market darling of the 90s is struggling because it has over-reached itself in attempting to grow in overseas markets.

The man taking the flak for falling ad revenues and a collapse in its stock market valuation (resulting in its ejection from the FTSE 100) is Kevin Hand, the publisher's 47-year-old chief executive.

Hand led Emap into the US two years ago with the acquisition of Petersen for pounds 720 million, and has been responsible for an aggressive programme of magazine launches in other markets, including an investment of pounds 20 million in launching a US version of the lads' magazine FHM.

Critics of Hand argue that the Petersen acquisition has not worked.

They say Emap should sell the US publisher of titles such as Guns and Ammo, Skin Diver and Dirt Rider to focus on its core market of UK consumer magazines.

One senior industry source says: 'Emap paid far too much for Petersen. The logical thing to do would be to flog the bulk of it and do something clever with the remaining components to impress the City. Emap is struggling due to a bit of bad luck, but mainly because of a large amount of hubris.'

Emap's shareholders are laying the blame for this hubris at Hand's door.

Reports two weeks ago suggested he will be given six months to turn things around before they demand his removal.

One source close to Emap says this is unfair: 'The job is very big and Hand doesn't get much support from the chairman (Robin Miller). The problem with Miller is that when things go well he takes the credit, but when they go badly he becomes invisible.'

Those who know Hand say he is remarkably determined. He is also admirably calm under pressure. Hand says: 'This is a high-profile media group, but I don't think there is any pressure on me. My aim is to out-perform the market we are in and to make Emap even more of a multimedia group.'

Evidence of multimedia activity includes the launch of digital TV versions of the music magazines Q, Smash Hits and Kerrang! and a digital version of Kiss 100. Online projects include Q and FHM.

The jury is out on whether Hand will survive. Analysts predict he can save his job if Petersen is sold off and performance in UK consumer magazines improves. However, one source close to Emap believes Hand will be forced out. He says: 'It's difficult to survive when the City gets its teeth in.'

Hand is adamant that Emap is not selling Petersen. 'This is all speculation. It has taken us more time to get Petersen working than we thought. The product improvement has been difficult, but we're getting there.'

In Hand's favour is the relatively diversified nature of Emap's investors.

It has no single large investor with the power to force him out, as in the case of David Montgomery at Mirror Group.

Hand has been an Emap man since 1983 when he joined as circulation director from the publisher Link House. He was appointed chief executive in 1998, having earned his spurs by performing a remarkable turnaround of Emap's French operations where he was appointed managing director in 1994.

Since taking the chief executive job Hand has conducted a restructuring of the UK business with the formation of Emap Advertising, which has integrated sales teams across digital, radio and magazines. Hand says this will 'help us out-perform the market with cross-media deals', but there is little evidence of this so far. He says the first large-scale deal has been struck with an advertiser but refuses to say more.

The restructuring also saw the creation of four networks (Emap Elan, Emap Performance, Emap Health and Emap Automotive) and a separate division for digital services, Emap Digital. The restructure has so far produced disappointing results and Emap has been forced to halve its three-year investment in digital services from pounds 250 million to pounds 120 million.

However, last week's ABCs provided some encouragement for Hand. Elle's circulation was up 6.8 per cent year on year, FHM's was up by 2 per cent, and Heat's by a staggering 137 per cent. There were, though, some blips, including falls for Red and the music magazines Q and Smash Hits.

Hand now needs to address the issue of falling UK ad sales (they were down 8 per cent for the six months to September last year) and declining profits in the UK (down from pounds 36 million to pounds 28 million for the same period).

There are good signs, including strong growth at Emap Performance and an aggressive period of UK launches starting with the music magazine Kingsize next month. If Hand can control his, and Emap's ambition, he may survive.



THE HAND FILE

1974: National Association of Boys Clubs, information officer

1978: Link House, marketing director

1983: Emap, circulation director

1994: Groupe Emap (France), managing director

1998: Emap, chief executive.



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