MEDIA: HEADLINER - The publishing world's quiet achiever nets Microsoft deal. Chris Anderson is leading Future Publishing to the top of the game

The boys from Bath were back in the headlines last week, having secured a contract for the biggest international magazine launch the world has ever seen.

The boys from Bath were back in the headlines last week, having secured a contract for the biggest international magazine launch the world has ever seen.

The Future Network's deal to publish Microsoft's official Xbox gaming magazine globally is yet another chapter in a company history that includes a sale to Pearson, a management buyout, flotation and the installment on the board of Elisabeth Murdoch.

Presiding over the Future Network is Chris Anderson, its founder and chairman, who at the age of 43 employs 2,000 people worldwide and publishes more than 130 magazines and 56 web products. With an estimated pounds 140 million made personally from last year's London stock market flotation, this shy man now ranks 104th in The Sunday Times's rich list.

It wasn't always this way, though. For years Anderson and his Bath-based magazine company was regarded by the London-centric media world as a joke. He might have metamorphosed from a 28-year-old Oxford graduate working out of a garage in 1985 to Britain's fastest growing publisher by the early 90s, but critics refused to be impressed by a portfolio that included titles such as Cross Stitch and Good Woodworking.

All that changed in 1994, when Anderson sold 93 per cent of Future Publishing to Pearson New Entertainment for pounds 52.7 million - only to buy it back as part of a pounds 142 million management buyout four years later. When last June's stock exchange flotation came around, the 'anorak' publishing house, launched on a pounds 15,000 bank loan, was valued at pounds 578 million.

For Anderson, though, the Microsoft agreement is the big one. 'I don't claim the credit for the deal,' he says with customary modesty, 'but the vision of an international media company that can do this kind of deal is what we have been planning since we amalgamated my US company Imagine Media into Future and floated last year.'

It was Future Publishing's international expansion over the past few years (setting up in Italy, Germany, America and Poland) that enabled Anderson to persuade Microsoft to award a global franchise for the new publication.

'The original request was just for the US magazine licence,' he explains, 'but we were obviously eager to broaden it to a worldwide deal given our unique position.'

The fact that the 'unique position' includes publishing the rival games console Sony PlayStation's official magazine in the UK has raised some eyebrows. Yes, it gives the company a proven track record in licensed publishing, but what about client conflict? Isn't Sony likely to walk?

Anderson seems unruffled, talking of 'Chinese walls' between the titles and saying only that he is 'pleased to have broken that mould'.

So far, Microsoft and Sony have agreed to the planned scheme to circumvent any clash of interests: the Xbox magazine will be run by a new, separate London-based subsidiary, reporting to Anderson at Imagine Media, while Future's Bath-based offices continue their existing relationship with Sony.

The global nature of the deal not only presents opportunities for international media buying, but provides Future with the opportunity to strengthen and expand its international relationships.

There is concern from a number of quarters, however, that it is all happening too fast. Lorna Tilbian, a media analyst for WestLB Panmure, says: 'I'm concerned that 30 new launches this year is a lot to take on and that Anderson, who used to oversee everything personally, will be overstretched.'

It should be noted, however, that Anderson works closely with his chief executive, Greg Ingham, who is based in Bath.

Anderson, an intensely private man who refuses to discuss his home life in San Francisco, puts his success down to his 'passion' for publishing.

'It's a word he uses a lot,' a colleague says.

Anderson may not give much away personally, but his generosity is well known (he paid for 80 friends to join him in Whistler for the millennium), and his work ethic is said to be so infectious that other publishers talk enviously of Future's 'messianic zeal'.