United's story - Rationalised and rebranded, United changes tack with the focus now on business

It's almost unbelievable to consider that in the very near future, few of Campaign's readers will have cause to have professional contact with the United News & Media empire. Or what used to be known as the United News & Media empire - it renamed itself United Business Media in October last year.

And unlike the brainstorming efforts of the Accentures of this world,

this rebranding actually says it all. What used to be a consumer media

operation with glamorous television and newspaper interests a year ago

is now a business-to-business information company.

It's sometimes hard to take in the enormity of this change - and it goes

without saying that the past 12 months have been something of a white

knuckle ride.

Few media barons have had such a brief but torrid fling with mainstream

consumer media than Lord Hollick, a man whose core expertise was

wheeling and dealing in the City's money markets. When he first arrived

in the television business, winning the ITV franchise for the south east

of England a decade ago, he came out of left field - but though he

lacked the egomania of your average media baron he soon became one of

ITV's big three players, acquiring Express Newspapers (and its trade

publishing subsidiaries) along the way.

It was assumed that, as a Labour peer and friend of the Government, he

was in a fairly strong position; but when ITV's musical chairs began

again last year, Hollick was the one left standing and was forced to

cede his franchises to Granada. This was obviously a huge shock to the

system but his response has been remarkable in its uncompromising

clarity.

Express Newspapers was immediately put on the block and was sold for

pounds 125 million in November. All or most of the remaining consumer

assets effectively have 'for sale' signs above them too. Like LineOne,

its internet service provider joint venture with BT. And like its

consumer publishing division (Exchange and Mart, Dalton's, Express Auto

Exchange), its business-to-consumer web operations (dotmusic, MegaStar,

Rapture and sites for the consumer publications) and its remaining TV

interests, including a 35 per cent stake in Channel 5, a 20 per cent

stake in ITN and its wholly owned youth TV channel, Rapture.

The strategy now is to concentrate on business-to-business information

via the printed page, the web or conferences and exhibitions - and to

focus on high-tech markets such as electronics, communications and the

internet. Its properties have now been restructured under two brand

names - CMP and United Business Media International, which includes

within its portfolio the old Miller Freeman properties. The group has

two other important strings to its bow - PR Newswire, one of the world's

largest distributors of press releases, and UIG, the world's

ninth-largest marketing research and marketing information group and the

owner of NOP in the UK.

The message, according to insiders, is that the adventure isn't over -

in fact, what we've witnessed is only really the end of the

beginning.

With the rebranding of the company comes a new mission statement, as

outlined by the director of group strategy, Bernard Gray: 'Our objective

is to build on high growth businesses like CMP Media and develop the

nascent cross-business opportunities that exist across the new

United.

We have the financial resources, management focus and the drive to

develop the continuing businesses of United into a world class market

information group.'

Malcolm Wall, who was the chief executive of United's television

interests and went with them when they were acquired by Granada, has

been tempted back, accepting the position of chief operating officer in

the restructured company. On arriving, he left no-one in any doubt about

how he saw his role - raising even more funds to invest in line with the

company's new focus. 'We could easily raise another pounds 1.5 billion,'

he claims. 'I think you can say that it's going to be an acquisitive

2001.'

The ITV and other disposals have so far brought in more than pounds 3

billion, but in February the company decided to give some of that

(pounds 1.25 billion) to shareholders in the form of a share buy-back.

That's obviously taken a chunk out of the war chest but the balance

sheet still shows at least pounds 500 million in cash alone.

So the big question is whether we'll see a continuation of the white

knuckle ride over the course of this year. There has been speculation,

given Wall's indication, that it still intends to spend over pounds 1

billion on acquisitions and that a possible target could be Emap

Business Media.

Sources in the City discount that particular scenario - few of Emap's

business titles are in the right sorts of high-tech markets to appeal to

the reborn UBM. Furthermore, they don't think we'll see it attempting to

spend anything like pounds 1 billion this year.

Analysts applaud the company's decision to trim its portfolio not just

in terms of losing the consumer properties but in rationalising the

business-to-business side too. Because they didn't fit the new focus,

properties in low-tech markets were recently sold to Reed Elsevier and

to VNU. There are some properties that arguably still don't fit - for

instance, the medical ones - and it is expected that these will also be

sold.

So the City likes what it has seen in terms of rationalisation. It is -

or will soon be - a neat and tidy company. But that doesn't mean it can

go wild. And some sources argue that the beauty of its new approach is

that it can easily achieve growth without making death or glory

acquisitions.

Because it now has clear brand leadership in many high-tech sectors, it

can leverage that dominance by growing brands organically.

And, quite simply, it may have no further appetite for big deals. Paul

Richards, a media analyst at WestLB Panmure, doesn't expect any more

fireworks in the near future. He states: 'I don't think we'll see

anything radical. It could be looking for bolt-ons but I can't see it

planning billion dollar acquisitions. And I think it might wait six

months or a year because the way the market is going, properties that

could be potential targets might be more attractively priced by then.

But I'd be very surprised to see it pursuing a big merger.'

And there's another reason why fireworks may not be appropriate. Usually

when a company announces a huge share buy-back, the stock is the toast

of the City's Champagne bars.

It hasn't quite worked out that way this time around. And, as Richards

explains, there are downsides to the new focus. 'With the buy-back the

shares should be really strong but, in actual fact, they're flat,' he

says. 'We see it as undervalued but the fact is that the market

continues to be concerned about the company's exposure to high-tech

advertising.'

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