Feature

Hazlitt gambles a year's salary on GCap success

She's lively and charismatic, but has Fru Hazlitt got what it takes to tackle the problems at the radio owner, Alasdair Reid asks.

Fru Hazlitt doth protest too much. When she suddenly quit her job as the chief executive of Virgin Radio in the second week of January (without, at that stage, a job to go to), she was telling curious and concerned well-wishers in the industry that she was taking a bigger gamble than they might think because, as it happened, she was pretty hard up.

Perhaps those non-executive directorships (Betfair and Woolworths) were not as well remunerated as some had assumed. And perhaps her other half, a hedge fund manager, had failed this winter to secure the customary seven-figure bonus. The stories about him buying her a soft-top Bentley for Christmas clearly weren't true. Maybe, indeed, it was time to go back and make a more enthusiastic job of the whip-round at Virgin.

Well, they needn't have worried. There was Hazlitt in The Times business section last Thursday letting on that, fresh from her surprise appointment as the managing director of GCap London, she'd just bought £250,000 of GCap shares. And why not? It's just under a full year's salary in her new job, and the investment will pay for itself if she has the impact she's been asked to have.

Her new boss, GCap's chief executive, Ralph Bernard, has charged her with returning Capital Radio to the number-one spot in the London market - and if she does that, GCap shares will surely leap in value. City analysts already love Fru - the share price has eased up steadily since her appointment.

She is, quite simply, one of the most colourful and charismatic people in the business. And, after all, she worked wonders at Virgin. Starcom UK's chief executive, Linda Smith, worked with Hazlitt during a spell at Capital in the mid-90s. She says Hazlitt's new role will be an interesting challenge. She comments: "It's a tough job, but Fru has the tenacity and force of personality to see it through. She has a great ability to pick people who dovetail effectively with her own strengths and weaknesses. And she has incredible presence. You can't help but be drawn to her."

Some observers, however, would argue that "interesting challenge" is putting it mildly - and there are those who, though agreeing she has oodles of charm, are more willing to question Hazlitt's credentials.

One crucial aspect of her new role will be the evolution of her relationship with her fellow executive board members, the group operations director, Steve Orchard, and, of course, Ralph Bernard. Orchard is nominally responsible for programming, but Bernard is said to overrule him on occasion - yet Hazlitt almost certainly won't be able to make a difference unless she is able to make the sorts of programming input that underpinned her success at Virgin.

In meetings, Bernard likes it when he talks and the others listen. Hazlitt is never quiet for long and certainly is never scared of saying exactly what she thinks, often in rather colourful terms. So that might add up so something of a personality clash.

Then there's the nature of the job itself. Some media agency commentators argue that it's impossible to underestimate the size of the task now facing her. They say that, against all odds, GCap has achieved the worst possible blend of its two pre-merger constituent cultures - the arrogance of Capital and the stolid introversion of GWR.

Far from being the market-leading radio owner it was set up to be, GCap is, some say, now fourth in terms of sales and marketing abilities, behind Emap, Virgin and Chrysalis.

And they wonder if Hazlitt, 43, is built for such a daunting task, adding that she hasn't truly proved herself at senior management level. She was, after all, only 16 months at Virgin and less than two years in her previous job, as the UK managing director of Yahoo!. They add that, contrary to speculation in the press last year, Hazlitt was never a serious contender for the chief executive's job at Virgin's parent company, SMG, in succession to Andrew Flanagan, who departed in July.

And indeed, the apparent closure of a career path at SMG might well be a factor behind her decision to move on. "There's a perception in some parts of the business that, when the going gets tough, Hazlitt moves on," one source says. "This time around, she absolutely has to nail that one, once and for all."

Hazlitt can't comment on any of that - in fact, she is constrained from saying very much at all, given that she's on gardening leave. She has to wait until 1 May to start her new role. But she reckons it's worth responding immediately to speculation about how she's likely to rub along with her new boss. She says: "This is something that was absolutely critical for me. We go back a long way and if I didn't think we were compatible, then there was no way I would have taken that job. Ralph is a decent bloke, he has a lot of principles and he's very loyal. Those are qualities I respect."

As for the full SMG story - in time, it will all come out, she says. But SMG's loss is clearly GCap's gain, Jonathan Barrowman, the head of radio at Initiative, argues. "She is a big-picture person, which will be important as the company looks to rationalise a lot of brands across a lot of media platforms."

One thing is certain - she's likely to steal the show. It's something she's good at, as those who attended last year's V Festival at Hylands Park will testify. While everyone else was struggling along in dowdy rain gear and Wellingtons, there she was resplendent in lime-green trousers, lime-green top and lime-green suede shoes. It was, she admits, her attempt at the rock-chick look - unfortunately, we've been unable to track down photographic evidence of this phenomenon.

"There's always drama surrounding Fru," one ardent fan says. "Sometimes there are tears and sometime the toys come flying out of the pram. She can be absolutely outrageous at times. But you always enjoy her company. You look forward to meetings because you know they will never be dull."

Topics