You'd struggle to describe Andy Hart as modest or retiring. On being told that we want to profile him, the excuse being a tie-up between Associated Newspapers and Microsoft to produce new digital versions of the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, he replies: "It's about time, isn't it?"
But then, perhaps he has a point. Associated Northcliffe Digital, of which Hart is the managing director, has become a very successful operation. Three years ago, Associated's digital operations had five sites and revenues of £6 million, now it has 103 sites, £90 million in revenues and an operating profit of £13 million (not including recent acquisitions). It employs 700 people.
Associated's parent company, the Daily Mail & General Trust, has invested £155 million in acquiring and launching "pure play" digital start-ups. Associated insiders say the figure is closer to half a billion when you take into account its newspaper websites and other "magazine-style" online content, such as thisismoney.co.uk.
Hart is the man entrusted by the DMGT chairman, Lord Rothermere, to deliver on digital. He seems quick-witted and deeply analytical. Described by colleagues as "inspiring and fast-thinking", one Associated source says: "The chairman respects him a lot, and he's a guy who has been very refreshing for the business. He's learnt a lot on the hoof, but he's been brilliant."
Accused by some of displaying occasional touches of arrogance, he comes across as a cultured and witty man. Self-assured perhaps, rather than arrogant. He says of his approach: "It's too easy to get cooped up in your ivory tower. The world is changing all the time and I've reached an age where I can't trust my instincts any more about how consumers behave; I've got to get out there and meet people."
Hart joined Associated having gained online experience at AskJeeves, where he was appointed as the UK chief executive in 2000 after 18 months as the managing director of Sunday Business. He spent just a year in the AskJeeves role, and then a similar period of time at Diageo, where he was the global chief executive of its short-lived Translucis plasma-screens-in-bars business.
He set up as a consultant and, after working on projects for Associated, was soon offered the chance to head its digital operations, then based in Charlotte Street.
Though AND - which was formed last year from a merger between the Associated New Ventures division and the digital operations of its regional sister company Northcliffe Newspapers - now has significant critical mass, it has been a struggle to get there. Hart says his early days in the role were about building a reputation within Associated based on "profitability, accountability and credibility". He says: "We didn't want to be seen as an expensive vanity publishing team and worked hard on delivering that credibility and accountability."
The turning point for AND was undoubtedly the acquisition of Jobsite in 2004, which took it into a new market and gave it the expertise to launch and acquire sites in other areas such as online dating and car dealing. Hart says: "What we didn't realise was the power of what we were buying - we knew we needed to be in jobs online, but we didn't realise the extent of what we'd learn, and this was the push to move as quickly as we did."
Any criticism levelled towards AND tends to focus on what it has delivered in terms of online news compared with rivals such as Guardian Media and Telegraph Media. Hart says the launch of the eReader product, the Microsoft tie-up that claims to deliver the "look and feel" of the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, is a step in the right direction: "It's a natural progression, which has come from a company that was at first quite reactive and late into this market. Now it's a leader on the publishing front - on acquisitions, user-generated content and new platforms."
So where does he feel AND is in terms of digital newspaper publishing? "The reality is that at any one period in time, anyone can claim to be ahead of the rest in terms of launching websites. But strategically, we are way ahead of the other newspaper groups - in terms of our portfolio and the scale of our revenues, nobody in newspaper print media comes close."
The majority of AND's revenues are derived from classified, but Hart is also trying to build digital display revenues from its newspaper sites. Each of the newspapers has a cross-media representative to ensure that digital is an element in each client sell. Separately, Hart says the expertise of the AND sales team is such that it will start looking for external business, selling space for other site owners.
The challenges going forward involve more acquisitions and site launches. Hart says he has another goal in educating the market about what AND can deliver: "We are often accused of just handling the migration of money from print to online, and I think we do a lot more than that. We'll spend a lot more time with ad agencies and clients in explaining what it all means. The hidden role of the media owner as the creative centre is becoming less hidden."
As for Hart, it sounds like philosophy, not technology, holds the key to his future: "I'm not as technology savvy as I used to be; I've reached the life stage where I'm trying to fill my wisdom barrels with non-work-related stuff about what makes people tick."
Lives: Maida Vale, London
Family: Divorced. Lives with partner, Jodie. Son, Max, aged nine
Most treasured possession: US Fender "Fat" Strat
Interests outside work: Arsenal, music, golf, food, modern literature
Favourite websites: All 103 AND sites, but also Springwise.com,
Boingboing.net, YouTube.com and Wikipedia.org
Biggest achievement: Apart from my son, receiving the AOP Consumer
Digital Publisher of the Year award on behalf of AND