Media Headliner: Outdoor heavyweight in second roll of the dice

Famed for his motivational approach, Titan chief Bill Apfelbaum outlines his strategy for UK success.

Bill Apfelbaum, the chairman of Titan, is exhausted. It might be daytime in London, but for Apfelbaum - who has just flown into the capital from Malibu - it's four in the morning.

However, jetlag has done nothing to dim Apfelbaum's renowned brand of energy and salesmanship. "We win the game if our guys outmuscle the other guys," Apfelbaum exclaims in his raucous New York accent, while thumping the table to emphasise his point.

Apfelbaum is explaining how he plans to turn around the ailing outdoor media company Maiden, after it was acquired by Titan for just £10.6 million under the threat of being forced under by the banks.

However, Apfelbaum says the recovery is already well under way. He expects Titan's UK arm to break even in the second half of 2006 and to make its first profit in March next year. Apfelbaum says that it would go into profit sooner, if it wasn't for the seasonal nature of the first two months of the year.

Apfelbaum is in the capital for a few days to visit the London office and run the rule over some possible acquisitions. One of these is SMG's outdoor advertising business. New acquisitions is a big part of Apfelbaum's plans for Titan. Clearly, Apfelbaum is not going to settle for staying fourth behind the other three big outdoor media owners.

"Now that we have this beachhead (Titan/Maiden) in the UK, we can look at forging ahead," he says.

Traditionally, Maiden (or Titan as it is now) is a transport-based business. The outdoor media owner has about one-third of total national rail business. Apfelbaum wants to build on this, while making roadside acquisitions "where appropriate".

He comments: "We intend to be aggressive in building on our bus advertising business."

Yet, the balance of power in transportation shifted towards Viacom in 2005. Maiden got into trouble when it allegedly overbid for at least one rail-related contract in a desperate bid to retain the business. Cashflow problems followed, and it was put up for sale.

Although Maiden's troubles gave Apfelbaum the chance to buy the company, he has little time for how it did business under its former chief executive, Ron Zeghibe.

"Ron's a nice chap, but I think he was so afraid of losing anything that he overbid on a lot of the rail contracts, some of the network rail and shopping malls and parts of the billboard estate," he says.

Part of Apfelbaum's plan to revitalise Titan in the UK involves cutting wastage; he feels that travel and entertainment expenditure was "out of hand" under Zeghibe.

He explains: "We wanted to move from being a public company run into the ground by Zeghibe into a sales-oriented one."

Unsurprisingly, there was no room for Zeghibe in Apfelbaum's new management structure. But he did retain the services of the former managing director David Pugh, who was promoted to the role of chief executive in Zeghibe's place.

He also hired Alison Reay and Andy Moug as joint managing directors. Apfelbaum has worked with Reay and Mough before. They are former sales directors of his old company, TDI, where Apfelbaum made his millions.

When Apfelbaum sold TDI in 1996 to what eventually became the US media conglomerate CBS, before being renamed Viacom Outdoor in the UK, Apfelbaum made more than $60 million. Two years earlier, he had swung the deal of his career - the contract to sell the display advertising for London Underground and the capital's buses.

It was a milestone in Apfelbaum's career that has afforded him a lavish lifestyle. He has flown into the UK on his own private jet, but does confide that he is about to upgrade to the latest Gulfstream jet and has just spent three days at a US film festival, where he watched up to four films a day.

Apfelbaum's favourite movie there was Pedro Almodovar's dark Spanish comedy Volver, and he becomes highly animated talking about Penelope Cruz's performance. Many of his neighbours in Malibu are film stars, and he often exchanges pleasantries with his closest neighbour, Tom Hanks, as they take their morning runs.

Apfelbaum hasn't been a major player on the UK scene since the mid-90s, and he comments that the biggest difference between then and now is the power of the outdoor specialists. He is astonished at how powerful they have become, noting that they only had 55 per cent of the market in his day, whereas now it's closer to 85 per cent.

He says this is mainly a "good thing, because they have helped to drive the market", and he professes astonishment at the sophistication of the research tools the UK specialists have developed, which has helped drive the industry's growth.

Apfelbaum is particularly famed for his motivational qualities. He gained notoriety in the media industry for banning any drinking during working hours and by introducing strict rules about dress and returning phone calls. The media world has now caught up with Apfelbaum and the long boozy lunches enjoyed by the outdoor media owners have become a thing of the past. But with Apfelbaum based in a different time zone, will he not find it impossible to bring his own brand of magic to the UK market?

Apfelbaum insists the distance will not be a barrier to Titan's success in the UK: "I speak to Alison and Dave everyday. We don't need to micro-manage them. Video-conferencing and new technology also makes a huge difference." Perhaps it will soon be Viacom's turn to find itself on the back foot.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 59
Lives: Greenwich, Connecticut; New York City; Malibu, California
Family: Wife, three children, four grandchildren
Most memorable ad: IPod on a six-sheet
Last book read: State of Denial by Bob Woodward
Best film: The Graduate
Favourite destination: London
Motto: Sell the signs

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