MEDIA HEADLINER: Redwood's modest innovator is hoping to score a hat-trick

Michael Potter thinks that the time is right for a new start-up.

You could argue that it's a bit late in the day for Michael Potter to be striking out in the bold yet highly risky venture that is a consumer magazine start-up. After all, he's 53 and has been running Redwood since he launched it 20 years ago. This is surely not the time to be trying new tricks - especially with the economy in such uncertain shape.

But his decision to set up a new outfit, Seven Publishing, is less a leap in the dark than might at first be imagined. For a start, he's not going to be leaving the Redwood building and its swanky location on the fringes of Trafalgar Square. True, he's going down in the world, but only to the first floor and he'll still have a view of the National Portrait Gallery and the Edith Cavell monument (he says he reflects often on the virtues of sacrifice and fortitude that it extols).

Potter is joining forces with an old Redwood colleague, Seamus Geoghegan.

The company's first title is a known quantity - Delicious, a glossy monthly for food lovers, which was launched in Australia in 2001. Though Seven Publishing's version for the UK market will be tweaked to suit our northern hemisphere tastes, it will not be a million miles away from the original template.

As for the background to his decision, he says he's almost managed himself out of a job. "Redwood is a large corporation run by fantastic people, especially the managing directors we've appointed over recent years. On the one hand, they don't deserve people like me looking over their shoulders the whole time and on the other, I'm getting further away from the things I love. I'm an entrepreneur and I love publishing magazines. Now I will have the best of both worlds - chairman emeritus of Redwood while having the freedom to devote time and energy to making sure that Seven Publishing launches successfully."

But aside from that, Potter is overcome by an attack of modesty, insisting the interview should be with Geoghegan or the third partner, Jo Sandilands, a former Capital Radio programme director. "I'm delighted to be a part of Seven Publishing but I'm not the architect. Seamus is a brilliant publisher with fantastic ideas and I'm privileged to get a chunk of that. He has an incredible eye for detail."

But the modesty is misplaced - and though he doesn't often get credited with this, Potter is a genuine publishing innovator. In fact he can claim to have invented two of the most important developments in magazines over the past couple of decades - "customer" magazines and TV programme masthead title spin-offs.

Redwood's first customer title was Expressions for American Express. It was an immediate success, not just commercially but creatively, winning design awards. Others followed rapidly, most notably the magazine for Marks & Spencer.

So when the BBC was looking to team up with a specialist publishing company to launch masthead titles such as BBC Good Food, Gardeners' World and Top Gear, Redwood was a natural choice. It was the launch of Gardeners' World that provided the Potter-Geoghegan team with its first huge launch success.

But when in 1994 the BBC absorbed its masthead magazines entirely and decided to spit out the rest, Geoghegan stayed at the corporation and Potter opted to start again with Redwood mark two. Not exactly from square one, admittedly, but the customer magazine side of things at that point was the junior part of the company.

The rest, as they say, is history. The new Redwood had 54 staff in 1994. Now it is an international operation owned by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and employs 500.

But surely, after building it up not once but twice, it's in his blood?

"In some ways I will never really leave Redwood," he admits. And, although he has high hopes for Seven Publishing, he comes close to admitting it's unlikely that lightning will strike three times for him. "I have been incredibly lucky with Redwood twice over."

Martin Clarkson, a former head of marketing at M&S, who has known Potter since they hatched the M&S magazine together in the late 80s, says you shouldn't underestimate Potter's drive and determination. He does have outside interests, for instance motor-racing, but he's incredibly focused in his commercial life. "I'm told he sleeps but no-one has any direct evidence of this," Clarkson jokes.

But what about the timing? The outlook for the economy is surely fragile. We've seen the odd small to medium-sized publishing start-up struggle in recent memory.

Potter argues we're coming round to exactly the right point in the economic cycle. And if you do them right, magazines are unparalleled objects of desire that look and feel glorious and are full of imaginative ideas that excite and inspire. "Consumer spending has been holding up, especially in specialist areas," he insists, "and people will always love magazines. They are special. You can't pick one up without realising that."


1983: Redwood Publishing, founder

1994: Sold Redwood Publishing to Abbott Mead Vickers

1999: Redwood Publishing, chief executive

2001: Redwood Group, group chairman and chief executive

2003: Seven Publishing, chairman