Quiet determination puts IPC veteran in the driving seat

The appointment of Sylvia Auton has raised eyebrows everywhere, writes Jeremy Lee

Judging by the reaction, had it not been for the discovery of John Major's dalliance with Edwina Currie, the appointment of Sylvia Auton as chief executive of IPC would have been the biggest surprise since the world discovered what Frank Bough really got up to in his leisure time.

"What a bizarre choice," was the chorus going around the media agencies as press directors tried to figure out just who the hell Auton was and how she'd seemingly risen through the IPC ranks without drawing much attention.

Such a response was perfectly understandable. The search for a successor to Sly Bailey had been long and tortuous and Auton had never featured on any of the lists of names being touted around town.

So why do people know so little about her? Well, unless you've worked at IPC you'll probably never have met her. But having spent 26 years working her way up the company's corporate greasy pole, she's IPC down to the bone.

"She was an archetypal IPC-lifer," one of her former colleagues says. "She loves processes and systems and IPC suited her perfectly."

But it wasn't just the fact that hardly anyone knew who she was that caused some surprise. There were others who thought that IPC's parent company AOL Time Warner might impose an American import as chief executive.

According to Bailey, Auton's appointment displays a vote of confidence in IPC's UK management team. "She understands the business very well and knows how it makes money. It's a great mark of confidence and a big morale booster internally," she says.

Auton does not deny that she's had her eyes on the chief executive prize for quite some time. "I wanted to be chief executive because I feel passionate about the future," she declares. Passionate she certainly is, as well as determined, brusque, defensive and tough. "She's a tough businesswoman and not to be trifled with," Bailey confirms.

Auton honed her business skills in the late 80s when she was made publisher of New Scientist. Following this she took on responsibility for running IPC's new-media strategy and, three years ago, was put in charge of IPC's obscure and tweedy-named but apparently immensely profitable Country & Leisure Media Group.

Auton says that she is proud of her time at the division and thinks it equipped her with useful skills for running the company.

"It was the largest division within IPC and also one of the largest publishers in the world," she snaps, almost defensively. The Country & Leisure Media Group includes 50 titles and 19 websites across 26 countries.

Her abruptness, say some people who have worked with her, could present a challenge both to her and those who will work for her. "She's not very embracing," one claims.

Her manner does seem to put her at the opposite end of the spectrum to the charming and popular Bailey, who upped sticks to replace Philip Graf as the chief executive of Trinity Mirror last December.

So is Auton a complete ball-breaker? According to some accounts there does beat the heart of a human being beneath her hard exterior. Bailey describes fondly their shopping trips where Auton stocks up on Armani and Tiffany.

But another example of her emotional manner came to the fore when asked if she was employed to demerge IPC from its troubled parent AOL Time Warner.

After a stunned silence, she manages to bark out her reply. "Why on Earth would they want to do that? It's turning into the largest media company in the world and they'll back us to the hilt."

Fair enough, but if she's not going to prepare IPC for a demerger, then what changes is she going to make? Sadly, and rather predictably, she's not letting on just yet. "Although the strategy has already been well defined, each chief executive brings their own stamp to the business," she says.

Whether Auton's stamp includes a change in the management structure remains to be seen, but there are some who wouldn't be surprised if Auton metaphorically took one of her staff officers outside and shot them in the head, pour encourager les autres.

Auton slips straight into management speak. "I have a talented and cohesive board and I'm looking forward to working with them," she says.

As if to prove how well IPC is performing she then rattles off a list of revenue figures. "IPC is performing fantastically," she says. "We have consistently outperformed the market but I want to grow the business further."

But what about her profile in the industry? Auton doesn't think that her low profile is a problem and claims to be looking forward to getting out and meeting people.

Quite what they make of her will be interesting to see.

The Auton file

1977 IPC Media, business manager/marketing manager

1985 IPC Media, publisher, young women's portfolio

1988 IPC Media, publisher, New Scientist

1998 IPC Media, managing director, Country & Leisure Media

2003 IPC Media, chief executive