How do you define a newspaper man? 'Five feet seven-and-a-half, grey hair, glasses, 57, and with a financial background,' says Lord Stevens of Ludgate, quick as a ferret and absolutely straight-faced. Then he smirks, directing just a hint of a wink at his public relations man. Say what you like about David Stevens, who has run the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, and The Star for 10 years now, but you cannot accuse him of lacking a sense of humour.
What people mainly say about him, of course, is that he is not actually a newspaper man at all, but a financier. Hence the conundrum that while presiding over an unprecedented decline in the Express titles, he has, as chairman of parent company United Newspapers, built up a thriving non-newspaper empire around them.
'I think it's interesting that people write that I am not a newspaper man,' he says, when I put the point to him, 'but they are writing it about other chairmen too now, that they are too financially oriented, that they don't have ink in their veins.' Why? He shrugs. 'There are some people who have had less than successful careers who write very bitchy things about chairmen of newspaper companies.' Like who? He grins and laughs. 'Ha. I'm not going to tell you.'
The jibes of his rivals are meant to hurt, as everyone knows that Lord Stevens enjoys playing the tycoon. There is the notorious bronze bust in United's foyer, the chauffeur-driven, grey Roller with the personalised plates (DRS20), the annual Savoy parties for the great and good, not to mention the sense of impending majesty as you advance towards his office on the ninth floor of United's Blackfriars Bridge headquarters, through the panelled reception area, past the portraits of previous chairmen, across the rotunda, down another corridor until finally the door opens on a vast, windowed room and London is spread out before you. Stevens rather spoils the effect by meeting me perkily in the reception himself, and joking all the way to his sanctum. If he is a ruthless man with airs, as some have decided, he can also be rather good at debunking it all, when the mood takes him.
We sit on a four-piece suite, beneath a picture of his old cairn terrier, down the Westminster end of his office (his desk, suitably enough, is up the City end). Stevens, short, immaculately neat, and with a clipped, upper-class accent, spends much of the interview teasing or picking imaginary hairs off his spotless suit trousers while embarking on lengthy digressions. Often you cannot tell what is a joke and what's not, as he has a solemn face constantly at war with his cherubic nose. When he feels pleased with himself, the nose immediately goes up at a jaunt, bobbing above a wicked smile. Those who know him had already warned me that he has a very boyish, lavatorial sense of humour. His latest terrier, he tells me with a giggle, (son of Bumper immortalised on his wall), is called Dumper. Yes, for that reason.
None of which should be taken to diminish Stevens's business acumen, or the surprising spread of his power base. He is chairman of no less than four companies. Three are British plcs: United Newspapers, his main powerbase, Alexander Proudfoot, the management consultants, and Mid-States, an automotive parts distributor that operates solely in America. The fourth really is American: Oak Industries Inc., a hi-tech components manufacturer for the communications industry run by Rod Hills, husband of Carla, the former US trade secretary.
t appears impressive but as with everything to do with Stevens, who is a man with a great sense of show, there are always questions about just how powerful and wealthy he is. His detractors point out that he doesn't have a large stake in United, and is actually (whisper it if you dare) more of a manager than a proprietor, despite having plotted its growth for 14 years. He is not thought to be rich, either, despite combined salaries and dividends that must run to close to a million pounds per annum, and hence he doesn't appear in any wealth lists or indexes.
Yet he made his name in the City and is judged to have done pretty well for himself there, initially in fund management and latterly as chairman of the once large and powerful investor MIM Invesco. At one stage it was estimated to control £8 billion of other people's money. But then came the Maxwell scandal and the collapse of Drayton Consolidated, one of Invesco's flagship investment trusts. Stevens resigned as chairman two years ago. Invesco, of course, managed part of Robert Maxwell's pension funds, and Stevens had, like many others in the City, regularly done business with the former Mirror boss.
Certainly Stevens is not the Square Mile's most popular financier but he is hardly the kind of man to worry about that. He was once memorably described by a banking friend as having 'brass balls' because of his indifference to what others think of him. (This was demonstrated when his second wife published a book advising women to keep their husbands happy by sucking their toes. Stevens published extracts in the Daily Express). But it has a knock-on affect. One analyst told me bluntly that United's share price may well be held down because many in the City dislike Stevens and think he is the wrong man to be running a publishing company. The same analyst acknowledged that it isn't fair, but it is Stevens's fault. It's just his manner. Consequently his achievement in building a sturdy media empire around Express would always be undervalued.
For the truth is that United has actually done rather well under Stevens. He has taken the group's profits from £3 million in 1981, four years before he bought Express Newspapers, to over £130 million in 1993, and last autumn he unveiled a 36% rise in interim profits - not bad going, given the seemingly endless slide in circulation at his national newspapers. The trick, of course, is that he has used those newspapers as a cash cow to expand the group's non-national newspaper interests - it now owns a host of regional papers, the trade magazine group Morgan Grampian, and Exchange & Mart publisher Link House as well as some very lucrative American operations such as Miller Freeman, the magazine and trade show company, and PR Newswire, a news distribution service. These are what he has started to expand worldwide - first stop: the Far East - but here we are all fixated with his national newspapers. Somehow trade magazines, exhibitions and PR services don't have the same ring.
The trouble is, if you have 'Newspapers' in the name of your plc, you are likely to be judged by them. And at United, where the nationals contribute 34% of turnover and 25% of operating profit, they are not a pretty sight. The Daily Express, which once sold four million copies a day (well before Stevens's time, it has to be said), has long since slipped below a circulation of 1.5 million, and is generally regarded to be losing the battle hand over fist against a resurgent Daily Mail. The Sunday Express, also below 1.5 million, ejected its high-profile editor, Eve Pollard, last year in what was seen as another admission of failure. The Star, Express's rival to the Sun and the Daily Mirror, is still very much third choice in its market. If the rest of the company, generally speaking, is booming, what's going wrong with its most high-profile division?
My guess is that Stevens, like many at United, would give a lot of money for the answer to that one. 'Our profits are fine in relation to the competition,' he says, mulling it over. 'We have not participated in the price war, though we will if the Mail cuts. The circulation of The Star is up year on year, a remarkable achievement at 25p, partly due to the fact that it's doing well in Ireland. But the Express is down and we have got a problem with the Sunday.' Other newspapers, he points out, are on a declining or static circulation, too, but that does not hide the fact that the Express newspapers have lost market share. It is, he says finally, the fault of everything: the editorial not giving the customer what they want, the lack of promotional spend, the thinness of the papers as profits have been squeezed. Now the Express has been redesigned, and with plans for a big promotional push, he thinks it will turn round.
Others are not so sure. According to one old Fleet Street hand, no proprietor with any feel for the market would have kept the politics of the Express as Stevens has, doggedly supporting the Conservative party at the time of a Tory government's lowest ever popularity. Even Beaverbrook, the paper's most famous proprietor from the '30s to the '60s, bent a little when he sniffed change in the air. Why not Stevens?
He admits he has been thinking about it, but insists the political line is dictated by what the readers want. 'You can say we are wrong but the fact is that we did a survey six months ago because I was interested to see if we were on the right tack or not. We had focus groups and the answer came back that readers and potential readers would be distressed if we changed our political stance. The only criticism was that we had followed our political line too slavishly.'
Some have suggested that Stevens held the line out of self-interest. Many were surprised at the speed with which he got his peerage - barely two years after acquiring Express Newspapers in 1985. More than once he has told friends with typical irreverence that it is just one of the perks of owning newspapers. Really? Stevens pauses, obviously considering his response. 'I don't think I have ever said that publicly,' he says eventually. 'It's just chit-chat. I suppose the best answer to that is: why do editors get knighthoods? And why do chairmen of big companies automatically get knighthoods, too? It's the system. I could say it's because of my blue eyes, couldn't I?' He smiles again, nose in the air. 'But it isn't.'
All that is certain is that Stevens appears keener to take money out (despite falling sales, the Express newspapers are now highly profitable - thanks to United's investment in the '80s - and require little capital expenditure other than promotion) and is almost certainly more interested in the new areas of media that are ripe for exploitation. His great rival, Lord Rothermere at Associated Newspapers, has already plunged into cable television in London. United, to some observers, seems to be dithering on the edge, unsure which way to jump for the future. 'I don't want 20% of any TV station, and cable just doesn't make money yet,' says Stevens defensively. 'If we went for it our shareholders would probably say "Thank goodness for that, at last he has done something creative" but we are not going to go for the latest whim.'
So he is waiting and watching. There are no plans to sell the national newspapers - though 'every division is for sale if we are offered the right price' he says, deadpan - and no plans to buy any. The point, he adds later, is that newspapers are not expanding anywhere in the developed world. What is expanding is access to the information which newspapers contain, so they will remain extremely valuable. If people don't like the strategy, they can lump it. Certainly it doesn't seem to have been challenged internally (another criticism of United is that the board is biased towards executives whose first loyalty is to Stevens).
But there are contradictions going on which are characteristic of Stevens: deriding the Establishment he also endorses, playing the newspaper tycoon and simultaneously debunking it, allowing sales of the big-name papers to dwindle as he pushes for fast growth elsewhere. He not only wants to have his cake and eat it, it seems, but occasionally likes telling people that it wasn't much good anyway. No wonder he is always tagged an outsider.
Why is he like that? Some have cited his background. His grandfather was a railway guard, his father Edwin an electronics whizz who made the family's fortunes by inventing hearing aids and headsets. Edwin Stevens later sold out his company to Racal for £3 million in 1970 (he is now the biggest benefactor of Jesus College, Oxford, his alma mater, where there is a Stevens Close hall of residence). Stevens himself was sent to Stowe and Cambridge. Perhaps as the son of a self-made man who followed the path of old money, he has never quite felt part of the Establishment he was pitched into.
He has also known tragedy: his second wife died after choking on a peach stone six years ago. His first marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce (he has two children, a daughter, who now works at the World Wildlife Fund, and a son, at Goldman Sachs). Those kind of events would give any man a carapace. Now, he says, his life is fairly low-key: he lives happily with his third wife in Chelsea - next to Sir Rocco Forte - he plays a bit of golf at Sunningdale and Swinley, and he gardens.
He was always ambitious, though, something which he puts down to being a middle child, the second of three sons (his elder brother works in advertising; his younger brother breeds parrots). Initially, he had wanted to follow his father into industry. After leaving Cambridge, he talked first to Ford, before finally taking a traineeship with Elliot Automation, which made carbon dioxide analysers in Lewisham for the refrigeration industry. A year later, in 1960, he changed his mind and walked out to get a job in the City, at Philip Hill Higginson Erlangers, the merchant bank which eventually became Hill Samuel. Why the City? 'There was a lot going on there, I thought it was interesting. I didn't do it because I wanted to be rich. I think I actually went there for less money to start off with.' Yet it's fair to surmise he is still very much his father's son. Ask him what his weaknesses are and he says straight away he wishes he were better technically, with more knowledge of medicine and science. It is not, if you think about it, the answer you normally get from a man in his position.
Stevens took to the City like a duck to water. By 1968 he had joined the Drayton Group as director responsible for all its investment operations of around £150 million. After Midland Bank bought Drayton in 1974 and merged it with Samuel Montagu, its merchant bank subsidiary, he was then named managing director of the new investment division, Drayton Montagu Portfolio Management. By 1981 he was chairman, and the division had been renamed Montagu Investment Management (MIM). In 1986, with Robert Maxwell's help, he engineered a reverse takeover of Britannia Arrow, which left him in control of the new outfit, Invesco, and freed from MIM's owners. City observers at the time dubbed it a typically shrewd piece of Stevens strategy. By that time he was also, of course, boss of United Newspapers and, following the acquisition of Express Newspapers, again with Maxwell's help (he sold Stevens his near-20% stake in the former owner Fleet), he was a national newspaper proprietor to boot.
Since then, either by design or necessity, Stevens has become something more of a newspaper man and less of a City shaker. Some in the Square Mile, who never liked the way he ran his interests through a complex web of investment trust holdings (Proudfoot, Mid-States and Oak were all backed by Consolidated Venture, another Stevens outfit) are not sorry to see him change priorities. Others have been surprised by the ease with which he has simply rebuilt his powerbase across the river at United's Ludgate House. The media empire is healthy, Mid-States (turnover: £63 million) and Oak (around £146 million) look sound; only Proudfoot (£141 million) is ailing, with profits slumping two years in succession between 1991and 1993. Stevens is clearly a man who knows the benefits of spreading his interests. He is also a survivor.
This summer the whole Maxwell scandal will be rehashed when the trial of Ian and Kevin Maxwell starts. Stevens has always made the same point about his dealings with the Mirror boss: that Maxwell was 'straight' in the three or four major business deals they did together. 'If other people in our position had found he didn't honour his word, then they were wimps for not insisting that he did. In my dealings with him, he honoured his word,' he says. 'Perhaps others got abused because they declined to stand up to him.'
Yet the aspersions obviously rankle with him - he has threatened legal action against newspapers simply for describing him as a close friend of Maxwell, and at one stage accused Conrad Black's Telegraph group of running a campaign against him. He had said before our interview that he would not take questions on Maxwell and Invesco. He did, however, say this, once the topic was raised: 'I had nothing to do with the Mirror float, but the thing that struck me as interesting was that everyone talked about ring fencing the pension fund, and if you look at the prospectus it clearly stated it would happen, and when the Mirror flotation legal suit was settled about six months ago it was admitted that virtually none of the things that were in the prospectus in terms of ring fencing had been done. Now why didn't the advisers do it? Were they too frightened? Did he just say I'm doing it? Or did they forget to do it?'
Likewise he continues, when they floated the Mirror, why didn't someone check the pension funds were intact? Was any letter written to confirm that what was said to be there, was actually there?
No doubt the courts will be poking around it all again this summer. Stevens, for his part, is so well dug in at United that few believe he will return to investment banking. For now, he seems to rather enjoy playing the media game. 'He'll never leave United,' says one old associate. 'They'll have to carry him out in his coffin.'
Stevens smiles when I put this to him. 'I envisage retiring when I know I am no longer capable of doing the job,' he says. Until then he has a few problems, like the future direction of the media industry, to sort out first.
Educated Stowe School; Sidney Sussex, Cambridge
Management trainee, Elliot Automation
Assistant to head investment director, Philip Hill Higginson Erlangers
Director, Drayton Group
Managing director, Drayton Montagu Portfolio Management; director, United Newspapers
Chairman, Montagu Investment Management (MIM);
chairman, United Newspapers
Chairman, Alexander Proudfoot;
becomes Baron Stevens of Ludgate
Chairman, Invesco MIM
Resigns from Invesco MIM
Lord Stevens is also chairman of Mid-States plc and Oak Industries Inc.
What People Say
'Stevens is very sharp and very witty. The problem is people don't always get the joke'
An analyst, 1994
'I don't think he knows about newspapers. He's used to sitting at the end of a telephone dealing stock for people'
A former Express senior editor, 1994
'Stevens has got brass balls. He has a mischievous sense of humour, but he has made a lot of enemies. In these troubled times, some of those are now popping out of the woodwork'
A merchant banker, 1992
'Nobody makes a decision at United without Stevens. He's got all his ducks in a row. He's safe' A rival publisher commenting on United's board, 1992
'I am very like my father. He was always very active, always wanting to improve the world, wanting to be involved. I never relax'
Lord Stevens on himself, 1992.