THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: DAN WAGNER - The youthful founder of MAID, now proprietor of Bright Station, may be a proven techno-prophet, but he has been slammed in the press as a flash self-promoter who falls short on results. He is surrounding himself

THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: DAN WAGNER - The youthful founder of MAID, now proprietor of Bright Station, may be a proven techno-prophet, but he has been slammed in the press as a flash self-promoter who falls short on results. He is surrounding himself

by ANDREW DAVIDSON, Magazine Journalist of the year
Last Updated: 02 Oct 2013

Sometimes it isn't easy being Dan Wagner. 'What can I say?' He looks at me, his face momentarily losing its normal, confident sheen 'It's been a catalogue of f***ing disasters, hasn't it?'

Wagner, chief executive of Bright Station, holding company for a host of tech ideas, is contemplating the ruin of his recent career. He set up his first infotech company at 21, floated it at 31, made the mega-takeover deal when he was 34, crippled by debt before he was 36. Last year, aged 37, he surprised everyone by selling off the bulk of his company Dialog's business and setting up afresh as the tiny (well, pounds 8.5 million turnover) Bright Station plc. A naturally ebullient, some would say irritatingly assured, performer, Wagner now seems chastened by the whole experience.

And when did you first have these feelings, Daniel? 'The eight or nine years after I started my first company were awful ...'

Why? 'Because of the stigma of being a CEO younger than 30. Ridiculous, if you think about it. I was 15 years too soon. Then I got criticised for being 30 when we floated, but I'd been running the company for 10 years.'

And do you feel others don't appreciate your qualities? 'There is a terrible stigma about me in the financial media, because I was a real pain in the arse to them. I took them to court, I took them to the MMC ...'

Wagner believes his rivals in the on-line information business, many of them global media giants, allowed competition to get the better of objectivity when it came to reporting his actions.

'I tell you, if you're going to be a public company, the last thing you want to do is compete with the two media giants that control perception of your stock, Reuters and the Financial Times.'

And that has effected people's perception of you? 'If people in the City who I've never met think I am a flash git, then I suppose so.'

Do you find that depressing? 'No, it's not depressing. I don't care if people like me or not, I just care about the people I know ...'

Wagner slumps back in his chair, torn halfway between petulance and self-pity. At times like this, it is hard not to feel sorry for him. The Wagner story, on one reading, provides a telling commentary on the flipside of bright, new, entrepreneurial Britain. The son of a successful car-industry executive, he left school at 16 with barely a handful of O-levels, parlayed early jobs with Julian Richer and WCRS advertising into a vision for his own start-up, MAID, a supplier of on-line research for businesses. He set it up, fought off stiff competition, developed it into a public company (one of the first to take its business information service on to the internet), he amassed a share fortune worth pounds 40 million and then ...

Then, as he sees it, he was 'f***ing hammered' - nicely put, Dan - for the personal qualities that underpinned his business drive. Young? Brash?

Mouthy? Jewish? Qualities which, in America, would barely have got him noticed above the scrum of noisy money-makers. But over here, oh no, we do things differently.

The other reading, of course, is that, if you promise results and don't deliver, you'll get hammered, however far you've come, whatever religion you practice. And if you bad-mouth your rivals, they get even. Welcome to the world of grown-up business. Now, after selling his core business, Wagner says he will give it one last try in the public arena. He has kept the technology assets of his old firm, relaunched the lot as Bright Station, split that into five, brought in professional managers to run the different bits, and has plans to float off the successful divisions without his involvement.

And that's all part of the new style. He's changed, he says, he's married, has a kid, he's settling down. He's going to stop criticising the City, stop blaming his advisers, stop chasing headlines, let go of the thing with the FT and Reuters; he's watching what he says, resisting the urge to slag off Autonomy, his new rival, just getting on with keeping his head down and managing the new business.

'This is the new me,' he laughs, 'the new uncontroversial me. I've taken the pills, I'm much more mellow.'

Really? 'Yeah,' he shrugs. 'It comes from seven years as a public company CEO and the appalling share price performance in that period. It makes you realise: just go grey!'

And for a minute he is very convincing. The odd thing is how little he has changed since I last met him back in the bumptious '80s. Now, sitting in a first-floor meeting room at Bright Station's Leicester Square headquarters, he has the same oiled-back hair, the smirky grin, the darting eyes, the drapey suit over the lean frame. Not a trace of grey. Only the face looks older, slightly jowlier, more melancholy when he's not smiling - reflecting, perhaps, that half-a-lifetime of business experience packed into his early years.

In the '80s, you didn't meet many 21-year-old entrepreneurs. Wagner had the arena to himself, and probably suffered from that. But even then there was something desperate about him, about his determination to get to the top, to make money, to be recognised. In my life, that came across as a desperation to get written about: he'd send something, he'd ring, he'd drive round to my office. He was charming but incorrigible, like one of those kids who is told that everything they do is wonderful, and becomes completely insensitive to how others feel or perceive them. But as a young man who was pushing his business simultaneously in London and New York, that is how he had learned to be, the very opposite of retiring.

It never really worked with a British audience. Driving away in his Aston Martin he left an indelible impression: flash git.

Still got the Aston Martin? 'Yeah, I've still got it,' says Wagner, face creasing into another wide smile. There are times, you guess, when it takes him a little longer than most to catch on to the subtler nuances.

Then he twigs: 'I am enthusiast. I didn't buy it 'cos I'm a flash git!'

And to prove it, guess what he called his daughter? Aston Wagner ... Ah.

So can Dan Wagner change? Many who know him well are not convinced. Wagner, they say, is a package, you get the lot, good and bad: ambition, drive, a fantastic nous for technology, for seeing what might come next, but combined with a fervent desire to talk everything up, to get noticed, to shout the story from the highest rooftop. Asking him to keep quiet is not a reasonable request.

'He's a visionary, make no mistake, and he's a nice guy, but I don't believe the new Dan bit,' says one who has worked closely with him. 'There have been several rebirths, lasting about six months. The problem is, you are dealing with personal characteristics and they tend not to alter.'

And where did he get those characteristics? No-one's quite sure. Perhaps from his father, John Wagner, former executive at Lex's Volvo UK dealership, and MD of first VW Audi's British subsidiary, then BMW's. Physically very similar, father and son share the same determination and ebullience, according to those who know both, although Wagner senior tends to temper his with more gravitas in public. He ended up running his son's American operation and got to see first-hand the difficulties Dan would talk himself into.

According to one former colleague, he would be as exasperated as any but could do little about it. Dan points out that his dad 'made millions' out of an initial investment in MAID, so he probably doesn't have too much to complain about. 'Everyone made millions. I'm the only one who never really cashed in,' he shrugs.

Wagner cites his father as one of the key influences on his life. Born in Edgware in 1963, the younger of two brothers (his sibling now runs an investment fund in New York), Wagner remembers being 'enamoured by the trappings' of his father's business life from an early age: presentations by ad agencies at the family home, articles in the business press. 'I was always really interested in it, particularly the advertising thing; my father had a very strong marketing background.'

In most respects it was a conventional, north London, Jewish upbringing, more liberal than orthodox. When Wagner was nine, his parents divorced and he stayed with his mother, but his father's business success remained the chief pull. After failing to find a groove at a succession of schools, culminating in a miserable time at a crammer - 'Things I didn't enjoy I just didn't do, as simple as that' - Wagner left to become a photographer's assistant at 16.

That, he decided, was too much of a long slog, so he took a job at Julian Richer's first hi-fi shop in London Bridge. Richer remembers him as 'very bright, very entrepreneurial'. Wagner says his stint with Richer gave him the confidence to think he could make it. One of Wagner's initiatives made Richer thousands of pounds: claiming back the cost of minor repairs off manufacturers' warranties. Richer offered Wagner a shop managership but he had other ambitions: getting into advertising. He designed and delivered a poster advertising his talents to Robin Wight, founder of WCRS, who took him on as a runner for pounds 2,500 a year. This was less than he was getting from Richer but he had a foot in the door.

The rest of Wagner's ascent to entrepreneurial stardom is pretty well documented. A job in research for WCRS led to a role on a BT campaign advertising the future potential for data communication online - this when the IBM PC was just taking off - and ping! Wagner's lightbulb went on. If you could put all the market reports and research on-line, new business departments in ad agencies would pay a premium for access. At 20, he left to set it up.

Why? It was, it seems, the usual mix of chance, naivety and chutzpah.

WCRS hadn't given him the pay rise he wanted. He had a point to prove, wanted to be his own boss and had no idea of the scale of competition that faced him. And when he did start working on his idea, he got angry with the people who tried to take it away. Wagner tells one story that pretty much sums up what he faced: a data company that listened to his pitch, invited him in to work on the project, then nicked his idea.

'This guy completely took the piss out of me. I did all this work with him, then he came to see me for a drink in the Churchill Hotel. He said: 'Thanks, Dan, I just want you to know that we've had this idea for a long time and we are prepared to give you pounds 20,000 to walk away.' And I was confused. I said: 'I don't understand.' Then I realised, and thinking on my feet, I said: 'Make it pounds 100,000 and you've got a deal.' And he stood up and said: 'I'll meet you in the marketplace,' and he walked off. I sat there stunned.'

For the boy who had been given a torrid time at school, who was never going to fit into someone else's corporate hierarchy, yet who desperately wanted the same respect and success his father had enjoyed, such treatment must have confirmed his gut feelings: if you don't push loudly, others will just steamroller over you.

So by sheer belligerence and force of personality, Wagner got on with setting up on his own, raising money, selling to clients not just in the UK but in America, France and elsewhere. And because bigger rivals were racing for the lead, he was in a hurry. If his pushiness wound up some he encountered, he didn't have time to notice.

Until it all started to go wrong. Perhaps his real mistake was taking the company public, giving him shareholders and the City to answer to.

Wagner thinks they disliked his youth. Others say he simply lacked judgment.

A London analyst told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that Wagner's problems were always about leadership: 'We keep coming back to the same issue, the bloke running the show. He's long on ideas and announcements and short on the figures.'

Wagner wails: 'But this guy has never met me!' Yet it was certainly his reputation that tipped the boat when, after his audacious purchase of Knight Ridder Information for pounds 280 million in 1997, taking on a load of debt in the process, he hit problems. The new outfit, which he renamed Dialog (after KRI's biggest product), failed to hit the promised revenue targets, Wagner lost credibility with his lending banks - he was badly advised on the loans, he says - and his whole team watched aghast as their reputation and share price were shredded. Floated at 110p, up to 300p, then whoosh! - at time of writing Bright Station plc, formerly Dialog plc, formerly MAID plc, trades at around 30p.

Why did it go so wrong? Michael Mander, who worked for Thomson and Hill Samuel before joining Wagner as MAID chairman in 1987, says there was simply too little goodwill to draw on. 'The problem was that Dan had a compulsive urge from the start to twist the tails of the lions around him. And it never stopped.'

That twisting took the form of over-optimistic market share and revenue promises, continual needling of competitors and a yen for press coverage that exasperated everyone. Another former colleague, Ciaran Morton, now Dialog's president of Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, explains that initially it was all done with a purpose: to generate more column inches than their larger database rivals. But Wagner started enjoying it too much.

So can he complain because the headlines turned against him? Yes, he says, because competitors such as Reuters and the FT had a vested interested in running him down. He points out that the biggest nail in the coffin of his ambitions was the FT Lex headline Dialadog. 'They ran it one day,' says Wagner, 'then the next day they had it again, in case you didn't get it the first time!'

He got hammered for wearing a Donald Duck waistcoat to a presentation and City editors leapt on the bandwagon criticising his judgment. In fact, Wagner had been getting it in the neck since the company floated. Something about him clearly wound up the City establishment - Wagner can still quote the pertinent pieces.

'One commentary before the pricing, headed 'This MAID is neither fair nor wholesome', ended with the words: 'God help pension fund managers for investing in this one'. Their main objection just seemed to be that I was confident and young.'

Really? Surely the constant chatter in the press was part of it. One MAID executive recalls a broker saying to him: 'If you could only shut Wagner up, the share price would double overnight.'

OK, says Wagner, his American-style drive - always take the calls, always up for the fight - may have made Brits uneasy. 'But you don't make it in New York without being incredibly aggressive in your sales approach, especially if you didn't have any money. In the UK I used to carry two business cards, Dan Wagner salesman and Dan Wagner CEO, because people here didn't think I could be both. In America they thought I was great!'

And it's true. Search the cuttings and you will find very little adverse comment in the US on Wagner's personal style. Morton, who worked with Wagner for 10 years, says he is not blind to his old boss' faults - 'he is a competent man manager but always more interested in putting things together' - yet he's hardly the spiv he's portrayed as. Worse, Morton suggests there may have been an element of anti-Semitism behind the whole 'Dialadog' campaign. To some in the City, Wagner's brash, Gordon Gekko approach made him fair game.

But maybe some of it was just timing. Back in the early '90s, the market wasn't ready for impossibly young CEOs of public companies dealing in cutting-edge technology. 'If he'd launched MAID at the beginning of 2000 no-one would have blinked,' says Andrew Chapman at Bright Station's broker ABN Amro. 'Being first out of the box attracted the attention, and I think Dan learnt from that.'

Yet the interesting part is that, even after all the problems, no-one is writing Wagner off. Many of MAID/Dialog's backers are keeping stakes in Bright Station, which posted an operating loss of pounds 16 million for 2000 but promises profit in 2002, just to see what happens. Already there have been little tickles of interest. It was Wagner who snapped up the technology and programming team from the failed Boo.com venture.

He's also signed a deal with Intel, the world's biggest chipmaker, that will promote software from two of Bright Station's subsidiaries, SmartLogik (knowledge management) and Sparza (e-commerce). He says people don't realise how good a technology play Bright Station could be.

But that surely is down to him? 'It's difficult for me now because there is so much history,' says Wagner, staring at the table in front of him. 'I can't disappear, but I can step back, and the Bright Station model is structured in that way. The people who run the underlying businesses can step up and be the front people.'

Hence Bright Station's highest-profile division, SmartLogik, now has a top executive from Inktomi in charge and David Jeffries, from the National Grid, as chairman. SmartLogik, which operates in similar markets to Autonomy, is a prime contender for flotation or demerger, offering Bright Station shareholders the tantalising prospect of seeing some cash to compensate for the hard times.

Yet already there have been whiffs of the old trouble: Wagner briefing journalists that the Intel deal proved a blow for Autonomy; Bright Station press releases claiming that SmartLogik software had outperformed Autonomy's in a customer's test (a claim later withdrawn); Autonomy chief Mike Lynch making angry ripostes in the press. Ooh, just like old times ...

'No, there's no bad feeling on our side,' says Wagner, all innocent. 'I don't understand the rationale behind their complaints.

We just announced achievements we have made. There's nothing personal between me and Lynch.'

In fact, an executive at Autonomy tells me they know just what Wagner's doing - it's what he's always done, he's talking his company up into the same ball park as a far bigger rival. It's infuriating, but a lot of the time it works, because Autonomy has to reply in order to ease shareholders' worries. They think Wagner should act more responsibly. Wasn't he on the radio talking up Bright Station's results just days before announcing a loss? Isn't he over-promising and under-performing yet again?

So what'll he do if Bright Station flops? Go and run a private company, says Wagner, or live in America. But he doesn't want to. Wife and kid, house in north London's Belsize Park, 'just a scooter-ride away' from Highbury, where he has a season ticket for the Arsenal. Why would he want to leave?

Others say he works so hard, putting in long hours and surfing the net continuously when he's not working, always fiddling with gadgets - he could be based anywhere. He shrugs. Bright Station needs my contribution here, he says. 'I'm very plugged in to the tech community, I can identify opportunities that others haven't seen, I've demonstrated that again and again.'

And he's right - he has. And there's little doubt he could be very successful again. The question is, of course, whether his personality will keep getting in the way.

WAGNER IN A MINUTE

1963 Born 28 July, educated at University College School, London; Merchant Taylors' School, Moor Park; Davies Laing & Dick; Kilburn Polytechnic

1979 Photographer's assistant

1980 Hi-fi salesman/repairs manager, Richer Sound

1981 Runner, then account executive, WCRS Advertising

1984 Founded MAID, floating it on the London Stock Exchange 10 years later

1997 Bought Knight Rider Information in America for pounds 280m; renamed it Dialog plc

1999 Won Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award

2000 Sold Dialog's business information service to Thomson for pounds 275m, renamed remaining technology interests Bright Station plc

2001 Announced marketing link-up with Intel.

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