Charles Allen

In an industry not known for tolerating its CEOs for long, the fact that Allen is still the boss of ITV is seen as a minor miracle.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sitting in Charles Allen's office, deep inside the ITV building in London's Grays Inn Road, it's as if the outside world doesn't exist. No window looks out onto the street: instead, the room faces inwards. It is small and dark; cocoon-like.

The feeling of detachment is compounded by the man himself. Over a working lunch of a cup of tomato soup and a bread-free sandwich from Pret a Manger, Allen is wreathed in smiles, confidently cracking jokes about his time as chief executive of the broadcaster.

It's easy to forget that he is under attack from all sides: from viewers, politicians and the press, fed up at what they see as soap-dominated ITV schedules; from the City, which sees his company as a likely candidate for takeover or break-up and queries his strategy (his decision to pay £175 million for Friends Reunited dot.com merely fanned the flames); from old TV hands, who have never taken to Allen, seeing him as an over-promoted penny-pinching accountant; and from high-profile back-seat drivers such as Greg Dyke, who believe they can do a better job. The list goes on.

Yet here he is, seemingly without a care. I can forget all previous thoughts of finding a nervous wreck of a figure beset with worries – Allen is positively crackling with enthusiasm about his plans for the future of the station. It's quite unsettling. Either he's got the thickest hide in the business or he's in denial.

Neither is the case. Allen is well aware of what's being said, all right. It's partly that being on the receiving end of such opprobrium isn't new. For 14 years, as head of Granada's TV side and since at ITV, he's had to endure brickbats. It goes with the territory, he maintains – he's used to it. And he doesn't agree with any of it.

Many are surprised that he's been there so long. In an industry known for churning up and spitting out its chiefs, his length of tenure is quite remarkable. Certainly, given the criticism he's endured, to survive for the length of time that he has is nothing short of miraculous. When he ran BSkyB, Tony Ball said Allen couldn't run a bath. These days, Ball has gone and Allen is still in charge.

Allen attracted carping even before he emerged as the commercial TV kingpin. At Granada, he and Gerry Robinson (now Sir Gerry) masterminded a hostile bid for Forte – provoking howls of rage and hostility that lasts to this day from the hotel-owning family and their supporters. They were seen as philistines – caterers (they used to run Compass) who had over-reached themselves. Similarly, when Allen started making waves in television, John Cleese no less, damned him as 'a jumped-up caterer'.

He shakes his head in bemusement. 'I know. My career has always lagged reality. I was described as an accountant when I no longer was one, then as a caterer when I wasn't one, then as a hotel caterer after I'd ceased to be one of those. Perhaps when I leave ITV, I will finally be described as a TV luvvie.'

Allen, you suspect, will be called many things, but TV luvvie isn't one of them. In some eyes, the fact that he has a silky smooth manner, is gay, has a long-time architect partner who specialises in upscale renovations, and loves the arts, could qualify him for that description. But his penchant for sober suits, a dapper appearance that makes him look older than his 49 years, an innate Scottish Presbyterianism and a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense character, mean that description will forever be denied him.

He won't be entirely happy with that. There's a part of Allen, you feel, that desperately wants to be loved – that believes he receives little credit for the quality, award-winning programming that does make an appearance, who maintains that although he's never made a show, the implication that he is a bean-counter lacking in empathy with his audience is grossly unfair.

Of course, macho pride forces him to say: 'I don't come to work to be loved.' And, yes, he makes a point of stressing that 'my job is to meet the needs of shareholders and advertisers'. But he's smarting when he says: 'People forget I've had 14 years at the top of this industry. I'm the longest-serving ITV chief executive in the history of ITV.'

He grew up in Lanarkshire. His father, a barber, died of a heart attack when Allen was just 14. His mother, who had never worked, went to work in the dining hall of British Steel to provide for her son. 'My brother was 12 when I was born, my sister was 20 and my mother was 40, so I was a mistake,' he says. 'We were comfortable until dad died. But he left us nothing – there was no money at all. His business sold for just £3,000. We had no house, nothing.' The memory has spurred him on ever since. 'The key motivation for me is that I was poor.'

He was at Bellshill Academy – also the alma mater of 1980s pop star Sheena Easton – and wanted to go to Strathclyde University. He had to turn down a place because his mother couldn't afford it. 'My mother felt bad that she had let me down; she was devastated.'

He got a job at 17, earning £18 per week as a management trainee at British Steel (his mother heard about the training scheme while serving the bosses their lunch). It was enough for him to buy a Mini. The workers would congregate in the pub, known as the P45 Arms, after they'd been made redundant. The constant gatherings and the air of depression hanging over the place made Allen appreciate the beauty of clinical swiftness and of being up-front with bad news – traits that, ironically, have also led to accusations of being unfeeling and brutal.

For a long period, he used to be embarrassed at not having been to university. 'I used to obfuscate and say to people in England, if they asked, that I was educated in Scotland. They just nodded. They presumed I meant I'd been to a Scottish university. It wasn't until I had become quite senior that I realised it wasn't such a bad thing not to have gone.'

His mother, to whom he remained close, died eight years ago and he now goes back to his home town 'about twice a year'. He keeps in touch with his family. They stay with him in London and at his house by the sea in Cape Town. Often pictured wearing a kilt, he confesses to being patriotic – and his accent remains defiantly Scottish. 'There's no doubting my parents instilled in me Scottish values like hard work. They've helped me enormously,' he says.

He studied part-time to be an accountant. In his early career, cars were his motivation. 'I was in the British Steel finance department and I'd got my Mini. Then I got an Opel Ascona. I thought I'd look for a job so I could get a better car. I was able to get a Chevette GLS, with go-faster stripes, from working in the audit section at Gallaghers.'

He was head-hunted by Levi-Strauss to work in Paris. He was due to go, but was offered a post by Grand Metropolitan in the Middle East. He became number two there for Grand Met's international services division. He returned to Britain as chief executive of Compass Vending, part of Grand Met's Compass catering arm, and ran Compass together with Gerry Robinson and Francis Mackay. When Robinson led the management buyout of Compass from Grand Met, Allen found himself part-owner of one of Britain's biggest contract caterers.

Robinson went to Granada in 1991 and Allen followed. They formed a strong double act: Robinson, the brass-necked, gregarious dynamo; Allen, his quieter, methodical, low- profile partner. 'I'd never do a TV show like Gerry,' he says, referring to Robinson's recent burgeoning television career. 'We're very different personalities.' As with most partnerships, the reality wasn't so polarised. 'Gerry was more operational than he was given credit for. I, likewise, had a more strategic role than I got credit for. We worked really well together – he was my partner, my mentor.'

There's no doubting, he says, 'Gerry was a very important part of my success. He gave me the opportunity to be MD of a company at 27. It was a brave decision, but he got 500% out of me. With hindsight, I try and do the same with people in ITV. I give them responsibility and confidence at an early age – if you've got good people, you can give them responsibility earlier.'

Allen ran Granada's leisure division. Then, not long after they took charge, he told Robinson he'd like to run the television side, which included many of the jewels in ITV's crown, notably Coronation Street. While Allen claims it wasn't surprising – 'Gerry had given me things to manage before that I knew very little about' – the howls of protest were loud. They have never gone away.

Robinson the natural showman took charge of the group (eventually he became chairman with Allen as chief executive), leaving television in the hands of his able but much less well known (and, to some in Granadaland, sinister) colleague. All that was known about Allen was that he was a trained accountant who dressed more like a businessman than an arty broadcaster, and that he had no track record in television.

It didn't help Allen that he suffers from dyslexia. 'I didn't realise I was dyslexic until I was 22 or 23,' he says. 'I hate giving speeches. I've got to read them 20 or 30 times and memorise them.' His shyness is also something he has had to struggle to overcome.

It was a period when British broadcasting was changing, too. At the BBC, another man in a suit was also tearing up the old ways of doing things; Allen was seen as ITV's equivalent of the dry-as-dust technocrat John Birt.

Neither did it help that he was tasked with overhauling Granada – of all the ITV franchises, the one most associated with much-loved and critically acclaimed drama; or that his brief from Robinson was to sort out the financial performance of Granada, then losing £4 million. The ITV bosses viewed him with disdain: at his first meeting of what was then the ITV Council, he arrived early and was bounced out of chair after chair by the moguls as they arrived.

He went for the jugular. The revered veteran producer David Plowright was fired – prompting the Cleese outburst. Allen based himself in the penthouse flat on top of the offices reserved for Sidney Bernstein, Granada's founder. He reduced the number of executives from 13 to five – 'big teams mean there are too many shoulders, so that responsibility falls through the cracks'.

When his ITV colleagues turned down Caroline Aherne's Mrs Merton show, he did the unthinkable in ITV terms and sold it to the BBC. He was a new broom sweeping away egos and stale thinking.

When Granada bid for Forte, Allen and Robinson were attacked from another quarter. Rocco and his father, Lord Forte, mounted a fierce resistance, maintaining that the character of their hotels would change. They called on traditionalists in the City and elsewhere to argue that Robinson and his sidekick were intent on destroying their company. It was nasty and bitter, and despite Rocco's subsequent success, the rancour has never faded.

'Any hostile takeover is very personal – it's a very painful process on both sides,' says Allen. 'It was a bold, ambitious deal that created value. It was a good business, but it had become beset with complacency. We took £120 million out of costs and we grew the business.'

In television, 'we began to think about creating a single ITV. It was logical – ITV was full of grandiose fiefdoms. I could see it happening. It was like a club, run by people who were forever looking at how it had been, not how it could be.'

One by one, Granada gobbled up the other franchises; a hostile bid for LWT enhanced Allen's reputation as ITV's boot boy. It reached a stage when there were just three main companies: Granada, Carlton and United. The 'low point of my life', he says, came when he heard Carlton and United were planning to merge.

I was obsessed with it. I remember I was having a dinner party at home and the guests were all jolly and pissed. I left them and went into the study. When I went to bed, I woke up at 5am – I couldn't sleep. I beat myself up; I was a harder taskmaster on myself than anybody else. Then I said: I know how we can do it; why can't we bid for both of them?'

After a protracted regulatory struggle, Allen emerged as proposed chief executive of a single ITV, with Michael Green, formerly the boss of Carlton, as the suggested chairman. They were chalk and cheese, and few were taken in by their insistence that their partnership would work. In the end, they weren't given the chance to prove it: the City had not forgiven Green for the failure of ITV Digital (Allen remained immune from the blame that fell on Green and Robinson) and ordered him out.

Allen was top dog, but if he was under any illusion about what lay ahead, the investors' un- seating of Green surely served as a warning. Since his appointment, in December 2003, nobody would be surprised if today were his last. Yet after two and a bit years he is still there.

Costs have been pared back and ITV is a much leaner operation. That's no mean achievement, but not enough to silence the doubters, who question where the growth will come from.

According to Allen, they haven't grasped that the industry is changing. 'What's been happening is that ITV has moved from a consolidating play – which reached its zenith with the Carlton merger – to a convergence play.'

By convergence, he means the different types of media coming together and working for each other. It was first mooted in 2000, but then the internet couldn't be made to work. What has happened since, he says, is that online has bedded down, so now they can make real money. 'Originally, the move from a federation of companies focused on creating a single channel in the analogue world. Now we're moving to a multi-channel, multi-media platform, and we're also much more customer-oriented.'

His ambition, he says, is 'for 50% of our earnings to come from outside ITV1 by 2012. Not long ago, ITV1 was ITV. Already, we're 30% outside ITV1 and we're achieving 36% growth in that direction per annum. Alongside ITV1 are ITV2, 3 and 4. Already, ITV2 is the most watched digital channel, more than Sky One.' Whereas critics home in on ITV1, Allen prefers to dwell on the 'new channels and new businesses that are bringing us a higher margin'. He is 'very clear about where ITV has to get to. It's got to be the leader in TV advertising. But it has also got to build a consumer business so that it's not so reliant on TV advertising.'

He paid £134 million for 38% of Freeview, which will bring in rental income, as well as giving him space for his digital channels. That, he says, was a great deal, which 'could be worth £750 million in less than six months'.

The much-criticised Friends Reunited purchase, he claims, also ticked those boxes. 'It's the number eight site in Britain. The opportunity to cross-promote our products and to own the capability to do that was too good to miss. I got the same flak when I launched ITV2 two years ago as I'm getting now for Friends Reunited.'

Everything, he maintains, is moving in the direction of one home entertainment centre – providing what we now see as TV programmes, computer games, internet and communications. 'Four or five years from now, nobody will differentiate between the screens in their home – they will do everything. Within the context of that development, the cost of Friends Reunited is small, but it brings us the biggest community site in the UK with 15 million users, five million every week.'

He's talking quickly now. 'I've got a real sense of vision and desire as to what I want ITV to become. We created a single ITV, but that's not enough. What we want to create now is a multi-media, multi-platform business. ITV has to reinvent itself.' Part of that repositioning has involved management and structural changes. Last year, he instigated a wholesale review of the business. 'I asked myself what I would do if I was a brand new chief executive.'

He ordered an external evaluation of the ITV brand and asked the number two in broadcasting and the number three in production 'to come out of their silos and look at every aspect of the business. They reported in July. I didn't go on holiday in August. In September, before the 50th party, I was ready.' Mick Desmond, head of the TV channels and sales, and Henry Staunton, finance director, left the day after the birthday bash.

Typical Allen, muttered the industry: celebrating, then wielding the axe. 'It was perceived as cruel, but this is a high-profile business. Henry had done a great job, but he was getting to 57. Mick had a role across the whole of broadcasting, when I wanted more focus on the commercial side.' Down at the Groucho Club, they're choking into their Sea Breezes. Allen doesn't care. We've not mentioned ITV1. On some nights it's dreadful, and often built entirely around the soaps. 'Yes, we have two big soaps, but unlike C4, which didn't take care of its soap Brookside, we've built and grown ours. Look at Emmerdale – it's very different from when it was Emmerdale Farm.'

Is it true he reads the Corrie and Emmerdale scripts – odd, when he's never made a programme in his life? 'I look at our research and who we should be aiming at, and what they want, and see if we're giving them that. I look at the characters and how well they're liked, and whether the most liked are appearing. I look for strong story-line peaks. We've got "snowstorms" and "snowballs". A snowstorm is a peak without a long-term benefit. A snowball is where it builds slowly, like the Johnny Briggs Alzheimer's story-line at present. I look for the strongest periods of the year, autumn and winter, and what's coming.' He leans forward. 'It's 20% of our business, so what do you expect? Of course it's important I understand it.'

Allen doesn't accept that the schedule is poor or has declined on his watch. 'We've had the X-Factor, great drama and big entertainment shows. We've got a new show, Dancing on Ice, which immediately got a mass audience.'

What is crucial is ITV1's share of the commercial market. 'I read that ITV is under pressure because Dr Who got nine million on the BBC, but the X-Factor was up against it and got eight million – that's 70% of the commercial audience, which is terrific.'

He won't stand for any arguments in favour of keeping the News Channel, ITV's rolling news station, either. He launched it, but it didn't fly, so he closed it. 'It was a painful decision, but it means we can put more into our core TV news.'

Seeing my eyebrows shoot up, he quickly jumps in. 'ITV has broken more news stories this year than the competition. We led on the tsunami, on 7/7, when we brought our satellite trucks from the regions into London... Charlie Kennedy resigning – that was ours.'

Away from ITV, he sits on the board of Tesco. 'Seven years ago, when I joined, everyone was asking: is Wal-Mart going to buy Tesco? I remember it vividly. They've got a single-minded strategy where they know what they've got to do. That's the sense of teamwork I'm trying to put into ITV.' Five years from now, he says, 'we will not be seen as ITV1 but very multi-media, providing content to all platforms.' But what about takeover and break-up? 'My job is to drive the business. If someone wants to pay a premium, we will look at it.'

And what about all the hostility? 'I've had it for years. You get hardened to it.' That doesn't make it any easier. He may not be a TV luvvie, but a bit of love wouldn't come amiss.

Three tough challenges for Allen

1 To develop ITV into a multi-channel, multi-platform broadcaster

2 To produce quality ITV content and grow audience share

3 To silence his critics

<>allen in a minute

1957 Born 4 January in Hamilton, Lanarkshire. Educated Bellshill Academy

1974 First job as trainee management accountant, British Steel

1979 Deputy audit manager, Gallaghers

1982 Joins Grand Metropolitan, later leading the management buyout of Compass from Grand Met

1991 Goes to Granada as chief executive of its leisure arm

2001 Becomes executive chairman of Granada

2002 Chairman of organising committee of Manchester Commonwealth Games

2003 Becomes first chief executive of ITV

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