The MT Interview: Roland Rudd

He's a social dynamo at the hub of Britain's business and political life, and his advice is sought by the bosses of a quarter of the top 100 blue-chips. His sideline is to run a serious campaigning body that aims to make the EU more business-friendly. Meet the PR man of the moment.

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Two occasions spent with Roland Rudd. The first is a visit to Manchester United, then a client of Rudd's Finsbury financial PR organisation. He wants me to meet David Gill, the club's CEO. We're met at Manchester airport by a car. On the way into the city and stuck in heavy traffic, Rudd starts suggesting alternative routes to Old Trafford. In the back, Rupert Younger, then his business partner, and I sit silently as Rudd orders the hapless driver around. Eventually, the exasperated driver snaps. 'Listen, mate, that sign says "no right turn". I'm from Manchester, I drive here every day. I know where I'm going.'

Rudd laughs at himself. He realises that for once his instinct to take charge has gone too far.

Later, on the return journey, Rudd is talking to his wife, Sophie, on his mobile. They're deep in conversation when he suddenly says: 'Got to go, darling, client on the line.' He switches calls. Then another client rings and another. They're all chairmen/CEOs of major companies and they all want to talk to Rudd.

He phones his office in London to sort out dinner that night with another captain of industry and checks the arrangements for the following evening's trip to the opera with another boss. He doesn't speak to Sophie again for half an hour, and when he does, he reminds her how she's also due at the dinner and the opera.

A subsequent date in London. Rudd's campaigning body, Business for New Europe (BNE) is holding a reception at the Stock Exchange. BNE wants Britain to play a leading role inside the EU - reforming it to meet business interests and needs, and expansion to include Turkey. Rudd is its founder and chairman.

Tonight's bash is to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the EU. The guest list is made up of business leaders, newspaper editors and senior politicians. Each one will have been phoned and spoken to personally by Rudd to check they are coming. There are FTSE-100 chairmen and CEOs galore in attendance. The canapes are superb, the champagne is copious and of high quality. But there's no fanfare - this is a discreet event with a serious edge.

Rudd takes the microphone and delivers a 15-minute speech without notes, recognising there are problems with the EU but arguing, passionately, that they are outweighed by the achieve- ments. He introduces Ed Balls, his friend and the new PM's closest confidant, who also speaks off-the-cuff in defence of the EU. Rudd circulates. There's no-one he doesn't know by name.

This is Rudd: listening, talking, steering, advising. He's the business journalist who went on to start Finsbury and make a reported £50m personally when his firm was absorbed by Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP.

Right now, he can lay claim to be the PR of the moment. Finsbury is retained by more FTSE-100 corporations than any other firm - 23 at the last count. And there doesn't seem to be a major deal in this ever-crazier merger frenzy that Finsbury hasn't been involved with: Boots, Sainsbury, LSE, ABN Amro... the list of recent transactions and bids where Finsbury has been guiding one of the parties goes on and on.

Rudd, though, is not just a City PR. He also has finely honed social and political connections. Dinners at his grand house in Kensington overlooking Holland Park are relaxed, informal occasions. Sophie, who designs women's eveningwear, will be there, as will their three young children. The guests will include a client or two, heads of large companies, a top banker, a senior journalist and a Cabinet minister and their other halves. Even Tony Blair has supped at his table. Rudd was one of four people who met at the house of Charles Dunstone, the Carphone Warehouse magnate, to plot the ex-PM's next move in the run-up to Blair's departure.

When Euan, Blair's eldest son, wanted a work experience placement, he went to Finsbury. And when Stephen Byers needed help during the Railtrack debacle in 2002, he turned to Rudd. Other politicians whom he counts as close friends and who have received his advice include Peter Mandelson and Tessa Jowell.

Heavily entwined with the New Labour hierarchy as he is, there has been talk of him going to the House of Lords or becoming an MP (during the general election, he knocked on doors in Mandelson's Hartlepool constituency).

The place he'd like us to meet is the River Cafe in Hammersmith. Run by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, wife of the architect Sir Richard, it's a favourite of the New Establishment, synonymous with Cool Britannia. Rudd greets Rose and Ruth and members of staff by name.

At 46, he's lean (he runs to keep fit), with a head of thick black hair, betraying grey around the edges. His manner is suave (when Finsbury had a staff party themed on James Bond, Rudd went as 007) and attentively considerate.

He's not the first in his family to switch from journalism to trying to make it in business. 'When I started Finsbury, my father was the biggest influence on me,' says Rudd. After Oxford, his father worked for the Bank of England in Washington, then came back and joined the Guardian. 'He was asked to go along to the Department of Trade to a press conference to see if it turned up anything interesting,' says Rudd, smiling. 'It was the one announcing the start of the Suez Crisis.'

He became deputy City editor, then quit to go into stockbroking with his own firm, Rowe Rudd. He carried on writing, producing a newsletter for clients, which won him a Wincott financial journalism award. He still writes a bulletin today, aged 83, says Rudd proudly.

Rudd was born in 1961 and grew up in Kensington, close to where he now lives (the family had another home in Wiltshire, as does Rudd today). He was the only boy among four children (Amanda runs Aveda hair and beauty products in Europe; Melissa is a state primary teacher at St Mary Abbots C of E school in Kensington; Amber is a head-hunter and the Tory candidate for Hastings). He senses what I'm thinking (he does that a lot) and says, before I ask about Amber: 'We all get along brilliantly.'

He went to Millfield, the expensive, sporty boarding school in Somerset. 'It was ahead of its time,' he volunteers, 'a very multicultural, multi-racial school. In many ways it foreshadowed the way Britain subsequently changed.' That's a New Labour explanation for 'why it's OK for me to have gone to a posh school' if ever there was one. However, his PR antenna also tells him not to go too far. 'But I admit, it was a privileged, private school that was very middle-class.'

Was he sports-mad? 'Millfield had an active debating society, which I joined, and it was big on acting, which I also did. I've no great hand-to-eye co-ordination, so lots of things were out. I played rugby until I was 16 and I ran the 800 metres, which I had a modicum of success at.'

He was determined to follow his father to Oxford. Instead of trying to get into one of the famous colleges, he applied to Regent's Park, an ecumenical Christian hall, specialising in theology and philosophy, which had become part of the university only in 1957. He was accepted, to study theology. He wasn't especially religious, though. 'I don't regard myself as a Christian as such - well, perhaps a lazy Christian.'

He remains loyal to Regent's Park and helps with its fund-raising. It gave him access to the whole university, which he seized upon. Friends included Hugo Dixon, Old Etonian son of the former MP and stockbroker, Piers Dixon. The pair went to the US to work on Walter Mondale's campaign for the Democratic nomination.Mondale told them he had no room for them, so they decamped for rival Gary Hart. Today, Rudd is a major investor in Dixon's breakingviews.com financial commentary and opinion service.

He had three goes at being elected President of the Union. The third time, he won by six votes - quite an achievement for someone from a lesser college to see off candidates from Balliol, Christ Church and the rest. His presidency was notable for its star-studded debates. 'There was a lot being written about this right-wing American called Newt Gingrich. I rang him up at his office in the US and asked him to come, and he did.' Just like that.

Rudd was a committed believer in the centrist SDP breakaway from Labour, and after Oxford he went to work for one of its Gang of Four founders, David Owen. 'The SDP was doing well, up to 39% in the opinion polls. I was inside the House of Commons. I was a researcher and driver. I loved it. I travelled a lot' - he pauses - 'and I got to learn the importance of accuracy.'

Owen needed Rudd to supply him with 10 facts for a speech. Six turned out to be wrong. 'He was unintentionally embarrassed. To say he was unhappy is an understatement. Ever since, I insist that facts are checked twice.'

After a while, he was faced with a choice: stay and fight the next election or 'try and get a proper job'. Joining The Times as a graduate trainee, he was sent to the Wolverhampton Express & Star as part of his training. It was the time of the Wapping strike and the NUJ instructed its members not to talk to him. Suitably hardened, he was made labour reporter by the Times editor, Charles Wilson. 'All the previous labour reporters had left in protest when the dispute started and I think Charlie was impressed that anyone on The Times wanted to cover labour.'

He fell in with union leaders on the right. 'There was a meeting of minds where we thought the other lot were communist sympathisers: they gave me lots of stories; it was a great opportunity.'

In 1989, Rudd was asked to join a new launch, the Sunday Correspondent, as transport and labour correspondent. 'I turned up to an NUJ meeting late and found myself made the father of the chapel. Peter Cole (its founder editor) always referred to me as Red Roland after that.'

The short-lived paper seemed to be in a permanent state of crisis. Journalists wanted to strike over pay and conditions. Rudd, the FoC, supported the management. 'We won the day, even if the paper didn't,' he says.

He went to the Independent briefly, then the Financial Times. 'Gavyn Davies wrote to Richard Lambert (the then editor) saying he should take me on as a business reporter.' In his four years at the FT he showed an ability to break stories, often about takeovers and deals. 'Hanson took a stake in ICI, we didn't know why. I was told "Lord Hanson never gives interviews". I rang him up and spoke to him and got the story.'

He was sent to the House of Commons, which he also enjoyed. But increasingly, he thought of starting his own business. 'I'd always been entrepreneurial. I talked to Alan Parker (the head of Brunswick, now Finsbury's rival) but I kept coming back to the idea of doing my own thing.'

At the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in May 1994 he bumped into Rupert Younger, then at Brunswick. The result was Finsbury, begun in October that year. 'I needed to team up with someone who knew what to do. Rupert agreed to be that person.'

There was a gap in the market. 'In the FTSE-100 at the end of 1994, only half had financial PR advisers, half didn't. Today, only 5% don't. The barriers of entry are much higher now.' From the outset, Rudd, who held 80% of the firm, was determined Finsbury would serve only large clients. 'I didn't want to take on small companies or companies I didn't believe in. Also, I'd seen plenty of firms that started small, then as they got bigger, jettison their smaller clients - I thought that was a bad model.'

He felt that City PR wasn't being done well. 'There were firms that were not financially literate, which didn't understand financial terms, which traded stories on different clients, and which didn't believe in their clients.'

Staff were required to understand accounts and corporate finance. 'I wanted a strict rule on having only six or seven clients per person, so that no-one was ever stretched or ever had to say: I'll come back to you on that one. There are times when you don't know the answer to a question, but essentially you should have enough knowledge about the client to deal with queries.'

His first brief, for £10,000, came from industrial conglomerate Williams Holdings, which wanted ideas and strategic input. Williams was headed by Sir Nigel Rudd (no relation), later chairman of Boots and Pilkington, and Roger Carr, who went on to chair Centrica. It was a lucky break - down the years, Rudd and Carr have been among Finsbury's most productive supporters. They are on BNE's advisory board.

Another job was for Bunzl, and he picked up work through Merrill Lynch. Rudd's timing has been impeccable. Chairmen and CEOs realised increasingly that they needed specialist financial PR advice - and that their own reputations depended on the coverage they received.

The first deal Finsbury acted on was Merrill Lynch's acquisition of Smith New Court. That has been followed by numerous mergers, takeovers and restructurings. 'Everything has gone extremely well,' says Rudd. As well as more FTSE clients than anyone else, Finsbury has opened shop in New York, where it claims to be in the top 10, and in Brussels.

Within a year of opening, Rudd had had his first approach to sell, to Burston-Marsteller. Then, Interpublic wanted to merge Finsbury with Shandwick, and Omnicom was interested. At the start of 2000, WPP's Sorrell left a message asking Rudd to get in touch. Talks went well until the details leaked and journalists kept asking Sorrell if he was going to pay £50m for Finsbury. He backed off and others - Lord Bell's Chime, Incepta, Thomson Financial, Mosaic from Canada - were showing interest. Sorrell returned, saying to Rudd at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2001: 'Haven't we done that deal yet?'

What was on offer was membership of WPP's international network and all the reciprocal business that would ensue, with management control of the firm retained - plus the chance for Rudd, Younger, James Murgatroyd (who had joined them later) and other partners to cash in.

When the sale was announced, Sorrell was not best pleased at the numbers bandied around in the press, implying he'd paid Rudd too much. The marriage got off to a bad start, but it has worked well since. 'It was a good deal for both of us,' says Rudd. 'For us, because we were selling to a blue-chip UK company that is very successful. It was important we sold to someone who could help us grow.' For Sorrell, because he acquired an agency that was number three or four at the time and is now number one in the UK.

As to the price he paid - estimated at £60m - Sorrell seems to have got a bargain, bearing in mind that another agency, Financial Dynamics, fetched £140m last year. He was clever, too. Rudd and his colleagues were to be paid in full only if they hit tough growth targets over the next four years. This they did, and the only senior figure to quit so far has been Younger, who remains a consultant to the firm.

'I speak to Martin every week,' says Rudd of the WPP boss. 'I do a monthly report for him. He doesn't interfere. It means that on the Thomson-Reuters deal we could work with the best agency in Canada that was part of WPP. On ABN, where we're advising Fortis (the Belgian bank), we've been able to pick and choose agencies within WPP across the world to help them.'

Rudd and Sorrell like to think they're plugged in, they exchange gossip, and Sorrell sits on the BNE advisory group. Finsbury has now got 10 or so partners and just under 70 staff. 'I've never thought success is measured by the numbers of people you employ,' says Rudd.

He has made enough to retire, but has no intention of doing so. 'I've not slowed down. I do take holidays and I have a lovely house and I make sure I have good, quality time.'

He nailed his colours to the Blair mast but doesn't expect that to be a problem in the months and years ahead. 'I've a very good relationship with Ed (Balls) - he's been a friend from FT days. David Cameron was a client when he was at Carlton. He came to dinner with our clients recently. I was pleased - it showed he's not tribal.'

It's clear Rudd loves his job. 'To work with a chairman and CEO, to be a trusted adviser is great fun. The ability to shape things before they've happened is more meaningful than reporting on them afterwards.' Seldom does he have to bite his lip. 'If you pull your punches because you're frightened of the chairman/CEO's reaction, then you're not adding value.'

Away from Finsbury, there's BNE. 'There's been no pro-European organisation since the demise of Business In Europe. I wanted to set something up that was pro-EU and that wanted to see the pace of reform accelerate.'

BNE, he says, comprises 'eyes-wide-open pro-Europeans.' He cites the example of the Common Agricultural Policy. In 1977, it accounted for 77% of the EU budget. Now, it's 34%. 'It's still too much,' he adds. The business community, he believes, is with him. 'The CBI polled 419 senior industrialists - why 419, I don't know - of whom 415 said it was imperative we remained in Europe.'

We forget, he says, the benefits of the single market for business. 'They're enormous. It's not 12 but 27 countries, and previously that would have been 27 sets of rules and regulations. Now there's just one. The majority of business people want a new, amended treaty that makes doing business in Europe more effective.'

Will BNE be enough for him, politically? 'I enjoy it enormously because it enables me to engage with Ed, with George Osborne on the Tory side and Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg from the Lib Dems.'

He worked for Owen because he thought politics was where he was heading. 'But things change - I became a journalist.' And the Lords? 'You can't plan for those things. At school, I wanted to be prime minister. It's like being a journalist and wanting to be editor of a national newspaper - it's not something you can plan for.'

Contrary to the impression he gives, Rudd maintains he does relax. 'I love art - I'm on the Tate advisory committee. I love opera - I'm on the development committee of the Royal Opera House. I like Wagner. I've got season tickets at Chelsea. I'm not one of those who makes calls while on the ski lift. I'd never do that.'

Really? He shakes his head. He knows he's on shaky ground. 'My daughter had to do a project at school about her family. She wrote: "Daddy works on a mobile phone."'

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING RUDD
1. To continue to grow Finsbury
2. To secure reform in the EU and to strengthen Britain's position at
the heart of the union
3. To further his own political ambitions
4. To spend less time on the phone

RUDD IN A MINUTE
1961: Born 24 April. Educated at Millfield School and Oxford University
1984: Researcher for David Owen in the SDP
1986: Graduate trainee, The Times
1990: Business reporter, Financial Times
1994: Founds Finsbury PR agency
2001: Sells Finsbury to WPP, stays in charge
2006: Creates Business for New Europe to make the business case for the EU

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime