The MT Interview: Rupert Gavin

If the Beeb is ever privatised - and after Hutton, anything seems possible - the boss of BBC Worldwide has made a good job of fattening up the golden goose. A tough nut, he bats aside criticism about over-exploiting the brand and juggles business duties with an intriguing artistic sideline

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Rupert Gavin is eating a sandwich when I arrive. I can just see him through the crack of the door, hunched over his food in the corner of his BBC office, stuffing it all down before the next appointment. As it's past 2.30 in the afternoon, I can only presume his lunch was disappointing, or that he's just always hungry.

Or maybe he never has time. Gavin, the BBC boss who is famous for cramming in as much as possible - running the corporation's commercial consumer arm as well as heading his own West End theatre production company - likes to spread himself around, notionally and physically. A big Yogi Bear of a man, 6ft 5in when he stands up, bursting out of his rumpled pinstripe suit, he frequently looks as if he just emerged from a buffeting in the spin dryer. Beard roughly cropped, lank hair unkempt, half his buttoned-down shirt collar flying free, he does not, by any stretch of the imagination, belong to broadcasting's Armani tendency.

Yet appearances can be deceptive. Gavin, Old Etonian, former deputy MD of Dixons and ex-high flyer at BT, is probably one of the most in-demand bosses that television has got. He has never made a programme in his life, of course - which tells you something about the way broadcasting is going.

But barely a big job goes by now without the BBC Worldwide chief being touted for the top spot. Head of Channel 4 and chief executive of the new ITV are just two of them in recent years. With the BBC suffering its own boss exodus in January, when director general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies both resigned, it's inevitable Gavin's name should be in the frame again.

Why the demand? Because Gavin, 49, has turned BBC Worldwide, set up in 1994 to co-ordinate most of the corporation's commercial activities, into one of the most envied outfits in the media world. It makes pots of profit for the BBC - some say too much, almost as if Gavin is too good at it - by commercially exploiting the brands and projects that the non-profit-making side of the corporation initiates. Get a DVD of The Office for Christmas? That's Gavin. Buy a subscription to Good Food magazine or Eve?

Gavin too. Let's not even mention Worldwide's wholly owned international channels BBC Prime and BBC America, the UKTV channels (a joint venture with Flextech), Delia Smith's cook books, various websites, Teletubby toys, GCSE Bitesize and more.

Gavin is, supposedly, hemmed in by various fair trade restrictions that stop him stomping too heavily over competitors, and the money he makes goes back to the corporation to save us licence-fee payers handing out more - but his success has been noted.

He has access to a £350 million borrowing facility granted by government to the BBC to fund further commercial expansion, and he has been told to push his division's £640 million turnover closer to a billion if he can. Yet at the same time, headhunters, it seems, are rarely off the phone.

The price of success, or itchy feet?

'Journalists are just desperately keen to fill column inches,' he says, shrugging those broad shoulders. Perhaps they've noted that he was originally appointed by John Birt, Dyke's predecessor as DG, and after six years must be getting restless? 'I haven't talked to anyone about jobs. People ring from time to time. But I'm not planning to leave for anywhere.'

Others suggest that Gavin is always, as one puts it, 'careful to ensure his name is in the frame' when the top jobs are discussed. This, after all, is the man who left Dixons sharpish after asking his boss John Clare how long he might be staying. That was in 1994 (Clare is still there).

He also lobbied John Birt for the BBC Worldwide job when he thought his BT career was stalling.

In fact, Gavin has been a shrewd career-hopper since he started: working in advertising (Sharps and Saatchi's) in the 1980s, retailing in the early '90s, telecoms in the mid-90s, and in recent years content, as he calls it. And content (making programmes, selling formats, launching channels, spinning off ideas) remains king, he says, and he is at one of the most creative organisations in the world, so why leave?

So far, so logical. The only constant among all this career-hopping is the theatre job he also holds down, running Incidental, his production company, as well as sitting on the board of the Ambassadors Theatre Group, owner of 22 theatres and the fastest-growing theatre group in the UK.

Incidental has produced hits such Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker, Sweet Panic, starring Jane Horrocks, and Three Sisters, with Kristin Scott-Thomas, so this is not amateur dramatics we are talking about. Where does he get the diary space?

He gives a little chortle. 'I come from a family that likes to do lots of things at the same time,' he says, beady eyes watching cautiously.

And then he waits, eyebrows raised, just studying me. That's why some feel very uneasy opposite Gavin. He either talks a lot, often in some depth about the most arcane of subjects where you just want him to slow down so you can catch up, or a little.

And all the time a small smile is playing on his lips, as if he is simply having a bit of fun. Employees tend to like him - he's changed few of the senior team at Worldwide since he started, and established a good esprit de corps, say many - but some find him difficult. 'Very clever but sometimes short on charm', one adman sums up the Gavin reputation.

So there we are, sitting either side of his vast meeting table in his second-floor BBC corner office overlooking the Westway in London's White City. There had been a kerfuffle earlier when a fathers' rights protestor, dressed up as Santa Claus, had climbed a gantry over the road outside Gavin's window and tried to bring traffic to a halt. 'I am deeply supportive of him,' sighs Gavin, 'but not outside my office, please.'

Protests aside, Gavin surely had a good Christmas. DVDs and magazine subscriptions were flying out. The international channels, which have soaked up large investment, are either in profit or closer to breaking even. BBC America has pulled in new audiences, and Golden Globe awards for The Office. Rumours of new ventures and investments abound.

Much of Worldwide's success is now shared with partners - it runs an exhibition arm with Haymarket (publisher of MT), for example - and an increasing amount of income stems from non-BBC-linked activities, but that has not stopped criticism of Gavin over the way his outfit ruthlessly exploits the corporation's name. That, say competitors who have to be self-funding, is simply not fair, as the BBC has huge advantages in reach and reputation.

Rubbish, says Gavin. 'Sure, we have expanded the scope of what we can do, but we are working under tougher fair-trading regulation.'

All that has really changed, he adds, is the way his division works with the BBC. 'Historically, BBC Worldwide operated at the end of the chain.

Now we work in a more systematic, marketplace-focused way, identifying early what is being created that is relevant to our exploitation and ensuring that we are plugged in.'

There is, of course, a fine line between being plugged in and generating the commercial ideas yourself and then pushing the BBC to deliver them. With the award-winning Walking With Dinosaurs series, for instance, it was Gavin's Worldwide operation that raised most of the cash after identifying that there would be a huge market for the series if the computer graphics were taken to a new level.

'I don't know if you would call that influencing what they did,' muses Gavin, 'but we weren't trying to get them to do anything other than what they wanted to do. And if we work alongside them and we know when the book is going to hit, and the CD-Rom, we can get the best potential out of it, and that flows back into production standards and you get a better show.'

He has to pay fair charges for BBC product. And he is not allowed to commission anything to order - a programme to back a magazine, for example.

But he can produce formidable magazine titles from current programmes - hence the success of Gardener's World and other monthlies. Publishing and new media account for more than half of BBC Worldwide's sales. Isn't that tough on competitors?

'Why? They can produce magazines linked to programmes, too. There is nothing to stop them tying up closely with ITV. The fact is we are better at it than they are, and they whinge.'

Yet there is a perception that, somehow, Dyke and Gavin upped the pace?

'Well, what Greg did was help us ensure that, where there have been certain constraints on us that didn't speak to certain principles, he has been very focused on moving those barriers aside.'

Ah. Gavin, as one can see, is as adept at eliptical Birtspeak as he is at letting forth the odd Dyke-ism, and has seemingly encountered no difficulty slipping between the two regimes at the BBC. But then he runs his own ship, allowed to get on with it within those 'certain constraints' and judged only on the numbers.

There are suggestions that bits of Worldwide could be floated off, constant speculation that the next BBC Charter review could change everything again after 2006, queries over who will be the new top team at the BBC. But Gavin - who has argued all along that privatisation is not in licence payers' interests - sails serenely on. If the only criticism is that he is doing his job too well, he can live with that.

For many colleagues, he's always been a hard man to place. Born into an affluent business family, his father a Lloyds Name and reinsurance boss who later ran part of Lonrho, Gavin was brought up in London's Kensington and educated at Eton and Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read economics.

But plumb a bit deeper and interesting wrinkles emerge. One grandfather was a chemist, agriculturalist and Times obituary writer, another an Australian farmer, diplomat and politician. Gavin's mother and elder sister were both in the Army, his mum later worked for Jaeger, his sister in sales promotion.

'We've always had that mix of skills,' he says, 'the creative and the commercial.' Push him, and he'll talk about how Eton stoked his ambition.

'It was all about management and individual leadership in those days - they left the running of the school to the boys. It has all changed now, of course.'

So his management style was honed on the playing-fields of Eton? Those beady eyes narrow. 'Not on the playing fields, but certainly in the schoolrooms.

If you are 16 and asked to organise groups of people to deliver what you need to deliver...'

You just send for your fag? He doesn't laugh. Gavin, at times, can take himself rather seriously. But the fact remains, you don't meet that many Old Etonian big company bosses. Many wondered how he ended up at Sir Stanley Kalms' rather more demotic Dixons, but the route was simple. Gavin wanted to be a screenwriter, took a job in advertising to pay his way, ended up account managing Dixons and was so good at it, they hired him.

Gavin's years at Dixons were formative ones. 'We went through the best of times,' he says, 'when retailing was booming in the 1980s, then the worst of times when it collapsed.'

More importantly, Gavin learnt key skills from the trio heading Dixons: Kalms himself, deputy chairman Mark Souhami and the then managing director John Clare. 'From Stanley I learnt about the sheer, relentless focus on a problem; no-one I have known focuses on a problem like Stanley, and believes that if you don't focus on it, it won't get better. Mark is very good at motivating. And John has always been so capable of making a complex idea into compelling communication.'

Most important of all was the attention to detail. 'That was crucial to my development as a manager. It was highly creative because you are constantly making judgments in two directions: how to present to the consumer what one had got, whether in print or in store, and how to run all the buying and merchandising teams, having to think imaginatively about what the consumer is going to want in two years' time.'

Gavin also honed a tough personal edge at Dixons. Some since then have found him hard to read, difficult to negotiate with and ambitious. 'Rupert's very good at working out what needs to be done, and seeing how you go forward and execute it,' says Adam Singer, former Flextech and Telewest boss and now a government adviser, 'but he's certainly not cuddly.'

That edge may have been developed to dispel preconceptions about his posh back- ground, or just as a veneer to cover a habitual shyness. Those who've worked with Gavin say that, beneath the gruff exterior, he is rather more 'fun' than outsiders realise: he was the first boss to introduce regular summer and Christmas parties at BBC Worldwide, and by all accounts, he enjoys them.

'Rupert's really committed to his employees,' says Alison Homewood, vice-president at Buena Vista International and a former Worldwide executive.

'He's been a breath of fresh air for Worldwide, where a lot of energy had been lost on internal in-fighting.'

The reason he rubs outsiders up the wrong way, she adds, is just because he's comfortable in his own skin. 'The French call it s'en foutist. He really doesn't care what other people think.'

One of his former bosses agrees: 'Rupert's not a great gushing person, but people like working for him. He's got a great brain, and if you give him a job to do, he does it.'

It was this quality that persuaded Sir Iain Vallance at BT to poach him from Dixons, making him head of information, communications and entertainment, and later director of multimedia services. Gavin's job was to carve out a multimedia strategy for BT - a strategy (for internet, broadband, digital applications and more) that never seemed to get going.

Not fair, says Gavin. 'There was a time when a massive amount of BT's growth came from the internet, but we were regulated out of it.' Gavin later took over BT's £6 billion-turnover consumer division, running services to residential homes, 'and spent even more time with regulators'. When John Birt asked him in 1998 if he fancied taking over BBC Worldwide, he jumped at the chance.

But it's a much smaller business, isn't it? 'I'd always said to John that if the job became vacant, I'd be interested. I had come to the view that the position of telecoms in the value chain was becoming increasingly marginalised by the late 1990s, and I wanted to move out of it.'

So was going to BT a mistake? Gavin purses his lips. 'I guess it was an error in hindsight, though it was absolutely fascinating.'

Yet simultaneously his theatre work has bubbled along - sometimes linking with the day job, sometimes not. One of the reasons the BBC hired him, he says, was because of his production experience. 'They knew I understood the creative mentality.'

And you can tell Gavin loves his hobby. He lights up when he talks about it, and you can easily see him as one of those university impresarios, the scruffy, back-stage organisers, endlessly putting on shows, who adore rubbing shoulders with glitzy performers. He's never lost that. One friend tells of Gavin coming back from a meeting with Jude Law gobsmacked by the actor's presence and physical beauty.

But if Gavin loves the theatre that much, and is clearly good at it, why not do it full-time?

Because if he did it full-time, it would no longer be enjoyable. 'I don't want it to be bigger,' he shrugs. 'Being bigger means making creative judgments based on size, rather than quality. Because it's a hobby, I don't have the month-by-month pressure to put on shows that are not quite right.'

In fact, he tried it full-time between Dixons and BT and didn't like it. 'The pressure of running a big office and the need for through-put was to the detriment of putting the best show on.' He prefers slow and careful. So, for example, he has spent the past five years casting Incidental's next show. 'If I had been doing it full-time, I would have settled for what I could get after two years,' he says.

Howard Panter, MD at Ambassador, which works with Incidental on many of its productions, says Gavin is unlike any other producer he has met.

'Methodical, analytical, with a remarkable capacity for absorbing detail, and he's really prepared to take big risks with taste.'

Just how he manages to cram in the time still puzzles many. Panter believes Gavin is just one of those men who can't sit doing nothing. He has to throw himself into what he loves. He's like that with his gardening.

'I am an obsessive gardener in the Veronese style,' says Gavin portentously.

He defines that as 'using colour to create hidden geometric patterns' (one art historian I checked it with looked rather puzzled, so perhaps that's just what Gavin does inside his own Veronese-style landscapes).

He does that at his country pile in Dorset. He also has a house in London.

He is not, it is thought, short of a bob or two. He is the BBC's second-highest earner after the director general; his American-born wife, Ellen Miller, runs graduate recruitment for Lehman Brothers. Then there is the string of theatrical successes - starting with An Evening With Gary Lineker in the early 1990s - which may already have brought him a fortune.

So what will he do next? Some think he must be angling for a top slot at a FTSE 100 Plc - perhaps still waiting for Dixons' Clare to step down; others that he has his eyes set on a media job in America. But Gavin could just as likely confound everyone by staying put. He doesn't want to be DG, he says, he likes the way it all meshes together at Worldwide: theatre and television, creative and commercial.

Only the superficial, it seems, makes him wary. When I left, he was being fussed over by an anxious press aide, offered a comb before the photograph was taken, buffed into shape as if he couldn't quite handle the shallowness of it. With his beady eyes and pouchy, bearded face, he looked - until he smiled - like an irritable hamster being taken for a spin. But you underestimate him at your peril. What he hadn't shown me, I'm told, was his teeth.

Three tough challenges facing GAVIN

1 Meeting the cashflow targets that the Government set for the end of the charter period.

2 Reaffirming the benefit that the licence fee payers derive from BBC owning/co-owning commercial content companies - for the next charter review.

3 Taking BBC Worldwide to the next level: establishing the BBC's position as Britain's most successful global media company.

GAVIN - IN A MINUTE

1954 Born 1 October in London. Educated at Eton and Magdalene College,

Cambridge

1976 Copywriter, Sharps Advertising

1985 Director, Saatchi & Saatchi

1987 Deputy managing director, Dixons Group

1994 Director of internet and multimedia, BT

1997 Managing director, consumer division, BT

1998 Chief executive, BBC Worldwide

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