Friday, 23 November 2007

“Regrets… I’ve had a few” or “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”

The final whistle has been blown, and time has been called on Ralph Bernard’s run as “Head Coach” (or CEO, as I’m sure he’s more frequently called) of the UK’s largest radio group GCap Media. It appears however, from early reports, that no Croatians whatsoever were involved in this exit.

So, looking back on his career – which is obligatory in these circumstances – what will we remember?

There’s no doubt that building up GWR to a company worth £262 Million pounds was a truly fantastic achievement. GWR really pioneered the principle of a ‘network’ of stations. They purchased mainly smaller market, sometimes underperforming stations, and applied an almost franchise-like approach to the re-branding and re-formatting of them.

Local control was limited, and replaced by a top down approach to doing things. (One employee once commented to me that working for GWR was a little like being a member of the Communist Party!) Centralized playlists, syndicated programming and generic production were perhaps a glimpse into the future?

However, it was the merger of GWR and Capital that was a defining moment in UK commercial radio, and Ralph was very much in the driving seat. Was consolidation necessary? For commercial radio to create some scale and be more competitive both with the BBC and other content providers… then yes, it was.

Was the merger a success? Well, it depends on how you measure success!!

The City always looks at shareholder value, profits and future growth. It does seem a little disappointing that at the time of the merger Capital was valued at £264 Million and GWR at £262 Million. The current Market Cap of the merged companies that formed GCap Media is £229 Million, less than half the value of the separate entities pre-merger. And as I write, the share price is at an all time low.

OK – media valuations have changed and there has been a downturn in the advertising economy in the last 2½ years, but still…

Culturally, the merger was difficult. (I was there at the time and trust me... it was difficult!). GWR and Capital had very different ways of doing things both in terms of management and programming, and bringing these two monolithic cultures together was always going to be a bit of a minefield. Ralph said to The Guardian in July 2006… "We unquestionably misjudged the culture difference between the organisations”

There were accusations of a ‘putsch’ as the number of senior roles in the newly merged company seemed to all go to former GWR executives.

However, over time the dust inevitably settled and although always a favourite for media commentators to ‘have a go at’, GCap Media remains intact… for the time being! But who will be handed the unenviable role of steering the company through the choppy waters ahead? The smart money is on Fru Hazlitt, the feisty former CEO of Virgin Radio who now occupies the role of boss of GCap’s London portfolio.

So farewell then Ralph. It’s been emotional. Please select your swan song…

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