David Heal's bank manager will be a happy man this week. Heal and
business partner Charles Keil, who between them owned corporate and
consumer PR network Harrison Cowley, share £6.4m as the first
payment for the firm's sale to Lord Chadlington's Huntsworth Group.
Despite being top dog since he led the MBO of what was a combined
advertising and PR agency from Saatchi & Saatchi in 1994, Heal insists
there is no element of apprehension about having someone to report to
again. Keil will take a back seat as an executive director, but Heal
takes over as chairman with ongoing responsibility for day-to-day
running of the firm.
Still, he cheerfully concedes: 'I've never been the world's greatest
employee.' As a journalist, first with regional papers in Merseyside,
then with the Daily Mail and Sunday People, he was heavily involved with
the NUJ, a body not known for giving media management an easy time.
For the courteous, friendly Heal, getting on with people is
But as Bill Jones, joint CEO of the similarly sized consumer firm Lexis
PR, says: 'I suspect there is more steel behind there than meets the
He doesn't give you the air of self-importance that people running PR
firms sometimes have but his challenge has been to keep a group of
offices in different regions glued together, and that's hard.'
QBO chairman Trevor Morris qualifies this remark: 'Steeliness makes him
sound cold. He's got focus, knows what he wants to achieve, but is fair
in dealing with people.'
Heal claims the latest deal was helped by the fact that he liked
Chadlington. The sale was done in just ten weeks and will, Heal says,
enable him to give everyone in the company a better chance of moving
their careers forward. Although his staff will wait a year for a cut of
the cash, Heal insists that without the deal: 'I couldn't enfranchise
all my colleagues. What's best for the business is best for the people
This is significant. Given the size of Heal's shareholding, regional
offices could have been forgiven for wondering if they might not glean
greater reward under their own steam. Tales of restlessness, however
muted, were understandable. The deal has come at a good time.
But HC has been no slouch in recent years. Revenue has trebled since the
MBO and the network came 25th in the PRWeek Top 150 league tables
(PRWeek, 27 April).
But Heal was aware more was required. 'Increasing client offers, like
public affairs and financial PR, is important. Without that we're
vulnerable because of the cross-trading opportunities at larger groups.
There will be financial advantages to this deal and we keep our status,
name, culture and management. Peter said to us: "We want you to do more
and be more successful."'
Merging, rather than selling, had been an option, Heal admits, though he
maintains there was never a plan to merge with regional public affairs
network, PPS. 'You've got to find someone doing something different and
a simple share swap is not necessarily a sensible business decision.'
Borrowing to fund expansion was another option but, after the MBO
experience, 'I didn't want to do it again. We won the fight in the end
but it takes a lot of time.'
Despite the company opening in London in 1997, HC is often branded as a
regional operator, with eight offices nationwide. Does that bother
'Some still think of us as a regional advertising group,' he retorts
with a laugh. 'We've got work to do. But we are where the people are;
it's a growing strength of our offer.'
You get the impression Heal's interest in this regard does not only
apply to clients. 'I come from a straightforward background,' Heal says.
'We've built this business on trust and tried to be a caring employer. I
find it difficult working where there's no team spirit. In the last five
years, most of the senior team has stayed. There must be a reason for
that. Getting it through the next three years is important. I want
colleagues to celebrate the experience. A lot of the concerns, the
distractions, of the last seven years are slipping away from me, but the
commercial threats that were there yesterday will be there today.'
Keil makes a telling comment about Heal on this point: 'He gets to the
heart of a problem and God knows we've had enough of them. On occasion
he is prepared to swim against the tide, I won't say that's always gone
right, it hasn't.' But Keil makes it clear that having Heal in charge,
in the early days, was the difference between success and failure.
As to the future, Heal won't comment on what comes after his three-year
back-loaded earn out. 'Is 52 too early to retire? I don't know. Three
years is a long time.' For the former leftist journalist who once took
up a post with the Conservative Party's ad agency, much is possible.
1978: News editor, Liverpool Daily Post
1989: Managing director, Hall Harrison Cowley PR, Manchester
1995: CEO, Harrison Cowley
2001: Chairman, Harrison Cowley.