PROFILE: Colin Byrne, Weber Shandwick - Tough but loyal Byrne takes control at WS

Weber Shandwick CEO is held in high regard by Peter Mandelson and others

It may have become fairly hackneyed in the PR business to bang on about Weber Shandwick CEO Colin Byrne's new Labour credentials, but the framed picture on his office wall - 'To Colin, yours, Tony' - show that, to Byrne at least, they still matter a huge amount.

He describes Peter Mandelson, who was director of campaigns for the party when Byrne worked in the press office, as a friend and mentor. For his part, Mandelson praises Byrne's knowledge of 'where to pitch his message', and describes him as 'a thinking person's spin doctor, in contrast to the many off-the-peg, rent-a-quote types - naming no names'.

Despite this closeness, Byrne's full-time work for the party accounts for only part of his career. He started work in 1981 with stints as a press officer for the Automobile Association and the National Union of Students. A five-year spell as press officer and chief press officer for Labour followed, as did work as communications director for the Prince of Wales's business leaders' forum and PR manager for the National Farmers' Union.

For the last decade, Byrne has worked at the various firms that became Weber Shandwick, rising from associate director to CEO. He took on the top job this week, following the departure of his fellow office holder David Brain, who left to work as European CEO of Edelman (PRWeek, 19 September).

That period has been one of major change at the Shandwick empire, as it acquired various firms, was itself acquired by Interpublic and then merged with first The Weber Group and then BSMG Worldwide. Philip Dewhurst, Byrne's boss as UK CEO until 2001, now an agency client as BNFL corporate affairs director, says Byrne's toughness hastened his rise up the ranks: 'He is a no-nonsense character who doesn't suffer fools gladly,' says Dewhurst. In reference to Byrne's occasional rants at colleagues, Dewhurst adds: 'He used to have a very short fuse, but he seems to have grown out of it now'.

If this 'short fuse' contributed to what Byrne accepts has been a negative perception of Shandwick among its staff over the years, he is at least taking steps to address it. 'There was an atmosphere of bitchiness,' Byrne says. 'I was one of four divisional MDs and we were like the warring tribes of Israel.

We needed to realise that people below MD level don't give a stuff about profit and loss accounts - they care about the work they are doing.'

Defining the Byrne brand is tricky, because he can be charm and smiles one minute and hard as nails the next. His own view is that he is 'focused on winning, but a people person, and approachable'. He accepts he has a ruthless streak, but insists: 'I may be tough, but I don't hold grudges and I place a premium on loyalty. This is a fickle industry, with people changing jobs every year, but I'm not like that.'

If this is a subtle dig at his erstwhile joint-CEO, he is quick to make amends: 'David's departure was a big loss to me personally. I have been keen for two years to prove wrong those who said we'd be stabbing each other in the back. I can honestly say we didn't have a cross word in the time we worked together.'

If this is true, it is all the more remarkable given that the two were managing an agency that has been hit as hard as any by the global economic downturn. From a combined fee income of over £40m when BSMG was folded in to WS in 2001, the company is believed to have lost over a quarter of this - the Sarbanes-Oxley Act prevents full disclosure, but informed sources hint at a 2003 fee take of £27m.

Despite this painful shrinkage - staff numbers are similarly down - Byrne has not been slow to make significant hires. He bought in Sunday Times political editor Michael Prescott, BBC TV reporter Peter Morgan and Channel 4's Powerhouse editor Andrew Brown - brother of the chancellor. He has also drafted in investment bankers, with a view to cracking the magic circle of City firms working on major M&As, and Countrywide Porter Novelli director Sally Ward, who was this week promoted to be his deputy.

As to whether these people will help WS build on its market leading position, or just drive up the wage bill, remains to be seen, but Mandelson is in no doubt: 'He is driven and loyal to both his clients and to high standards.

He picks the best to work with him and if they don't perform he won't hang about before acting on it.'

Mandelson would say that, of course, since he is a close enough friend to have been best man at Byrne's first wedding. Time will tell if the new Labour architect's confidence in a protege he describes as a 'willing and able student', is justified.

HIGHLIGHTS

1988: Chief press officer, The Labour Party

1996: Director, Shandwick Consultants

1997: Managing director, Shandwick Public Affairs

2001: Joint CEO, Weber Shandwick UK

2003: CEO, Weber Shandwick UK and Ireland

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