Profile: Richard Nichols, group CEO, College Hill Associates

The proudest moment in Richard Nichols's career came when he bumped into football management legend Sir Bobby Robson in the tunnel at St James's Park.

A picture of College Hill Associates' new group CEO and the former Newcastle United manager is now sitting proudly on Nichols's desk, next to snaps of his two children. And the fact that Nichols, 41, ranks meeting Robson above his myriad career achievements shows the high esteem in which the Geordie holds his home city.

Nichols is something of an oddity in the PR world – an industry big-hitter with little practical PR background. A former financial analyst at British Gas, he was responsible for growing Citigate into a leading PR company, and oversaw the sale of its parent group, Incepta, to Huntsworth last year.

‘I'm businessman first, marketer second,' he says – his Geordie accent scarcely detectable after two decades living in the South-East and time spent with the more plummy elements of the PR fraternity.

‘I'm a qualified accountant who was fortunate enough, after British Gas, to get involved in a small company called Citigate,' he explains. ‘I remember getting a call from the guys at Citigate asking: "Why don't you get a proper job?" I thought I had one already.'

Nichols attributes his success – he kept Incepta profitable through the PR industry's downturn in the first half of this decade – to entrepreneurship and the ability to retain good staff.

‘A company's success can be measured through its talent pool,' he says. ‘In 2001, around 80 of the leading Incepta MDs got together at a global forum; 70 of them were still with the company when I left.'

He admits that before joining College Hill, he looked into opportunities in sport and leisure. ‘I thought about leaving the PR sector behind and starting something fresh,' he reveals. ‘But I see a lot of the qualities of Citigate within College Hill. That it is private is a great selling point. We can plan for three or four years rather than answer to shareholders every six months.'

College Hill has been linked with a bid for rival City agency Cubitt Consulting, and, given Nichols's history, onlookers are expecting acquisitions. Nichols declines to comment.

‘College Hill is punching below its weight,' he concedes. ‘It was centrally involved in three of the top 15 M&A deals last year, but is still considered by some to be a smaller agency.'

Nichols, alongside executive chairman Alex Sandberg, is looking to expand the company's IR, PA and international offerings. Could a recent trip to Moscow indicate a desire to open an office in Russia?

‘Russia is a huge market with an impressive legal and commercial framework that is very robust. It has got a burgeoning press and extensive natural resources. The growth over there is no bubble,' Nichols says.

That Nichols should scope out Muscovite potential while on a business trip is indicative of his work ethic – a planned sabbatical, following his departure from Huntsworth, was cancelled when Sandberg came calling.

‘From 6am on Monday to midnight on Friday, I focus on work,' says Nichols. ‘But I've managed to keep weekends fairly sacrosanct.'

His weekends have involved drafting letters from the Tooth Fairy to send to his young son and daughter: ‘Perhaps it's a good way of honing PR skills. If you can communicate with a seven-year-old…'

Nichols and his wife are taking the children on a three-week holiday to Disneyland soon, taking in some of the sights not normally seen on business trips. Then it's back to the grindstone at College Hill – and the start of the Premiership season.

‘There are two emotions in being a Newcastle United fan,' laments Nichols. ‘Despair and misery. I get to see them playing in London, and we've the worst record of any team playing here. The misery I can live with, it's the despair that's difficult.'

At least his working life offers a little respite from the annual false dawns that come with being a loyal member of the Toon Army.


CV

2006: Group CEO, College Hill Associates

2005: Chief executive, Huntsworth

2001: CEO, Incepta

1999: Group finance director, Incepta

1996: Deputy finance director, Citigate Communications Group

1994: Senior financial analyst, British Gas

 

 

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