As evening descended on Tuesday last week, Lord Peter Chadlington breathed a sigh of satisfaction, put his feet up on his office's red sofa and told the regular callers to his mobile: 'It's done.'
The lawyers pored over details in a nearby office, but Huntsworth's charismatic CEO was ready to tell the markets about his deal to buy a trio of PR agencies - Trimedia, Grayling Group and Hudson Sandler.
Global network ambition
A shock? Not for those in the know at 15-17 Huntsworth Mews, the central London offices that house this rapidly expanding PR empire. As Chadlington, the industry veteran and Shandwick International founder, himself says: 'How did we keep this quiet? Simple - we didn't tell anyone.'
For Trimedia, which has operations in four European countries, Huntsworth has paid £3m up front (which could rise to £16.9m if targets are met); Grayling came for £10m, while £1.14m bought 60 per cent of Hudson Sandler (both the latter from French media group Havas).
The deals are the most serious marker yet of Chadlington's burning ambition to build a global PR network. They bring three more mature PR businesses into a fold that already includes the likes of hatch-group, Counsel, Harrison Cowley and Haslimann Taylor, until last week, the most recent agency to be snapped up, last October.
Zurich-headquartered Trimedia has been a hatch affiliate for several years and, as such, is the most obvious of the three acquisitions. As Rupert Ashe, a corporate finance adviser to the media sector and partner at Wall House Consulting, says: 'In absolute terms, Chadlington is paying a low price for a ready-made international network.'
David Wynne-Morgan, who now runs WMC Communications and was formerly president and CEO EMEA at Hill & Knowlton, agrees that Trimedia appears the 'best of the three' in furthering Chadlington's global ambition.
The deal will see the disappearance of the MacLaurin and hatch brands, with hatch chief Michael Murphy becoming Trimedia CEO, replacing Michel Gutknecht who becomes group executive chairman.
Grayling group CEO Nigel Kennedy hopes the Huntsworth deal will enable the 're-energising' of the lobbying, PR and events outfit, which, he acknowledges, had a 'disappointing' 2003.
Given Huntsworth's track record and stated acquisitive intent, it is far from premature to ask at which agency's door the Chadlington charabanc will next pull up. Huntsworth has little presence in healthcare PR and tech PR.
Chadlington acknowledges this. He has been hunting an MD for his planned healthcare PR start-up for months (in healthcare Huntsworth offers just Marlow-based marketing agency PBC).
With regard to tech, Chadlington has had discussions with 'a number' of tech PR firms and, he says with a characteristic glint, there are 'a couple' he 'likes the look of'.
One market observer says: 'Chadlington has the clout to buy whoever he wants - for him, rivaling the company he founded and then sold (Shandwick) is a powerful motivation.'
Of course, Murphy is also ex-Shandwick (he left his role as deputy global CEO in 2000), as is Huntsworth business development director Alison Clarke.
The broader sectoral and geographic scope last week's deals will bring are likely to have Clarke, for one, slavering at the prospect of the cross-group, pan-European pitches for which Huntsworth will now be better equipped.
But Wynne-Morgan says: 'I think Peter's in a hurry, I think he wants to prove something - he's that sort of guy. He has fire in his belly to show how wrong it (Shandwick) was. But he has to be careful not to buy a rag-bag of companies.'
Mostly, market observers are quietly impressed with Huntsworth's progress.
Ashe, for one, believes the timing of the deals is good: 'If you want to build a marketing services group you have to start buying at the beginning of the business cycle.' He adds: 'You get the assets at a historically cheap price and you benefit from the growth in their earnings during the three-to-five years after acquisition.'
Like its agency portfolio, Huntsworth's reputation is growing and Chadlington says he continues to have potential acquisitions 'brought to (him) every week'.
And, he adds with a smirk, 'some of the names would surprise you'.
FACTFILE: THE LATEST AGENCIES TO ENTER THE HUNTSWORTH FOLD - GRAYLING GROUP
Key milestones 1981: PR business founded; 1986: Westminster Strategy founded; 1987: acquired by Lopex; 1996: RS Live/Grayling Face to Face transferred by Lopex to Grayling; 1999: Lopex acquired by Havas; 2004: acquired by Huntsworth
Key figures Nigel Kennedy (group CEO); David Atterbury Thomas (group FD); Amanda Riddle (UK PR CEO); Vivien Hepworth (Global Positioning Strategy/WS CEO); Paul West (Face to Face/RS Live CEO); Roy Bumsted (US CEO); James Acheson-Gray (Asia MD); Russell Patten (GPS CEO Brussels); David Curtin (Ireland chairman)
UK offices (staff) London (48), Bristol (11), Cardiff (3), Edinburgh (5), Birmingham (18)
Overseas offices (staff) Dublin (15), Brussels (10), New York (17), Singapore (12), Hong Kong (4)
Key milestones 1992: Christoph Malms takes controlling interest in Trimedia from former management; 1993-1995: Malms and Michel Gutknecht reposition Trimedia on core PR business; 2004: joins Huntsworth group and expands into UK
Key figures Michel Gutknecht (chairman); Michael Murphy (group CEO); Vikki Stace (UK CEO); Bodo Kirs (Germany CEO); Alfred Autischer (Austria CEO); Werner Maeder (Switz CEO); Martine Broncher (France CEO)
UK offices (staff) London (36), Scotland (12), Birmingham (2)
Overseas offices (staff) Switzerland (40); Austria (35); Germany (85); France (15)
- HUDSON SANDLER
Key milestones 1986: founded; 2000: 60 per cent sold to Havas; 2004: Havas sells its stake to Huntsworth
Key figures Michael Sandler (chairman), Andrew Hayes (CEO), Alistair Mackinnon-Musson (deputy chairman), Nick Lyon (partner) - all four retain their 40 per cent shareholding
UK office (staff): London (30).