With no hands-on experience of public relations, Richard Nichols
finds himself in charge of a swathe of PROs. He has never drafted a
press release, does not advise on message development and has never
knowingly spun a journalist a line. Despite this, he controls the
destiny of almost 2,000 PR and marketing services staff.
Nichols took over this week as chief executive of Incepta, the quoted
company which owns the Citigate brands and, after a further step on the
company's recent acquisition spree, The Red Consultancy. A former
British Gas and Price Waterhouse accountant, he joined Citigate
Communications as deputy group finance director five years ago. Since
then he has seen the company move from being a fledgling operation to
the FTSE 250.
'I don't advise clients. I bring a different skillset to the party,'
Nichols says, when questioned on how a bean counter can plausibly lead a
huge creative corporation. Nichols insists he is more than a number
cruncher, adding that to reach the top finance post in any organisation
requires 'an understanding of operations, the marketplace and the way
the business works,' as well as an ability to do the sums.
If Nichols' reputation in the City is anything to go by, he has this
understanding. Beeson Gregory analyst Hector Forsythe says there is no
need for Incepta shareholders to be concerned by the change at the top,
which has seen chairman Bob Morton leave the group and ex-CEO David
Wright take an executive chairman role. 'Nichols has had five years of
experience around the group and the company's core PR businesses are
going like trains,' Forsythe says .
Forsythe is happy to overlook the fact that Nichols has no PR
It should, he insists, be considered an asset: 'This is a people-centred
business and it is appropriate that there isn't interference in client
work from on high. He can oil the wheels and get the units working for
each other but does not need his own client portfolio.'
Like any CEO, Nichols will take the plaudits for delivering value and
the flak if he fails. Incepta is a curious beast in this respect. It was
placed at the top of a recent Sunday Times list of 'unloved shares'.
By this the paper meant the company - which has been growing fast ever
since the then Citigate Communications pulled off a reverse takeover of
the Incepta shell in 1996 - was a grossly undervalued equity. It has
delivered profits greater than the previous year, enjoyed strong
management and enviable clients, yet its market worth is below what its
earnings per share would suggest. Turning that around is the key task
Another will be to consolidate Incepta's recent buys and find further
acquisitions. Any suggestion of an end to predecessor David Wright's
spending blitz - he acquired Sard Verbinnen and Cunningham
Communications in the US, Key Communications and the Red Consultancy in
the UK and a batch of ad agencies and online interests in the last two
years - is met with a firm 'no'.
'We are still on the acquisition trail,' he says. 'We have a lot of
excellent businesses but as well as growing organically within units, we
want to grow acquisitionally from the centre.'
This entrepreneurial attitude fills everything Citigate does, he says,
and stems from the fact that the company is in large part-owned by the
people who work for it. A quarter of the company is owned by 40 per cent
of staff, a state of affairs bolstered by the recent Red deal, which
could give every Red employee a stake in the new parent.
Nichols has identified the US and continental Europe as areas where the
company has a lower market share than it is capable of securing, given
its success in such trades as financial PR. 'We want to build presence
in Europe and feel we are under-represented in the US market,' he
This, despite buying respected tech-PR firm Cunningham
Medium-sized agencies from Warsaw to Wisconsin would be advised to
prepare for due diligence.
Incepta shareholders can look forward to a fruitful future, principally
because unprofitable businesses will be hacked off by Nichols and
Wright, who is still deeply involved in major decisions in his role as
The Cunningham experience - the market slowed after acquisition, leading
the London management to cut staff costs - has proved Nichols'
ruthlessness but it has not deterred his will to buy: 'In the same
situation I would make the same acquisition again, for the same
In years to come, we can judge Nichols on three things, he says. If the
company's units are the best in their respective classes, with the best
staff servicing the best clients. The City is likely to use a more
precise measure and judge him on earnings and the Incepta share price.
He seems unlikely to disappoint.
1994: Senior financial analyst, British Gas
1996: Deputy finance director, Citigate Communications Group
1999: Group finance director, Incepta
2001: CEO, Incepta.