When Tim Ryan joins Bell Pottinger Consultants this week, he brings with him the undoubted quality of calmness under pressure. Given the troubled recent past of parent company Chime Communications, the softly-spoken Australian could be just what is needed.
The 38-year-old managing director does not appear to be perturbed by danger. He became a refugee affairs officer for the UN in Jerusalem at the time of the first Palestinian uprising in 1989, trying to ease tensions on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians. His baptism of fire came when someone threw a stone at an Israeli soldier by a Gaza roadside from behind his car. Thinking the stone had come from his car, the soldier, Ryan says, had a 'sense of humour failure'. As he screamed at Ryan, holding a pistol to his head, he asked his petrified driver: 'Translation, please?' 'The situation is very bad,' came the answer.
This tale is of a piece with other elements of what Ryan calls his 'eclectic' career. He was a lieutenant and captain in the Australian Army from 1985-89. After this and the UN job, he moved to the UK and joined the defence and aerospace PR division of agency SGL in 1990. Six months after he joined, that firm's MBO saw it become defence procurement adviser Chelworth, counselling clients such as Lockheed Martin and Texas Instruments on their links with government. The firm's turnover grew to more than £3m a year by the time he left five years later. He then took a succession of in-house roles as director of IR, then of comms, for pharma delivery firm Skyepharma.
But his most recent job offered the closest corporate equivalent of the sense of crisis Ryan felt in the Middle East. This was his role at troubled cable operator ntl, which he left in March after 18 months in the post: 'It was pretty bad, pretty stressful,' says Ryan. 'But I had great advisers, and I had Stephen Carter.'
Carter, ntl's then MD, hired Ryan in November 2001 as director of corporate comms, to oversee internal comms, public and media relations, government and regulatory affairs and IR. His team took ntl through 9,000 job cuts as the group struggled to bring £12bn of debt under control, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US, and finally emerging from it after swapping £6.7bn of debt for equity in two reorganised firms: ntl UK and Ireland and ntl Euroco.
Communicating 'a bad news story' to 22,000 staff, suppliers, banks, bond- and shareholders, customers, the media and government across its operations in the UK, Switzerland, France, Sweden and the US was a mammoth task.
Internally, Carter and his team had to explain events face-to-face. Externally, the team went through endless regulatory filings from New York with journalists, made public announcements and briefed government and regulators.
Doing this with a halved budget, while striving to project an image of 'business as usual', was especially tough. It meant many late nights - 'an extraordinary time', says Ryan. But key to the success were his team and his former experience of diplomacy, where lives, rather than loan notes, were at stake. 'If you've seen human tragedy, crises, where people die, it helps you keep everything in perspective,' he says.
Given this reflective nature, Ryan should be a good fit at Bell Pottinger Consultants. He is circumspect on future plans, but says of one of the few parts of the Chime business not to have been ravaged by the downturn: 'It's difficult to comment. It's a successful business. If it's not broken, don't fix it. Consulting is the heart of PR for Chime, and I'll be looking to strengthen it and make it better.'
There is even the chance he will feel under-used, in as much as Chime's most tortured days now appear to be behind it: 'I hope a big crisis taxes me a bit. I'm not easily fazed,' he says.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Holme, a senior adviser to ntl, agrees: 'A great quality to judge somebody by is grace under pressure. Tim evinced that at a difficult time for ntl. It may be his military background that makes him good at dealing with complexity.'
And as for Carter, now CEO of comms industry super-regulator OFCOM, he says: 'Tim is a first-rate professional. What distinguishes him is his ability to stay calm. He will bring very good experience to his job as a consultant, rather than a practitioner. His value as an adviser is extremely high.'
With the wider Chime group facing tough times - profits slumped last year and its share price was decimated by a well-documented breaching of its banking covenants - bagging Ryan's services is a major coup.
'Personally, I think Tim (Bell, Chime chairman) was lucky to get him,' says Lord Holme. He might just be right.
1985: Lieutenant, Australian Army
1989: Refugee affairs officer, United Nations
1990: Director, Chelworth
2001: Director corp comms, ntl
2003: Managing director, Bell Pottinger Consultants