Pinning down Alex Connock is akin to trying to catch a butterfly in your bare hands. When we finally meet, it’s apparent that he’s someone having to constantly flit between concurrent projects, caught up in a whirl of meetings and deal-making.
It’s certainly understandable why he’s so busy at the moment – Ten Alps, the factual television production group he co-founded with Sir Bob Geldof in 1999, has just bought leading specialist publisher McMillan-Scott for what could amount to £12.25 million.
‘This is a hugely important deal for both companies, which now means Ten Alps is a TV publishing company as well as a TV production enterprise,’ enthuses chief executive Connock.
It’s a significant addition to Ten Alps’ bulging portfolio of media businesses, which already includes 3BM TV; Hart Davies, formerly Hart Ryan; and Brook Lapping, which is the major shareholder in the consortium operating the new Teachers’ TV channel, funded by the Government and transmitted on Sky, Telewest, NTL and Freeview.
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As well as radio and advertising acquisitions, there are six TV companies under the Ten Alps umbrella, producing documentaries, docudramas and factual entertainment programmes. Recent high-profile shows include Peaches Geldof’s latest documentary, Teen America, last year’s acclaimed Tsunami: Where was God? and the controversial Dads and Divorce series for Channel 4. Clients include the BBC and most other major UK broadcasters, as well as US channels such as Discovery and PBS.
The acquisition of McMillan-Scott precipitates reorganising Ten Alps into two divisions: TV & Radio Production and TV Publishing & Internet. Connock envisages that this model will enable traditional publishing and TV production to merge with online and video-internet capabilities.
‘Media is now a collision of jellies,’ he declares. ‘There was a time when different elements of the media – magazine publishing, TV production, and so on – were like separate jellies, but now they’re all mixing up together into one big dessert!
‘Our growth as a company is emblematic of the changes going on in the media sphere right now,’ he goes on, ‘and we’re making it our business to focus on the possibilities for crossover between print publishing, TV and the internet. Loads of specialist magazine publishers are moving into TV, so there are a host of niche channels available now, tailored to specific interest groups and advertisers. I see Ten Alps becoming the EMAP of factual TV, leading the move for delivering a wealth of specialist content through digital platforms.’
Connock believes database TV is the future. ‘Combine the search functionality pioneered by companies like Google with the creative content of TV and you’ve got a powerful tool. So, for example, if someone wants to watch a show on nursing at 3am, they can go to a website, search for it and watch it there and then. Audiences simply want high-quality content delivered in ways that suit them. That’s the media future.’
In the beginning
Connock, 40, has clearly built an impressive TV production business, and his entrepreneurial interest in the media can be traced right back to his childhood. Growing up in Cheshire, he had both a father and a step-father, which he says offered two contrasting influences.
‘My father was an intelligent and bookish, journalistic sort-of guy,’ he recalls. ‘My step-father, on the other hand, had more of a cut-and-thrust approach to life. He did well for himself, made a fortune and carried on like a classic 70s entrepreneur, always gregarious and driving the latest convertible Mercedes.
‘So, by accident, I’ve become a symbiotic representation of those two sides of my upbringing – an entrepreneur in the media business.’
After his Manchester Grammar School education, Connock went on to study Politics and Economics at Oxford, subsequently moving to America to take an MA in journalism at Columbia University, then an MBA at INSEAD business school. His first job was in TV, which in those days, ‘was epitomised by the BBC corporate machine – everyone acted as if you were joining an old-fashioned institution like the civil service,’ he recalls.
‘Instead, I joined a company called Planet 24, which was genuinely cutting edge and therefore out of fashion and considered insurgent.’ Planet 24 went on to become hugely popular, producing shows such as The Big Breakfast and The Word for Channel 4. Connock says, ‘It was a fantastic learning ground. The Big Breakfast was like a boot camp, where we’d get up at 3am every day to be shouted at by Chris Evans, who was at his zenith back then.
‘I was in middle management but the company was run by an incredible team, who went on to become some of the most influential movers in what was a golden media decade. They were great role models.’
In addition to Bob Geldof, who co-founded Planet 24, the list of Connock’s former bosses includes multimillionaire media tycoon Charlie Parsons and Waheed Alli, now Lord Alli of Norbury. Alli is chairman of Chorion, the rights group behind Noddy and Agatha Christie, and also a board member of Elizabeth Murdoch’s Shine Productions and of the London School of Economics.
Taking the lead
In 1999, Connock was catapulted into running his own business. Carlton TV acquired Planet 24 for a reported £15 million, and, as Connock recalls, ‘There was a list of employees to keep and I wasn’t on it!’
Carlton also wasn’t interested in Planet 24 Radio, a division of the company with very few assets, so Bob Geldof and colleague Des Shaw persuaded Connock to buy it and join them in founding a new company. ‘It cost me £1 and only had one programme, Sunday Service for BBC Radio 5,’ he explains, ‘but I would’ve been out of a job otherwise so it was a starting point.
‘And, although I’m not proud to admit it, I can’t help but smile to myself that the bit of Planet I bought, which wasn’t wanted, has done really well while Carlton’s bit hasn’t!’ he chuckles.
The company name was changed straightaway and Ten Alps was born – which is essentially planet spelled backwards. Nitil Patel joined the team as finance director and the company moved into premises in the Docklands area of London – more precisely, into the corridor of another company’s office on an industrial estate!
‘It was called Skyline Village,’ says Connock, ‘a total misnomer considering you couldn’t see the skyline and it was nothing like a village. Then we moved to a room above a betting shop in Battersea – it was all far from glamorous.’
Acquisition shopping spree
From these humble beginnings, Ten Alps continued to produce well-received programmes, eventually floating on the stock market via a reverse takeover of AIM-listed advertising agency Osprey Communications in 2001.
‘Osprey had fallen out of favour with the City, even though it was a good company,’ he says, ‘but it was doing well when we bought it and that meant our combined turnover shot up to around £5 million.’
That was the start of Ten Alps’ acquisition trail, which has since included buying events production companies, a TV animation outfit, many successful TV production firms and now McMillan-Scott. The strategy of growing through earnings-enhancing acquisitions has been a highly successful one in the firm’s six-year history.
‘Buying existing and profitable businesses is a smart way to grow your core venture,’ attests Connock, ‘because you instantly tack on additional cash generation and expertise.’
Turnover for Ten Alps is currently £40 million and it will now benefit from McMillan-Scott’s extra revenue, which averages £26.14 million for the last three years. It also inherits 250 staff spread across Manchester, Macclesfield and London offices.
‘All our acquisitions have been paid for with our own cash or a combination of cash and shares, not by seeking extra investment, so it’s been a sort of quasi-organic growth,’ he muses.
‘The key to it all has been people. It’s a terrible cliché but it’s true that, even if you’ve got a great product, you’re only as good as your team. To be frank, I struggle to find anything I think I’m really good at, but I’m constantly amazed by what those around me contribute. You’ve got to keep good people happy, that’s vital. Though it might seem a paradox, if you give people free rein, they’ll be happy to stick with you and stay loyal for the long-term.
‘That often means you, as chief, need to take a step back,’ he adds, ‘and ask yourself, “What are the one or two most important things I need to do, and more importantly, what are the 77 things I’m going not to do?”.’
Connock’s appetite for expansion shows no signs of waning, so more acquisitions are likely in the future. He has the support of well-known TV personality Brian Walden as Ten Alps’ chairman and Sir Bob Geldof as non-executive director. ‘Bob’s great for ideas and strategic input, but he’s also happy to be hands-off,’ explains Connock.
Ten Alps has a host of TV projects in production and a bag of tricks for using the latest digital platforms to distribute programmes, such as viewing Teachers’ TV via Apple’s video iPods. ‘Product development is notoriously difficult,’ says Connock. ‘Who knows what will work and what won’t? There are so many variables in this business, so in the end you have to go with what your instincts tell you audiences and advertisers want.’ So far, Connock’s instincts appear to be right on the money.