David Levin, the boss of United Business Media, says Britain must embrace the wider world if it wants to succeed in business and beyond.
David Levin has reshaped United Business Media
David Levin rarely gives interviews. And despite his high profile as head of United Business Media (UBM), the publicly-listed publishing and exhibitions group, Mr Levin seems uncomfortable with the idea of courting publicity. But he has agreed to talk, to reveal the deeply-rooted values that drive him both in and outside of the office.
Mr Levin, 47, joined UBM as chief executive in 2005, taking over from Lord Hollick. He has transformed the company’s portfolio — making more than 60 acquisitions in four years. UBM has been reshaped from a primarily print-centred business to one that puts online publishing and events at the centre of business-to-business publishing. Print magazines constitute 24.3 per cent of the business’s revenue, compared with 56.2 per cent in 2004; events are now the biggest stream, at 32.9 per cent.
Under Mr Levin’s stewardship, revenue has risen to £887 million in 2008, up from £557 million in 2004. He is also responsible for developing the company’s business activities in India and Brazil.
There is no secret to Mr Levin’s success. In fact, his business philosophy is simple and refreshing: have an outward facing view to the world.
He says: “The company has really moved its orientation and the understanding of what media is.
“I think it is very important that we, as a business, look at the rest of the world and how we engage in it. My role here has been very much about restructuring the shape of the business. There is a vision of media which has emerged internally.
He adds: “The wealth and prosperity of the UK depends on it being an outward facing nation. If it retreats to being introspective, it will be destined to stagnate and not achieve its full potential.
“It is clear that growth in the world over the next ten years will be in economies such as Brazil, India and China and we need to engage in those in a systematic way.”
Mr Levin certainly practices what he preaches. UBM, which has around 6,500 employees in more than 30 countries, works closely with not-for-profits in Brazil and he has taken his team there, and to India, to witness the work of nongovernmental organisations — backing up the firm’s focus on emerging markets. “You need to have an understanding of how different societies are working and what you can do to help them. It is not just about handing them a cheque.
“It is incumbent on business leaders to be seen to engage with the wider world.”
Mr Levin’s attitude is hardly surprising, given his diverse background, which he says has had a huge influence on his life. His father was a journalist in the former Rhodesia. The family were forced to leave in 1965. “We arrived in Britain with no rights and knowing no one. That was our ground zero. My family started to build from there”.
As an immigrant in Britain, Mr Levin, who lives in south west London, says he feels very grateful for the opportunities and good fortune afforded to him. After school, he enrolled in the army at Sandhurst. By the age of 18, he had joined the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and served in West Germany. “This taught me that I liked working with people. It taught me a lot about how you train, motivate, lead and engage with people.”
And that stuck with him as he sought more hands-on experience. In the late 1980s he spent several years working in Asia before joining private equity group Apax, running a manufacturing company that made grinding wheels. He jumped ship in the early 1990s to become COO of trade magazine group Euromoney, where he built their first exhibition business. Six years at computer company Psion followed, then the mobile software group Symbian.
One constant throughout his career is his outward-facing outlook — something to which he is just as committed outside work. A long-standing campaigner for One Voice, the Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation organisation, he has also been involved in several development charities, such as Oxfam and Action Aid.
He recently became chair of the British Friends of Tel Aviv University, a role he is relishing. “I thought about what a phenomenal institution it is. I want to be involved in combating the boycott of Israeli goods. The University represents all that is best in Israel and its potential.” According to Mr Levin, Tel Aviv University alumni in professional fields are the most sought after by employers. “It’s exactly the kind of organisation I want to work with.”
As for UBM, he is thoroughly enjoying his role. He says there are numerous buying opportunities that the company is presented with but believes many of these are businesses that will struggle to adapt to the current economic and business environment. Corporate acquisitions to date have been “little and often”.
When I joined, the board said: ‘It’s yours. You shape it’. And so he did. “We sold a lot — £800m worth — and we bought a lot — £450m worth — but buying was very different to selling. We tended to sell big lumps but buy a lot of small, focussed businesses. A lot of companies have destroyed huge amounts of value by having ego-led big acquisitions.”
He is married to Lindsay, a former entrepreneur-of-the-year winner who now runs Leaders’ Quest, a social enterprise that works as a catalyst for positive change by bringing together international leaders from different parts of the world. The couple have three sons and live in south west London.
FACTS ABOUT UBM
- Invested over £400m to acquire
more than 60 data, information
and trade show businesses over
the past four years.
- Disposals: £700m
- Buybacks: £more than £800m
- The public Return on Investment
on these acquisitions is above 10%
- Present in over 30 countries
- In 2008 the UK represented less
than 20% of UBM profits.
- 6,500 employees
- Revenue makeup:
Print magazines: 56.2%
Data, services and online: 6.0%
B2B Distribution, Monitoring and Targeting: 15.7%
Print magazines: 24.3 %
Data, services and online: 25.4%
B2B Distribution, Monitoring and