Orchestrating Virgin’s rebirth

Fru Hazlitt, the new chief executive of Virgin Radio, enjoys working for companies that have been through a tough time. In which case, heading Virgin must be her dream job.

The Scottish Media Group (SMG)-owned station has suffered some turbulent times, from the high-profile sacking of former owner and breakfast show host Chris Evans and his subsequent, doomed suit for unfair dismissal, to Lord Waheed Ali’s failed &£100m takeover bid earlier this year.

But the arrival of Hazlitt, a former managing director of Yahoo! UK and Ireland, should signal to the radio industry, and the City, the start of a new era for Virgin Radio and its growing number of digital spin-offs. Her appointment also reinforces SMG’s commitment to the station, after repeated denials that it plans to sell.

Although Hazlitt has been at her new desk for only eight weeks, her recruitment in the spring was immediately hailed an astute move. Combined with the signing of Xfm DJ Christian O’Connell as the new breakfast show presenter, it has given the station a much-needed confidence boost.

But if Hazlitt is going to achieve the goal of making Virgin and its digital stations the UK’s leading national commercial radio group, she faces some significant challenges – not least increasing revenues and building audience share, despite the national network being broadcast on medium wave.

This test of character is exactly why she took the job, she claims. Giving her first interview since she arrived at the station, Hazlitt explains: “I like working for organisations that have had a tough time because I don’t believe that any company is great until it has scraped the bottom, and is starting to come back up. Virgin is a great example of that, and so is SMG.

“I think a company that only has a good track record is as dull as ditchwater; it doesn’t really know about building a business.”

Hazlitt adds that she was not looking to leave Yahoo! but after having twins earlier in the year, her objectives changed. She was attracted by the clarity of Virgin’s objective. “Yahoo! is a very complex company with a series of complex objectives, which is what held me there for so long,” she says. “When I looked at this business it seemed like a very clear objective – though there isn’t a clear answer to fix it. But at least there is a relatively clear goal at the end. That seemed very attractive.”

Former colleagues believe the opportunity to revitalise Virgin appeals to Hazlitt because she is ambitious, and would relish being responsible for its resurgence. One former colleague describes her as “the most determined and driven person that I know” and “scarily motivated”.

Hazlitt’s drive has already taken her a long way. She began her career as a sales executive on Centaur Communications-owned Design Week in 1987, and rose to ad director in three years. She quit to join The Guardian at a sales executive level, but after two years she was recruited by Capital Radio Group (now GCap Media) as ad manager. She held a variety of posts at the radio group, and within five years was named sales director. In 2000, after three years in the role, she joined Yahoo! as European sales director and became managing director in 2003. The job at Virgin is her first as chief executive.

Despite her relentless drive, Hazlitt exudes much charm, and has many allies in radio. One industry insider explains: “I know very solid, serious men who don’t tolerate fools gladly betray a silly smile on their face when they speak of Fru.”

In the short-term, Hazlitt believes that Virgin already has a strong strategy in place for increasing the number of listeners, particularly with O’Connell starting in the new year. But she admits: “He needs to deliver, and we need to help him do that. I think the foundation of the station is there and [programme director] Paul Jackson has built a fabulous product with fabulous music that is clearly understood. Perhaps all that it has lacked is that big sizzle, which Christian will bring.” She adds that DJs such as football pundit Tim Lovejoy and comedian Vic Reeves give Virgin a strong product.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly given her background, she believes that “platform” and the future delivery of radio is the most crucial area, and that Virgin, which has already invested in the internet and is the most listened-to commercial station on the internet, has to be prepared to be available in as many places as possible. After all, she adds, the station is a content provider, but people need to be able to receive it.

“Coming out of a big technology company, I have learnt that you have to move fast because most companies are responding to market trends so quickly you don’t notice,” she explains. “We don’t know how radio is going to be consumed in the future, so we have to spread bet. Frankly, anyone that isn’t spread betting is being rather foolish.”

While Hazlitt is clearly enthusiastic about the future, some radio buyers believe that she should concentrate on more immediate issues such as the declining AM network. ZenithOptimedia head of radio Mike Buckley says: “It is going to be difficult for Virgin on the AM frequency, because in the short term that makes it difficult outside London.”

Other observers believe that London is Hazlitt’s priority. The appointment of O’Connell and former GCap head of agency sales Nick Hewat, who is well respected among media agencies, suggests she is planning to make the battle for the city’s top spot a four-corner one, with Chrysalis-owed Heart, 95.8 Capital and EMAP’s Magic.

But Hazlitt dismisses these suggestions, saying that new forms of listening across the UK will top her list, rather than a preoccupation with a single region.

Hazlitt says she does not know how long she is being given to deliver, although rumours in the industry suggest she has a year. As well as Hewat, she is also bringing in Saatchi & Saatchi marketing director Kathleen Saxton as strategy and planning director (MW September 22). Saxton’s role, Hazlitt says, will be to analyse every part of the station, make changes where necessary and ensure that any investment is delivering an expected end result.

Hazlitt’s vision is for Virgin to translate the good will of its staff, and their belief that they can be the best in the industry, into reality. She states: “I think people here believe they can be the best, but they haven’t always known how. I don’t know ”

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