Is Hazlitt ready for the GCap challenge?

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Fru Hazlitt’s triumphant return to GCap, or rather Capital, cannot have happened a moment too soon for chief executive Ralph Bernard.

Her timely arrival will – he hopes – be the magic bullet that slays all the naysayers – and there are plenty of them – who have been depressing the GCap share price and, as he sees it, putting a brake on the recovery of the radio group’s reputation.

Try as Bernard might, nothing has succeeded in pepping up his core problem, Capital, since the merger with GWR 18 months ago. It’s 10% of his revenues, but 90% of his travails.

He’s certainly been resourceful in trying. Root and branch management changes have been accompanied by innovative programme reform, new DJs and a concerted attempt to please advertisers with a financially risky, clutter-free advertising schedule, where less is more.

He’s even tried pacifying his twin betes noires, business journalists and the City, with a frank disclosure that Capital was in “intensive care” until further notice and no marketing budget would be squandered on it while that was the case.

So, it’s just as well Hazlitt loves a challenge, because that’s precisely what she is about to get, in spades. Is she, or anyone else for that matter, up to it?Besides her legendary can-do feistiness, Hazlitt comes armed with several important advantages. First, she knows the beast, having worked at Capital between 1994 and 1997, rising to sales director. Second, her experience at Virgin Radio, latterly rather miserable for her, will be invaluable in tackling the present task. Eighteen months may not seem a very long tenure, but it was enough to establish Virgin Radio’s credentials as a recovery story, to give her a track-record as a chief executive, and to cultivate influential friends in the City.

Thirdly, her time at Yahoo!, where she ended up as managing director of the UK and Ireland, has given her a thorough appreciation of the importance of digital operations. And fourth, the position of Capital is not as parlous as it may seem at first sight. True, its key performance indices continue to trail, but the important point is it is still the London commercial radio brand, even after spiralling down to third. Despite its weakness, neither Heart nor Magic have been able to deliver a knockout blow.

When the news of Hazlitt’s defection to GCap first trickled out (MW last week), there was some debate as to whether Bernard could offer her a big enough job to tempt her. Managing director of Capital alone was not likely to be sufficient. In the event, Bernard has very sensibly thrown a board position, responsibility for Choice FM and a major role in GCap’s online operations into the bargain. So much for satisfying her current ambition. But he’s a pretty outsize personality himself – and the two must demonstrate they can work harmoniously together. Curiously enough, that may prove easier to do while GCap is still a recovery stock. It’s often afterwards, when the chestnuts have been removed from the fire, that things get difficult.

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