Stevie Spring’s smile was even broader than usual last week after her magazine publishing company Future reported impressive full-year results just 18 months into her tenure. That the former Clear Channel UK chief executive has achieved so much in such a short space of time has surprised few in the industry.
Having cut her teeth in advertising, Spring was soon earmarked as a chief executive of the future. But a number of eyebrows were raised when she joined Future Publishing – which produces special interest titles such as Cross Stitcher, Digital Camera and Metal Hammer – in the top job last year. The business was hit by five profit warnings in quick succession in 2005 but in the past year Spring has turned a £36.7m loss into a £9.2m pre-tax profit for the year to September. It is Future’s first reported pre-tax profit since 2004.
“What Future needed was an external point of view, a point of view from someone like me who is not in the target market for any of our 100 magazines,” says Spring, who has never worked at a plc before.
Spring has endeared herself to the City by cutting costs and reinvesting the savings in a smaller, more focused company. But it will surprise many to hear that someone described as “fearless” who likes to operate as a “lone wolf” was “slightly nervous” about taking the job in the first place.
She says her decision was made easier because Roger Parry, her former boss at Clear Channel, is chairman at Future. Spring admits: “I am an extremely difficult employee and find it much easier to be the boss.
But her charm – and that wide and welcoming grin – seems to be working, and following her debut in front of analysts the company experienced a surge in its share price. Her operational skills have enhanced her reputation in the City and some are even linking her name with the top job at EMAP. But Spring says that she has no plans to jump ship to the world of glossy magazines.
Advertising veteran Jim Kelly, who appointed Spring to be his deputy managing director at GGT, describes her as a “natural cheerleader for any organisation” and adds: “The Stevie effect must have been a bonus for Future. She has never failed in the past and has always been an achiever. And by virtue of her performance at a plc, she has opened up possibilities for herself which might not have existed previously.”
The AAR’s Kerry Glazer says of Spring’s success: “It is not surprising because as a business operator she has some serious bollocks and real courage. But what really defines her is that Stevie is surgical in her pursuit of delivery of business objectives, but with sincere warmth. And therefore she is completely believable.”
GraceBlue partner Grant Duncan adds: “She is not your classic chief finance officer-style cost-cutter. Her background is largely creative, having spent a long time in advertising agencies, and therefore she has very good judgement of the communications industry. But she does not do sentimentality when it comes to business, and at her core is incredible honesty.” Duncan adds that he has always admired her talent for being “ferociously competitive by day” and “hanging up her gloves by night”.
In the past year, Future has sold or closed more than 50 magazines and hived off its French and Italian businesses, leading to a greater focus on English language content. The publisher now licenses 64 magazines in 33 countries globally. It has invested £11.5m during the year online – an area that has been largely neglected despite Future being a publisher which specialises in computer games and technology. Online advertising, particularly on Future’s games sites, is up 50% and now accounts for 14% of total advertising revenues.
Every one of Future’s 100 titles has been repositioned or redesigned in the past 18 months. Spring also brought in online guru Seb Bishop as a non-executive director to boost Future’s online efforts.
“In my publishing company life, I’ve found that selling strategy is a bit like a new business pitch and I’ve learned that craft well,” says Spring, who her friends say never underestimates her worth.
She also points to her early training in law, which “trained me as an advocate for people, products and services”.
At the time Spring left Y&R in 2000 – following its merger with Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe – it was suggested she was “let go” and observers believe that experience helped her become a “player destined for glory”.
Spring is one of the few industry heavyweights to have successfully branched out beyond advertising. Roy Jeans, chief executive of outdoor specialist IPM, says: “That’s because she has this flexible brand that can be operational, strategic and intuitive all at the same time.”
Kelly adds: “She is of course a phenomenon in the world of media and advertising but she’s hardly gone to be the CEO of an aerospace company. Stevie’s talent lies in having an instinctive grasp of how different media work.”
Glazer describes Spring as “irreverent and funny”, while Duncan says she is “unusual in combining being tough with being kind”. Jeans adds that she is “absolutely bonkers, which is part of her huge charm”.
But Spring will only remain flavour of the month for as long as Future’s results continue to improve. She has outlined online, US expansion and customer publishing as key to the company’s success, but for the moment is happy to have got “sex back into Future”.
Spring adds with a smile: “I have always wanted to be a sex goddess and maybe I’m close to achieving that.”