UTV's Man Of Vision

JUST as UTV begins to formulate its expansion plans into the Republic, a horde of hungry, would-be predators is causing the successful…

JUST as UTV begins to formulate its expansion plans into the Republic, a horde of hungry, would-be predators is causing the successful television station's managing director, Desmond Smyth, to look over his shoulder.

As a significant shareholder in the Republic's TV 3 consortium UTV expects, shortly, to conclude negotiations with the IRTC and plans to launch the new station by next Spring. However, following relaxation of the rules governing media ownership in Britain, UTV is expected to face takeover bids in what could be a £2 billion shake-up of Britain's ITV network.

The new British Broadcasting Bill, which should become law in the summer, will bring a significant relaxation of media ownership rules. Currently companies are restricted to holding two ITV network franchises, but the new bill merely stipulates that no company can have more than IS per cent of the total television audience.

This new rule could allow one group to hold up to seven separate licences, according to industry analysts. Carlton and Granada - headed by Donegal-born Gerry Robinson - are the two likely predators for the smaller ITV companies. Some observers believe that after the takeover battles which will follow the new legislation, about four major ITV companies will control the network.

Mr Smyth however remains aloof from the takeover rumours. When asked about the bid speculation he merely explains how the new regulations will change the playing field.

When UTV was previously rumoured to be a possible bid target, Mr Smyth told The Irish Times that: "We don't sit around thinking that somebody is going to come into the company."

That UTV could be considered an attractive takeover prospect is a testament to the success achieved by Desmond Smyth and his management team.

Despite his youthful appearance Mr Smyth has been running UTV for more than a decade. Originally from the Limavady area of Co Derry, he attended the local grammar school before completing a degree in Mathematics and Statistics at Queen's University Belfast.

During the latter part of his time at Queen's, he opted for accountancy, having previously considered a teaching job. He joined Coopers & Lybrand in 1971 and qualified as a chartered accountant in 1974. But he quickly decided that "auditing wasn't for me". He joined UTV as financial controller in mid-1975, and became company secretary three years later. In 1983 he took control of UTV succeeding the legendary Brum Henderson - brother of influential Unionist figure Capt O.W. Henderson proprietor of Belfast's NewsLetter.

According to some well-placed sources Mr Smyth initially "kept his head down" as he realised that "he had replaced an institution". But he subsequently flexed his managerial muscles, and took on a more public profile.

Colleagues describe him as a workaholic and his Jaguar car is an almost permanent fixture in the UTV carpark. "No matter how early you're in work, he's in before you," said one senior figure in the company.

Mr Smyth is said to operate an open-door policy and is very well briefed on all aspects of UTV's operation through his senior executives and his own previous experience. "Being company secretary gave me a good broad grounding for becoming MD," he says.

He believes that communication is crucial to achieving success, and operates what he describes as a "participatory" style of management. Others agree that he is no mere number-cruncher.

Every morning at 10 a.m. he hosts a 15-minute conference for UTV's key executives. Schedules are discussed, the previous day's performance evaluated, and any viewer feed-back is considered. The meeting, is a relaxed affair and the participants, including the managing director, stand throughout. Having everyone on their feet encourages executives to be more concise, according to Mr Smyth.

He meets the six senior executives in charge of the company's main areas of operation once a month, and also chairs UTV's programme committee which plans the station's schedule. He also takes "a close interest" in advertising revenue which is UTV's lifeblood as it accounts for 95 per cent of all income. "There's nothing he doesn't know about the company," said one senior UTV source.

He has always aimed to encourage staff to feel they have a stake in the company's future. UTV now operates an annual profit-sharing scheme, and has also granted share options to staff.

The company's most recent results, for first half of last year, showed a near 50 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to £3.66 million sterling. The group has net cash of £14.1 million, and is in a good position to make a significant investment in TV3. Its full year results are due next month and analysts expect it to post pre-tax profits of about £7.6 million compared to £7.5 million for 1994.

While TV3 will be the company's first major expansion, Mr Smyth and his team have already won one key television battle. As the incumbent ITV licence holder in the North it had to see off two rival bidders for the licence in 1991. It was a contest that many thought, UTV would not win.

Although Mr Smyth has many business-related interests outside of UTV - he is a former president of the NI Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Prince's Youth Business Trust (NI), chairman of the Northern Ireland Quality Centre and from this week a non-executive director of Northern Ireland Electricity - but isn't driven by ego, according to sources. "Unlike some others in the North, he is not driven by the desire for a gong (knighthood)," said one well-known industry figure. "There is no cult of the personality," he added.

Mr Smyth is said to be a quiet, pleasant, and affable individual. "He is certainly no party animal," said one source. He enjoys the theatre, music - anything from Meat Loaf to Phil Coulter - and is a regular cinema goer. He also watches television and according to one UTV source will give his opinion as much as a punter as a television executive.

A keen freshwater fisherman, Mr Smyth fishes the lakes around Belfast, on the River Roe which runs through Limavady, and occasionally in Donegal. He is also a committed soccer fan and regularly attends games with his son. As UTV sports reporter Adrian Logan once remarked at a reception: "Des is not used to crowds, he's a Coleraine supporter".

Coleraine is in the Irish League's First division, 22 points ahead of its rivals, and is well on the way to the Premier League. If Mr Smyth has his way, UTV could mirror the fortunes of his favourite team.