FRESH from a raft of interviews and presentations in London’s Square Mile, STV chief executive Rob Woodward is in good spirits.
After years of remoulding what had become an unfocused and overly-indebted company, Woodward has at last relaxed into the routine of running an orderly operation.
This includes briefing investors and the media on STV’s latest set of results, which show a clear return to profitability as the final vestiges of the broadcaster’s costly legal battle with ITV wend their way from the accounts.
In a further sign of how times have changed at STV’s Glasgow headquarters, the typically mellow Woodward declares the group is within “touching distance” of targets to strengthen its balance sheet – a goal that will trigger the return of dividend payments to STV’s shareholders for the first time since 2005.
“We are just in a very different position to where the company used to be,” says Woodward, who was ushered in by dissident shareholders when the business was on the rocks in 2007.
“We are in a normal position compared to the troubled position we were in a few years ago, and now we only have to talk about the normal aspects of running a company.”
With 380 full-time employees and more than 600 freelancers, the norm for STV is the creation of “content” – the industry’s all-encompassing term for the words, pictures, music and video footage distributed to viewers in an increasing variety of formats.
It’s a business of innovation most easily illustrated by STV’s television production arm, which makes programmes for all of the UK’s terrestrial broadcasters as well as clients further afield. This division, together with the group’s digital activities, is expected to account for one-third of STV’s revenues by 2015.
With the company’s recovery phase “firmly” in the past and a new affiliate agreement with ITV now operational, Woodward certainly appears to be under less pressure at the office. But rather than giving over more time to any of his personal passions – restoring cars, photography and making cheese – he’s decided instead to share his professional experiences with another company in Scotland’s creative sector.
In less than three weeks, the deadline will close for applications to the Creative Business Mentor Network programme run by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta). Working through the scheme, Woodward will spend up to a year advising an emerging company from the creative industries.
Though a trustee of Nesta and head of the charity’s investment committee, Woodward is clearly relishing the chance to get stuck in at a more hands-on level. “It is a great opportunity to help other companies through the experiences I have and which the other mentors have,” he says. “Also, from my experience, mentoring is a two-way street, so I am learning just as much as I am teaching.”
He describes Nesta’s ambitions as a “natural crossover” to those of STV, which is deploying digital and online technology to bolster dissemination of its content, thereby boosting revenues.
Set up in 1998 with a £250 million endowment from the National Lottery, Nesta’s core goal is fostering innovation in science, technology and the arts. Previously run as a non-departmental public body, it became an independent charity in the spring as part of the government’s ongoing cull of quangos.
Woodward says that while Nesta’s guiding principles remain the same, the group now has what he describes as the “psychological freedom” that a truly creative organisation requires.
“It is early days yet, but I guess the key thing is that our thoughts are completely free from intervention,” he says. “That independence can only be a good thing.”
He cites the group’s forthcoming “Impact Fund” as an example of the kind of projects Nesta is now at liberty to pursue. Impact investing puts money into projects with positive social benefits, even if the financial returns are more modest than those normally expected. Nesta already does work that follows the principles of impact investment, but this will be its first dedicated fund in the field.
Woodward believes many companies will be willing to back the new fund to help fill the growing gap in public financing for socially valuable projects: “There is definitely going to be a place for this.”
Elsewhere, Nesta is also tackling the problem of falling levels of investment after producing a report earlier this year which found that spending on innovation by UK companies was down by £24 billion since 2008.
The charity is putting together “Plan I” – a new set of recommendations to stimulate growth in the UK – in response to those findings. Woodward is due to unveil the recommendations at an event in Edinburgh on 10 September.
Investment at all levels has been a fractious issue since the onset of the credit crunch, and one which Woodward will likely need to deal with on the ground level as part of his mentoring duties. Having pulled off an unlikely £95m fundraising when STV was near its nadir in late 2007, he undoubtedly has some useful insights.
Even so, Woodward’s most valued business commodity is something far more fundamental to the creative sector.
“You have got to have a very strong sense of belief and conviction,” he says.
“It is going to be hard, and there are going to be setbacks along the way, so you have to have a high level of self-belief and resilience.”
Born: 30 November, 1959
Education: Marr College, Troon, then Durham University and Edinburgh University
Ambition while at school: To be an airline pilot
First job: Strategic analyst with Kimberly-Clark in Kent
Can’t live without: The 1977 Triumph Spitfire I have owned for the past 32 years
Kindle or book? I really should say Kindle, shouldn’t I? But the truthful answer is a book.
Favourite city: New York
What car do you drive?
Land Rover Discovery
What makes you angry? People with a lack of principles, and telling untruths.
Best thing about your job? The team we have created at STV. I have always been team-oriented.
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