Tim Schoonmaker spent the first part of last year running the Odeon, the UK's market-leading cinema chain, which he quickly sold to Terra Firma, a private equity group.

Before that, he was a buyer of businesses at Emap. So the Odeon experience gave him a chance to see the dealmaking process from the other side. "The tricks range from the obvious to the fantastically subtle," he says, speaking at a London hotel. "It's not a question of telling each bidder that their competitors are making higher bids - that's second-division stuff, and lies will usually be found out. It's more about the clever use of time. The banks make numerous calls over the weeks. They speed the process up and slow it down - depending on the progress of the sale, the state of trading and many other factors."

Mr Schoonmaker's first deal came in 1983, when he was a new MBA. He was hired by David Arculus, then managing director of Emap, which was just getting into business and consumer magazines. One of its titles focused on home computer hobbyists. Emap launched a service on Prestel, a British Telecommunications service and forerunner to the web. Subscribers paid £99 for a modem, had a jack socket installed by a BT engineer, and paid £20 a year for news, downloads, e-mail and chat.

A year later, the business was sold to BT. "Tim and I realised how tough it would be to m ake it work - but the City didn't," says Mr Arculus, now chairman of MMO, the telecoms group. "They treated Emap like the first dotcom stock and the share price went up and up. But this was great for Emap - it meant we had highly valued stock which we could use for acquisitions."

Mr Schoonmaker then busied himself by acquiring regional newspapers. These were small, family-owned companies and the brokers and bankers were oilers of wheels, making introductions and hosting lunches. "Doing deals in those days was a qualitative business," he says. "Auctions were yet to become the norm - although the City was starting to change from clubby to professional and aggressive."

After the fourth deal, Mr Schoonmaker turned to local radio, which he realised would have to change. "It was a 2 per cent industry [by share of advertising expenditure] with a 1 per cent attitude," he says. The 1991 broadcasting act was about to create a set of new licences, and he pitched the idea of building a radio group to Robin Miller, then Emap's chief executive. "I presented the idea to him on a single piece of A4," he says. "I think any worthwhile idea can be communicated that way. Robin got it immediately."

The idea was to do in radio what Associated Newspapers does in regional papers: to occupy the market in a number of cities. There followed half-a-dozen acquisitions.

Emap's timing was good: it was a growth period for radio. By 1996, the group had wide coverage - including London, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. "Tim did a stunning job in the radio market," says Mr Arculus. "Many people tried to muscle in on it - but it was Tim's ability to conceptualise the future that enabled him to do the deals at the right price."

Mr Schoonmaker's next interest was music television. MTV was already successful outside the US, and he came across a channel called Box TV. "We bought the channel, figured out the technology, then launched six new channels in the next few years. Sometimes you can really change the game. You have to think hard about what the incumbents will do, then just go for it."

Another of Mr Schoonmaker's innovations was to combine the advertising sales operations for Emap's magazines, radio and web outlets. "It was a way to grab the attention of the media buyers who were going through a consolidation process," he says.

Given all this, why did he leave Emap? He says the reason is very simple. Tom Moloney was appointed to the top job and it became clear that Mr Schoonmaker would never become CEO. "I just ran out of road there."

Since leaving Odeon, he describes himself as "hunting for elephants and fishing for mackerel". The elephants are the next big job, and the mackerel are smallish entrepreneurial ventures that he invests in but does not manage.

From his new vantage-point, he thinks that the big media companies face a challenging time. "When a company grows big and successful on a particular business model, it falls in love with the present. This is dangerous: as the saying goes, 'nothing fails like success'.

"The cleverest people at senior levels in the music industry now say that they don't know what is going to happen. This is the first step back to success: they are going to have to fall in love with some kind of future. You never know ahead of time what the new business models are going to be.

Calum Chace is head of media at KPMG's advisory practice


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