Fleet Street’s finest have been hunting the “mysterious” Marcus Evans ever since he tabled an £800m bid for Trinity Mirror’s (TNI) national papers last July.
They redoubled their efforts last week when the reclusive British entrepreneur, who claims to run one of the world’s largest international conference groups, returned with a lower offer.
His £600m bid is unlikely to succeed, says the Evening Standard. But his mystique remains intact. There are no extant photographs of him, no recorded interviews, and even his PR “sounds vague” when his name comes up.
Evans, believed to be 43, enjoys teasing his pursuers, says The Independent. His events firm, which specialises in arms and military conferencing, has a quote from Aristotle on its website: “All men by nature desire to know.”
Any information “to help us judge his fitness to own newspapers would be most welcome”, but Evans has been a tax exile for more than a decade. Companies House lists 15 firms, all registered in Bermuda.
The largest, The Marcus Evans Group, says it generates more than $350m a year. But as Evans controls the “entire issued share capital”, it is impossible to verify. The scope of the business is certainly wide. Evans runs mining “summits”, lectures Australia’s government on web content, teaches European executives to speak commercial English and instructs the Chinese on commercial law reform.
In the UK, the firm has cleaned up in the booming field of “professional training”. And Evans has all the trappings of wealth, observes the Evening Standard, including a “gorgeous” home on “multi-millionaires’ row” in Kingston-upon-Thames, with a line of “Top Gear beauties” parked outside.
It turns out his empire’s starting point was just a stone’s throw away – at the All England Club in Wimbledon. Evans started his first firm, Associated Promotions, in the early 1980s to tap the gravy train of corporate hospitality, then a cut-throat new market “bedevilled” by touts and “sharp practice”, according to a contemporary FT report.
Evans certainly had chutzpah: he attempted to sidestep fortress Wimbledon by serving champagne lunches and strawberry teas in his garden overlooking the club – much to the annoyance of neighbours. At a subsequent inquiry, his solicitor defended “this talented and able young man”. A neighbour, who alleged he’d been offered a £1,000 bung, took a different view, describing Evans as someone who believed “every man has his price”.
By 1992, Evans had amassed enough wealth from his renamed The Hospitality Group (THG) to embark on a new career as a white knight. That year, says the Daily Mail, he reversed part of his exhibition group into publicly-listed Castle Mill International, a “hapless” clothing and gifts company. Hopes were high that Evans would rejuvenate it; but within a year he sold out, repurchasing his original exhibitions company for £1.
There was equal optimism two years later when Evans bought into another listed firm, ailing consumer electronics group Ross, and became chief executive. Again, there was talk of him reversing THG into the business. That came to nothing, nor did the “bombed out” Ross Group, despite a major streamlining, says The Guardian. In 1999, Evans was toppled in a shareholder coup. In 2000, he resigned all his UK-based directorships.
Why Evans now wants to buy the Trinity Mirror titles is as “mysterious as the man himself”, says The Independent, although his track record may offer some clues. And, of course, he wouldn’t be the first Trinity Mirror proprietor with interests registered offshore – Robert Maxwell’s tax haven of choice was Lichtenstein.
Trinity Mirror: The war of the would-be proprietors
Journalists have many fantasies, “typically involving peer admiration, public approbation and huge financial reward”, says The Guardian’s Kim Fletcher. “Another common one is the wealthy proprietor, who loves running a newspaper so much that he is happy to dissipate a fortune.” That fantasy is back. Marcus Evans’s new tilt at Trinity Mirror follows former General Electric chief Jack Welch’s (rebuffed) bid to buy the Boston Globe and Hollywood producer David Geffen’s interest in the Los Angeles Times. “And they said the newspaper industry was dying.”
When Evans last aimed at Trinity Mirror he was dismissed as a trophy hunter, but at least he made a serious offer, says Jeremy Warner in The Independent. “I’ll eat my press release if he emerges as the successful buyer at £600m.”
He may well be “being used as a stalking horse to flush out other bidders”, ahead of NM Rothschild’s review of Trinity Mirror, expected to provoke chief executive Sly Bailey into a disposal or break up, says The Times. Private equity groups Candover and Apax are known to be interested. But their real target may be the regional titles, which offer more room for growth. Where will that leave the Mirror? “The way things are looking, it is stuck with a parent that doesn’t seem to want it,” says Fletcher.
But others just might. “If Richard Branson can’t have ITV, perhaps he could settle for the Mirror as a means of taking on Rupert Murdoch”. Or there’s David ‘Rommel’ Montgomery, the hatchet-man ex-Mirror executive who has since built a portfolio of European titles. If he proves to be the solution, “many Mirror journalists will wish Bailey had never asked the question”.