Sly Bailey: the newspaper chief who proved she’s more than ‘bangles, boobs and blonde hair’

When Sly Bailey grabbed the top job at Trinity Mirror in early 2003, Mirror editor Piers Morgan took a typically disparaging view. She’s “all bangles, boobs and blonde hair”, he wrote in his diary. “Quite fun though.” Within 18 months, Bailey had despatched Morgan, delivered the best figures the publishing group had seen since 1999, and was enjoying a reputation as a turnaround wizard. Since then, things have not gone her way. Last week, the group became the latest victim of the advertising slide, warning of a 10% decline in first-half advertising revenues – with no sign of a recovery in sight. There is a feeling that the company is “running on empty from a strategic point of view”, one analyst told The Daily Telegraph. So is the game up for Trinity Mirror’s golden girl?

Whatever her troubles, Bailey, 44, retains no shortage of admirers. “Sly is the best person to run this business,” noted Numis Securities analyst Lorna Tilbian last year. “It may not be the best possible business, that’s all.” The product of an unhappy 1999 merger between Britain’s biggest regional newspaper group and the Mirror Group, Trinity Mirror was the brainchild of former chairman and City grandee, Sir Victor Blank. The deal was criticised from the outset for failing to get the best value out of either company, an accusation that has continued to dog executives. Bailey’s plan – repeated endlessly in the fashion of a political slogan – was entitled “Stabilise. Revitalise. Grow”, says The Times.

Her initial coup was to pull off “the ITV trick”, whereby audiences decline, yet profits go up – mainly because of trenchant cost-cutting. But there’s now a feeling that “most of the easy work has been done”: circulation at the national titles is still falling and Bailey’s internet growth strategy is as yet unproven.

Bailey’s first name is “an embellishment” of Sylvia, says Tim Luckhurst in
The Independent on Sunday, “but the adapted version proclaims one of her key attributes”. To her fans, Bailey has enjoyed a meteoric rise “by dint of copious talent and shrewdness”. Critics claim she has a philistine attitude to newspapers and that sacking is her “one and only” strategy. “Sly loves being called the axe woman because she thinks it pleases the City,” says one journalist. “But she has absolutely no understanding of how newspapers or journalists actually function, nor does she show any sign of caring very much.”

Born in South London, Bailey ended up in media more by accident than design. After school, she drifted between jobs – including a stint as a shop assistant – before beginning her career proper selling advertising space on The Guardian. It was soon apparent she had discovered her vocation. She took a managerial role at the newly launched Independent, then joined magazine publisher IPC in 1989, becoming the youngest board member at 31. But she made her name in the City as part of the management buy-out team that bought IPC from Reed Elsevier for £860m in 1998, before selling it on to Time three years later for £1.2bn.

The key question now is whether Bailey will bow to pressure to realise value from the Trinity Mirror group by breaking it up. In this respect, she “has a lot of reasons to thank her detractors”, one analyst told The Independent. “Incessant speculation that Trinity Mirror might actually sell the national titles works wonders for the share price.”

The female CEO leaving a lasting impression in the City

One of only six female chief executives in the FTSE 350,
Sly Bailey is seen by many as a role model. When the new chief of Future Magazines, Stevie Spring, was appointed recently, there was immediate speculation that it might trigger a “Sly effect” on Future’s weak share price. City analysts “predicted her arrival would generate the same enthusiasm that greeted Bailey’s appointment as chief executive of Trinity Mirror”, observed The Daily Telegraph. Smith, for her part, claimed to be flattered by the comparison. “If you are going to be compared to someone, I think Sly is not a bad person,” she said. “She’s thin and beautiful and charming and lovely and bright.”

It doesn’t say much for the cause of women in business when even fellow female CEOs tend to home in on physical attributes. Bailey, who is routinely described as “the blonde bombshell with brass balls”, seems to take it in her stride. Certainly, at IPC she made a merit of her difference. “To those of us outside the boring old network it was obvious she offered a glimmer of glamour and personality in what was a pretty mediocre environment,” James Brown, former editor of Loaded, told the Independent on Sunday. Praise for her commercial acumen has also been, by and large, consistent. Bailey has no problem with getting “her hands dirty” when necessary, says The Independent, as she showed in tackling the supply chain at Trinity Mirror. She is also formidable at waging turf wars. Piers Morgan believed his days at The Daily Mirror were numbered long before she fired him over the hoaxed pictures affair. “Sly likes to be the centre of attention,” he wrote in 2003. “I am probably an obstacle to that.”