No-nonsense Bell has fans on Street

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At the end of lunch David Bell does an unusual thing. He takes a printed card from his pocket and notes down his expenses, there at the table, checking the spelling of his guest's name with a knowing twinkle.

It's the kind of buttoned-down attention to detail that Wall Street and clients alike appreciate from the new chairman-CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.

And it's a glimpse into the discipline of a man who rises at 4:30 a.m. every weekday to read the newspapers and whose evenings are filled with business dinners. Mr. Bell, Minneapolis-born and staunchly Republican, is the epitome of the old-school advertising businessman.

Crucially, this is soothing to Wall Street. The influential analyst Lauren Rich Fine of Merrill Lynch & Co. put out a statement endorsing his appointment before it had even been announced after a board meeting Feb. 27. Interpublic's share price rose 49¢ on the news.

right to work

Mr. Bell immediately set about calling clients and the Wall Street crowd. "He can be bothered with the 30-year-old analyst spouting Wall Street jargon in a way Dooner never could," said one agency CEO speaking on condition of anonymity.

Mr. Bell's positive Wall Street reputation stems from a stint as CEO of True North Communications.

He inherited a mess then, too. The holding company was fighting the operating companies, there had been the acrimonious failed takeover of Publicis Groupe and the ensuing war of words with its chairman, Maurice Levy. The networks lacked global clients, then-CEO Bruce Mason's departure was announced before a successor was in place, and the entire scenario was played out in the press via a leaked headhunter's briefing memo.

Mr. Bell healed relations with True North's operating board, as even a critic said admiringly, "within two months" and soon won over Wall Street, working extraordinarily hard to build relationships and explain his strategy to analysts.

During his tenure, True North stock outperformed all top-tier rivals.

Then FCB lost the consolidated $1.8 billion Chrysler Group account to Omnicom Group. After furious takeover speculation, Mr. Bell finally sold True North to Interpublic in March 2001 for a respectable $2.1 billion-just as the advertising downturn hit.

good deal

Mr. Bell pulled off a good deal. But many True North executives and shareholders have not done as well out of it as they expected because of Interpublic's stock plunge

"I became very close to the institutional shareholders of True North. I believe they deserve to have that [lost] value restored to them," he said.

Mr. Bell has had a tough couple of years since. He first managed the newly formed The Partnership division, which was to house the Lowe group, Bozell, DraftWorldwide, Deutsch, Initiative Media-a mix of egos that was a recipe for trouble. More recently, he ran the Advanced Marketing Services group that includes Magna Global, NFO WorldGroup and Weber Shandwick.

"It's not as if I haven't been in the trenches with all the operating companies other than McCann," he replied.

"I feel very passionately about climbing another mountain," he said on a more personal level.

Among a long list of outside interests, he's involved with the Committee for Homeland Security, is chairman of the Ad Council, has chaired the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the American Advertising Federation (twice), and is on many other boards.

He has five children (three adopted), and a passion for cooking that includes a collection of 900 cookbooks. Something will surely have to give?

"Well, I won't be cooking any more," he said, laughing. Few who know him will believe that.

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