CEO keeps calm amid media frenzy, sees shareholder value as priority

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Until he took the job as Aegis Group's CEO in February, Robert Lerwill was best-known as Martin Sorrell's chief henchman, even hatchet man, at WPP Group, where he was the group finance director. In that role he orchestrated some of WPP's most audacious acquisitions-he was the poacher. Now he is most definitely a gamekeeper, fending off those who would take control of his new charge.

Just six months after Mr. Lerwill started at Aegis, French corporate raider and Havas Chairman Vincent Bollore started snapping up Aegis shares, and a month later, in September, Publicis Groupe Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy was serious enough about buying the London-based media-buying group to issue a statement about being in talks with Aegis. And wherever there's a possible deal to be done, Mr. Lerwill's former boss is there, too.

Mr. Lerwill seems unruffled by all the activity, predators and speculation surrounding Aegis. As the company's chief executive, he said, his job is to conduct "business as usual."

To him, that means creating shareholder value. "It can be done either by building the business and sticking to our strategy, or, if someone is impressed by what we do, they can pay the price and compensate shareholders that way," he said.

In the middle

Meanwhile, Mr. Bollore's shareholding in Aegis inches up almost daily, although his ultimate intentions are unclear. Mr. Sorrell is circling Aegis with an interest in picking off market research arm Synovate. Publicis' interest in buying Aegis has cooled but could be rekindled. Mr. Lerwill is no stranger to the art of the deal and seems to like being at the center of the action. He has met at least four times with Mr. Bollore, for instance.

"He has no emotional baggage," said one executive who has worked closely with Mr. Lerwill. "He is there purely to maximize value for shareholders. He's a witty man but he's not close to many people and you won't find many colorful stories about him."

Mr. Lerwill, 53, spent 13 years as an accountant at Arthur Andersen, based mostly in the U.K., but he also worked in Russia, South Africa and Oman in the Middle East. In 1986, Martin Sorrell had just bought Wire & Plastic Products as a launching pad for his marketing communications empire and hired Mr. Lerwill, whom he met through Andersen contacts, as group finance director.

During the next 10 years, Mr. Lerwill worked with Mr. Sorrell on scores of WPP acquisitions, from tiny design and graphics companies to JWT in 1987 and Ogilvy Group two years later. In 1996, while attending a three-month management program at Harvard Business School, he was approached by Cable & Wireless to become executive director, finance, and later CEO of its regional operations.

Mr. Lerwill became a non-executive director of Aegis in 2000 and chairman of the audit committee.

Mr. Lerwill is keen to emphasize the strength of the company's communications planning capability, which lured Procter & Gamble Co. as a client. Aegis Group's neutrality, borne of its independent status, is another plus for Aegis, he said, although a sale would change that. "If someone buys us, then lack of independence would be their issue," he said.

Apart from naming Mainardo de Nardis, CEO of WPP's Mediaedge:cia, as CEO of Aegis Media, Mr. Lerwill has made no major changes at Aegis. "Moving from a non-exec to an exec you do see things differently," he says. "I spent a lot of time working on margin performance at WPP and that's been useful. I didn't want to make any significant changes, but you can fine-tune; there's always room for improvement."

Mr. Lerwill acknowledged that the ongoing speculation about Aegis Group's future is "potentially unsettling for employees and clients."

"Clients continue to get outstanding service, and although it's not healthy for clients and staff to read about us, the approach from Publicis and the price shows that we are seen as a successful group," he said. "There is pride in that recognition, and clients read about why we are seen as attractive. But it's not something that should go on for too long. Something has to happen-or not happen."

Just Asking

How did you impress Martin Sorrell? I was the only guy he interviewed [for WPP Group’s first finance director] who asked for a look around the Wire and Plastic Products factory. I had to be sure the assets really existed.

What do you enjoy most outside of work? Travel and sport, though it’s mostly related to business. I’m traveling 40% of the time. I went to a big race meeting in the Czech Republic and to the first Turkish Grand Prix with BAT. I love rugby and motor racing.

Where do you live? Essex and Islington. I have a wife and five children from two marriages.

What are your ambitions for Aegis? We’re not aiming to be the biggest. That brings its own problems. We have scale as a network and we are top five in every market where we want to be top five. We are big enough to play in that space. Once you are a player it’s about the tools.

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