PROFILE: Tough at the top - Steven Cain, Chief Executive, Carlton Communications

Steven Cain’s career received a turbo-charged boost last week when Carlton Communications named the 34-year-old Asda marketing director as its new chief executive. Cain is going from a top marketing role at a retailer to take one of the biggest media jobs in the country.

Steven Cain’s career received a turbo-charged boost last week when

Carlton Communications named the 34-year-old Asda marketing director as

its new chief executive. Cain is going from a top marketing role at a

retailer to take one of the biggest media jobs in the country.

But if Cain is ascending to the top in record time he doesn’t seem to be

making many friends on his way up. Cain declined to be interviewed for

this profile, but those who have worked with him in the past paint a

picture of an enormously ambitious and ruthless operator. Descriptions

range from ’arrogant’ to ’plain rude’. One insider, who did not want to

be named, said: ’He’s prone to tantrums, and not good on man management.

He’s come out of a plain vanilla sort of job to head up a media giant -

it’s absolutely staggering.’

Cain clearly takes no prisoners. But then again he’s not being paid to

make friends, and the selection board that picked him for the Carlton

post were understood to have favoured him over several senior media


The Carlton appointment makes Cain one of the youngest FTSE-100 chief

executives, but not everyone envies his new position. He will be dealing

with Michael Green, the 50-year old chairman and co-founder of Carlton

Communications, whose fondness for keeping a tight grip on the reins is

understood to have discouraged several senior media figures from going

for the chief executive’s job.

However, the appointment is still a shock and the industry is puzzled by

how a retailer could land this most important of jobs, just as the UK

media industry prepares for the turbulence of a digital TV


So will Cain be up to his new responsibilities?

Along with criticism of his attitude, there is a concession that he is

both bright and fiercely ambitious. ’He has the ability to prioritise

and then get things done. You are either helping him or you’re hindering

him. It’s as simple as that,’ says one person who has worked with


Cain, the son of a shipping engineer, was educated at an Ellesmere Port

comprehensive before going on to complete a chemical engineering degree

at London University. After university he opted for the management

consultancy route, going to Harvard Business School, before joining Bain

& Co. Eventually he ended up at Kingfisher as sector commercial manager

working under Archie Norman. When Norman moved to Asda he took Cain with

him to work on turning around the retailer’s marketing. It was only last

year that Cain took on the title of marketing director for the

supermarket, the fourth person to hold that post in two years.

His time at Asda will certainly have prepared him for working with

senior figures who like to keep a tight grip on the running of a


Both Norman and Allan Leighton, chief executive, are marketers by trade

and Cain could not have had better mentors in learning about focusing on

the customer. Cain is understood to have had a good relationship with

both the senior figures at Asda. But he was also known to speak his mind

if he disagreed with a strategy or approach being adopted by his


Rick Bendel, UK group chairman at Publicis, Asda’s advertising agency

since 1989, said Cain’s retail background will be an asset. ’Steven is

intuitive, creative and instinctive. He has lots of ideas and will bring

a sense of vision to Carlton. At Asda he learned to think outside the

box, and will combine an analytical head with creativity.’

Leighton has described Cain as ’another product of the Asda academy’,

and said he leaves Asda with the company’s best wishes. At Asda he was

reportedly paid around pounds 230,000 a year and his new job will bring

both a bigger salary and bigger demands.

Carlton was recently named the fourth largest UK media company, but this

week it is expected to disclose a drop in profits to around pounds 310m

from pounds 326m last year. At the same time it is pumping millions of

pounds into digital television in the form of ONdigital, in which it has

a 50% share.

Branding of media companies will be a key feature in their development,

and Green believes that Cain has the marketing expertise needed for the

challenge facing Carlton.

But Cain’s age and his lack of media knowledge has been noted by City

analysts looking hard at Carlton’s structure and performance. The City

and the marketing community will be waiting to see how the man from Asda

copes with the scale of the task.



Sector commercial manager



Marketing controller



Marketing director



Chief executive Carlton Communications.


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