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
Chief executive Carlton Communications.