BusinessCompany NewsProfile: Alastair Mackenzie, Jazz fm FD

Profile: Alastair Mackenzie, Jazz fm FD

Listen to the radio and it sounds like a seamless stream of finely tuned news, music, debates and general entertainment. But the radio industry is no work for the weak of heart. Behind the silky-smooth broadcasters' voices, celebrity phone-ins and funky music the world of radio is a cut-throat business, and it's getting tougher.

Licence applications, battles for audience rating, not to mention stiff competition for advertising, all amount to a tough working environment, particularly if you’re in the finance department of a small station like Jazz fm.

Jazz fm’s previous chief executive Richard Wheatly once described outgoing finance director Alastair Mackenzie’s job as thus: ‘There are two things in radio that are important: programming and selling. And you’re responsible for everything else,’ Mackenzie recalls.

But, this world can also be filled with a strong sense of satisfaction, teamwork and lots of shoulder rubbing with the good and great of music and broadcasting.

Mackenzie’s foray into the finance function at Jazz fm was a natural progression for him. After qualifying as a chartered accountant in July 1989 with Binder Hamlyn, now merged into BDO Stoy Hayward, he had been involved in a management buy-in of Jazz fm.

The fledgling station was launched in March 1990 and by the middle of 1991 it had run out of money three times, he explains.

‘The people who were behind the original Classic Event consortium had not been successful with their application for the first national license and so we were looking around for something else to do. And a “for sale” sign was flying above the business,’ he says.

He proceeded to help with the management buy-in in 1992 for the sum of £435,000 and then ‘jumped ship’ to manage the company’s finances. Since then the radio station has positively blossomed.

Mackenzie helped steer it around the dangerous rocks of a launch on the stock exchange in 1995 and was pivotal in the sale of the company in July this year to the Guardian Media Group for £45m.

The Sheffield university graduate is one of those lucky people whose path seems to have leisurely opened up before him without any concerted forward planning.

His decision to study for a chartered accountancy qualification after university, he says, was because ‘it put three more years between me and a decision’. Yet, the arduous three-year training course that eventually leads to one of the most respected UK business qualifications is clearly not a decision to be taken light-heartedly.

And his reason for opting for a mid-tier firm over one of the Big Four?

‘A large part of it was that I played a lot of sport at uni’ and all the people in the year above me who’d joined accountancy firms we having much better fun in the middle-tier firms than in the larger ones. So I only applied to the middle tier,’ he says honestly.

Mackenzie admits he had no idea what he would have done had he not take up accountancy. Neither did he have any preconceptions about working life, so the course ultimately met his requirements.

‘The great thing about my training was that it gave me wide access and exposure to all sorts of businesses from waste and scrap metal, all the way through to jewellers on Bond Street and florists to family-owned businesses and some of the most lucrative property companies in the UK,’ he says.

And although the business issues that keep him awake at night are generally the same for most finance directors the world over, he is heavily involved with all aspects of the radio industry.

‘We have a very big record division, so things that keep me awake at night are things like will the next Hed Kandi album sell as many as the album before?’ Mackenzie explains.

Yes, despite what many people assume about Jazz fm, it’s not all trad jazz and silver-haired musicians. The station has tapped into the generation of dance music lovers – the success of the dance music Hed Kandi CDs with the simple yet effective cartoon-like illustrations by designer Jason Brooks has been phenomenal.

‘The flattering thing is just how many copy-cat albums there are out there now. There’s a lot of people ploughing the same furrow.

‘In the last few years Jazz fm has gone down the path of a genre called smooth jazz, so now all the major record labels are jumping on the bandwagon by releasing smooth jazz albums,’ he says.

Added to the young crew of listeners, Jazz fm’s has retained its core audience, which has the biggest cross over with the BBC’s Radio 4.

‘Radio 4 and the Today programme for news, Jazz fm for music,’ he says.

Like most finance directors Mackenzie’s job is seasonal. ‘You’ve got your year ends, interims, end of tax year,’ he says.

But the nature of the industry and how his role has evolved at Jazz fm means that Mackenzie has got his fingers in many pies.

‘I’ve been one of the major people doing applications for new licenses for the station for quite a long time, both in analogue and digital.’ He was the company’s principal day-to-day representative on industry and trade bodies and represented Jazz fm on the board of MXR, the digital radio consortium that also includes Chrysalis, Capital, UBC Media and Ford.

Winning licences seems to be one of the things he is most passionate about.

‘They’re always really competitive. When we won the north-west one we were up against 13 other applicants. When we regained London, there were 48 applicants for eight licences. When you get that phone call to say you’ve won that is a tremendous feeling,’ he enthuses.

Teamwork and the role of the finance function in enabling others are also aspects of his job that are close to his heart.

‘Within a business there can be a tremendous amount of achievements that never get to see the public eye,’ he bemoans.

‘One way or another everything’s been a record. We’ve either had record number of listeners, or a record audience in the north-west, or a record audience in London.

‘All of these things are great. And yes, we put them on the stock exchange but sometimes the hard work and effort that has gone into achieving this is not recognised in the outside world.’

But for all the hobnobbing with the likes of Jools Holland, Eric Clapton, Chris Tarrant and Ken Clark, former chancellor of the exchequer and sometime radio broadcaster on Jazz fm, Mackenzie is now looking for a new venture.

‘I’ve been here for ten years. It’s been a fabulous time and it’s going to be a hard act to follow. The integration process with Guardian Media Group has all gone smoothly and it all looks great.

‘Radio will consolidate under the new media law that comes into force at the end of next year. In a year or two there will be significantly fewer radio companies,’ he predicts.

He was asked to stay on as finance chief but graciously turned down the offer. ‘It’s come to a natural conclusion we’d taken the business a significant distance. Now that it’s been bought they will have the opportunity to take it even further,’ he says modestly.

But the flattery doesn’t end there. There’s a possibility that he may work with Jazz fm’s former chief exec.

‘We’ve also been approached about potential projects by a number of our shareholders who have big portfolios of investment,’ he enthuses.

Despite his departure his loyalty to the company is clear.

‘There are licence applications coming up for the West Midlands and Glasgow which the Guardian group will be doing with the Jazz fm format. I will be very disappointed for them if they are not successful in one or both of the applications. The Jazz fm business is in a situation where I think it will really flourish in the next few years.

But for now he is just looking forward to his holiday in Italy.

Mackenzie’s opinion on non-executive directors and proposals to make companies book share options as an expense:

On NEDs: ‘Being a Jazz FM non-exec is a tough job. It’s not turn up to the board meeting and that’s it. We look to you to do the work on our behalf.

‘ A good chairman is worth his weight in gold. Rules are made for the weakest. If you don’t have the willpower to change something, no rule will get you to do so; it’s down to shareholders to change things.’

On share options: ‘You’re talking to someone in a company where we gave options to staff because at times we couldn’t afford to give pay rises.

‘Would we have been able to do that if they went through the p&l? I doubt it.

‘I’m not in favour of this change.’

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