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The billionaire media tycoon investing in a Labour resurgence

·8-min read
Mike danson
Mike danson

When billionaire hedge fund manager Marc Lasry put his $32m (£26m) New York mansion up for sale, the buyer proved a more elusive figure than his celebrity neighbours.

After time spent in the clutches of modernist artist Marc Chagall and discredited pop star Michael Jackson, Lasry sold the six-story pile on East 74th Street to Mike Danson – the British data tycoon worth more than £1bn.

Records showing a $15m mortgage on the property taken out in 2018 created a rare publicity spike for the serial entrepreneur, who has managed to keep a low profile despite his reputation as a shrewd deal-maker.

Unlike Upper East Siders Donald Trump and actor Bill Murray, few would crane their necks if the unassuming chief executive of GlobalData walked through the neighbourhood. And yet his sphere of influence in the world of media and data is becoming increasingly powerful.

Since offloading Datamonitor to Informa for £502m in 2007 and re-buying parts of the company for his second business GlobalData, Danson has seized control of the News Statesman magazine, wielding influence in left-wing politics, and taken a stake in the Wigan Warriors rugby club.

Now further deals are afoot. On Monday, Danson announced plans for a fresh takeover blitz to help bolster the market value of his data analytics and consultancy business beyond £1.3bn.

London-listed GlobalData – powered by 800 analysts, 2,000 researchers and 100 journalists covering 20 industries – is searching for bolt-on deals, as it attempts to replicate the power of the Bloomberg Terminal with its own data platform for blue-chip companies.

It is the latest leg of the colourful corporate story of Danson, who is described as “disarmingly normal” with a knack for buying “unloved” assets and unlocking their potential.

“He is direct, driven, has a point of view and is very clear in how he expressed that point of view,” an industry source says.

“So often, you come across people like that who cross the line beyond acceptability into hectoring. While he gets quite close to that, I haven’t seen him cross the line.”

Danson describes his management style as “ambition delivered by clear focus”. He says “building a world-class data platform is difficult, but it helps if you’re surrounded by talented people who all know what they are doing and are accountable for [it].”

However, others have described how his relentless commercial focus on retaining customers has driven an “aggressive sales culture” at GlobalData.

“He doesn’t care about the media and analysis products,” an ex-worker says. “It’s just sales, sales, sales.”

Danson doesn't recognise the claim. “Clearly, we are commercial,” he says. “But in our business there is zero point in aggressive sales tactics because the clients are all CEOs and they just would not respond well to it.

“Our renewal rate by value is 98pc, so most of our clients stay with us, and they stay with us for a very long time and spend more money each year.

“We live and die by the investment and the success of our products.”

The son of two teachers from Wigan, Danson spent his school days in the northern city before graduating in law from the University of Oxford in 1982.

He cut his teeth as a management consultant before laying the foundations for his data empire in 1989 when he used funds from four credit cards to set up the market intelligence company Datamonitor.

Danson published the company’s first reports aimed at the UK frozen food industry: the aim was to capitalise on business chiefs’ appetite to make sense of an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

His early dealings typified a characteristic that has come to define him. Danson expanded Datamonitor by gulping down smaller business intelligence companies to broaden coverage of different sectors, while increasing global reach to America, Europe and Asia.

Yet it was the company’s focus on subscriptions that proved a turning point. Long before streaming video services and recipe boxes turned monthly payments into an economic force, Danson was taking annual subscription fees from blue-chip companies who would pay for industry intelligence reports and conference calls with analysts.

The dawn of the internet only strengthened the business case. Whereas before, Danson would sell one printed copy of a report for all employees of one company to share, the shift to online allowed him to charge businesses by the number of users that wanted access to the information.

A listing on the London Stock Exchange followed in November 2000, before Danson offloaded the business eight years later despite push back from institutional investors.

Mike Danson
Mike Danson

There were grumblings after he accepted a 650p a share bid from data rival Informa that worked out as a 2pc premium on its last closing share price. “We just literally squeezed over …some of the big institutions didn’t vote for it,” Danson said at the time.

Yet persistence paid off. Danson was reported to have walked away with more than £200m after selling shares before and during the deal, while Informa was left nursing a battered balance sheet as the global financial crash took its toll within months of the takeover.

It put Danson in a formidable position. With cash to spend and companies on their knees, he began piecing together a new corporate empire.

That included broadening his focus with a tilt into political magazines. In 2009, he bought the New Statesman from Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson through a series of deals. Jason Cowley was installed as editor of the weekly title, which has loosened its links with the Labour Party and was one of the few left-leaning titles to stay clear of Corbynism.

In November last year, Cowley told the Financial Times that the global intrigue in Brexit, Boris Johnson and Britain’s constitutional crisis had convinced Danson the title was worthy of fresh investment.

Danson, who also owns journalism trade website Press Gazette separately from GlobalData, dismissed the idea that his initial investment was politically driven and points instead to the “unlocked value” in the New Statesman’s heritage.

While he maintains to have no political affiliations, Chuka Umunna’s register of financial interests shows Danson dined with the former politician at the annual gala dinner of the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation Charity when Umunna was shadow business secretary. The foundation was previously chaired by Lord Lebedev, the owner of the Evening Standard.

In February, circulation at the New Statesman touched its highest point since 1981 as it grew by 12pc to reach 41,000. The magazine’s expansion, with plans for new bureaus in America, China and Brussels, comes despite a hit during the pandemic.

Turnover at News Statesman Media Group dropped 49pc to £14m year-on-year for 2020, according to accounts on Companies House. Pre-tax losses grew from £3.4m to £11.4m.

While the long-term future of the news magazine might have looked patchy at the time of Danson’s investment, Douglas McCabe, of Enders Analysis, says the outlook is now much brighter.

He says weekly and bi-weekly political titles have outperformed not only newspapers, but the wider magazine market as readers increasingly reach for a more considered and partisan take on current affairs that cuts through the breaking news cycle.

“These magazines are very strongly in that position because that is their heritage. It’s almost like the market has shaped themselves around the product they have been running for a long time,” he says.

Despite the prospect of a more fruitful future for the New Statesman, Danson’s focus lies firmly with growing GlobalData.

Yet the 59-year-old entrepreneur, who lives in London with his children and wife Helen, may struggle to repeat what he achieved with Datamonitor when the economic outlook continues to sour.

He insists the £20,000 fee GlobalData charges for its core product remains cheap for multinationals, which are hungry for data during uncertain times. Industry forecasts that were once produced annually are now published monthly to ensure customers are kept up to speed with the fast-changing macroeconomic picture.

Part of the challenge, however, will be ensuring the quality of analysis and research products remains strong as the company continues to scale.

One insider described how GlobalData’s use of robo-reporters to produce news stories after buying the Infinata brand from Mergermarket had been an ongoing source of frustration because of their tendency to make mistakes.

GlobalData said it would never invest in artificial intelligence to replace journalists, while Danson says he is more focused on providing in-depth analysis.

So far, the company’s results have proven robust. In August, GlobalData announced half-year revenues had grown by nearly a quarter to £111m as subscriptions grew by more than a fifth. Pre-tax profits, however, slipped by 6pc to £15m.

Danson still needs to convince investors that the extra £180m worth of headroom to do deals will drum up even more value, however. Shares in the business are down more than 15pc at £12 since the start of the year. In January, Danson, who owns 63pc of GlobalData, sold stock worth £15.6m.

The ultimate question is whether he will attempt to repeat what he did with Datamonitor by making a timely exit when GlobalData is at its peak. With two huge corporate sales under his belt, the secretive data mogul may find it increasingly difficult to fly under the radar.