At first glance Matt Moulding is an unlikely newspaper proprietor – especially when the newspaper is called CityAM.
As readers of his LinkedIn blog will know, his approach to the media can best be described as ‘combative’ while his relationship with the City and the markets isn’t much better.
Now he’s the owner of the loss-making CityAM after buying it in a pre-pack deal.
At first inspection it’s difficult to see an obvious link between a retailer specialising in nutrition and beauty products, and a business newspaper.
Is it an act of sheer madness or a moment of absolute genius?
Time will tell – but Moulding has set down his reasons in his latest LinkedIn blog, where he is one of only 300 writers every year to be afforded the title ‘Top Voice’.
“CityAM is a rare breed having spent decades cheerleading both the UK and businesses alike,” he writes.
“Years ago, newspapers worked closely with businesses to understand the UK market and whip up public support for UK policies.
“This helped drive UK competitiveness on a global stage. But that model is long gone.”
At this point it’s worth a quick recap on how we got here.
A phrase you hear a lot in newsrooms is: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Having a great story is one thing, but having a great picture is something else.
That’s where gym-loving Moulding became a picture editor’s dream, regularly posting topless photos of himself – often on a luxury yacht.
He founded The Hut Group – now THG – in 2004 and grew it into a unicorn.
Fast forward to 2020 and THG was valued at £5.4 billion when it floated on the London Stock Exchange.
UK’s buff billionaire
The Times described Moulding as the ‘UK’s buff billionaire’ while the Mirror’s headline was: ‘How Matt Moulding went from home with outside loo and factory job to £830m payout.’
Who doesn’t love a rags to riches story?
However by floating, Moulding exposed himself, THG and even his family to huge public scrutiny – not helped by the company’s plummeting share price.
At one point it dropped to 31p – a far cry from its launch price of 500p. It currently stands at 100p.
Moulding has received a kicking ever since from investors and sections of the media.
Investors didn’t like the fact that he operated as both the CEO and executive chair or that he had a ‘special share’ – referred to as a ‘golden share’ – which potentially allowed him to block a hostile takeover.
In response, THG appointed ex-ITV boss Lord Allen as it first external chairman and Moulding gave up his special share ahead of the company’s AGM – but still the negative stories continued.
In February 2023, Moulding turned 51 and the gloves came off.
He wrote on LinkedIn that his approach to criticism had always been to ‘sit tight, maintain a British stiff upper lip, and accept it’.
“We were under siege on a daily basis, as were my family and many people at THG,” he wrote. “I accept that negativity comes with the territory, but seeing it forced onto loved ones stirs a whole different emotion.”
At one point his mother contacted The Sunday Times journalist Oliver Shah over the paper’s negative coverage towards her son, adding: “You must lead very dreary lives in your dead-end jobs.”
Moulding said seeing ‘Mama Moulding’ subsequently ‘mocked’ by some in the business media meant he had to ‘speak up’.
Speaking personally, I’ve always thought it was a good move. The best antidote to bad news is good news and what Moulding has done really well is produce interesting content.
Gone are the topless photos of his ripped body on yachts, replaced with wholesome family images or pictures of him hard at work. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words.
However, Moulding has also used this LinkedIn platform to take aim at his favourite targets, including the London Stock Exchange, hedge funds, analysts and the media.
His most controversial post to date came in May when he aimed his guns at the Financial Times and its investigations journalist Dan McCrum, who is best known for exposing the global fraud at Wirecard.
Moulding objected to a story McCrum had written and the manner in why THG were asked for a comment.
“We were given two hours to respond before the FT would print,” he wrote. “Sounds sensational right? Straight after the call, THG’s share price starts to fall, losing five per cent despite market share prices rising in general. It’s amazing the number of times a share price falls the day before a negative story is written.”
Going after an award-winning investigative journalist is either brave, reckless or both.
For the record, I approached the FT for a comment at the time of Moulding’s post – and two months later I still haven’t heard back so he probably touched a nerve with his blog.
Only Moulding knows his reasons for buying CityAM, but one train of thought could be that if you can’t control the message, then control the messenger.
For his part, Moulding has insisted there will be no editorial interference in the newspaper.
“Neither I nor the board will be driving editorial content, there are far more talented people out there to do this,” he wrote.
“But there’s a clear gap in the UK business media, one that supports and appreciates UK business, and is keen to see the UK improve our global competitiveness.
“CityAM, THG and our partners will now step up further to fill this gap, loud and clear.
“And so, supported by unswerving investment from THG there will be just one rule for the future editorial direction of CityAM: ‘Where possible, be a cheerleader for both the UK and businesses alike, and don’t get dragged over to the dark side’.”
All of which brings us back to why THG has bought CityAM, a deal which has already attracted some criticism.
The Guardian’s Nils Pratley wrote: “The retail billionaire’s newspaper deal looks like an indulgence when his core business needs attention. Moulding should be using his own money, not his shareholders.”
Reasons for buying CityAM
However, there are four good reasons why the deal make a lot of sense.
THG already has a media arm and produces magazines for Myprotein and LOOKFANTASTIC.COM so there are some synergies.
CityAM’s website is tired and THG Ingenuity can help fix it.
THG will be able to grow its audience through CityAM’s monthly reach of two million people.
Although the purchase price hasn’t been revealed it will have been relatively cheap to buy a distressed asset.
In his blog LinkedIn, Moulding gives a fifth reason. “The fact that most of Britain’s media is foreign owned can’t be ideal,” he wrote. “Almost all the press have long abandoned their LSE listings. Even the Financial Times recently raised the white flag, left the LSE, and sold itself to the Japanese.
“So, while THG is mostly interested in building ad tech reach with CityAM, it has to be a good thing that one of the UK’s most influential business papers remains in UK ownership.”
One theory for the purchase is that newspapers have become trophy assets. The Daily and Sunday Telegraph are currently for sale and attracting a lot of interest.
THG are reported to have looked at other publications before buying the less glamorous (and much cheaper) CityAM.
Speaking personally I think it’s a really good move. It buys THG and Moulding a place at the media table for a modest outlay. It’s a lot easier to change something from the inside.
It will be interesting to follow CityAM’s future editorial policy and the level of Moulding’s involvement. Just don’t expect to see any topless photos of him sipping drinks on a yacht.
- Chris Maguire is an award-winning journalist and the executive editor of BusinessCloud. [email protected]