He’s reinvented a venerable B2B publisher as a global conference/expo business – but in nine months’ time he’ll be packing his bags.

UBM told the stock market this morning that David Levin will step down as CEO before 31 July 2014, It’s an unexpected move that raises questions about the strategic direction and material performance of the business and his impact on it.

In his farewell quotes, Levin says:

“I have really enjoyed leading the transformation of UBM’s business over the past eight years, together with a great group of colleagues. During this time UBM has completed more than 100 acquisitions and more than a dozen disposals, and we have returned more than £900m of cash to shareholders.

UBM’s two main businesses, Events and PR Newswire, offer significant opportunities for growth, both organic and by acquisition. UBM has built its businesses in the emerging markets of China, India, Brazil, Turkey and the ASEAN region while strengthening its largest position in the USA. This has been underpinned by a profound shift in UBM’s culture. I feel that it is the right time to look for my next challenge. I look forward to the future and, in the meantime, it is business as usual.” 

One can’t argue with much of that – the company has made big strides. But the question remains: why leave now? Here are just some of the challenges Levin has been charged with solving and his successor will be left with:

Long-term growthFor the first half of the year, operating profit fell and revenue was flat at £391 million. This is amid some big investments in new businesses and a continued drive to modernise or sell legacy businesses. UBM is investing big in the Chinese and east Asian markets – a Shanghai expo venue is now being built five times bigger than London Excel – which is sensible, but don’t expect big returns any time soon.

Transformative worries: Levin promised to keep and invest in or sell everything in the technology and Built Environment divisons (the latter is mostly up for sale, although no word on any offers yet) by the end of the year. Is this an achieveable goal still, with Winter fast approaching? There’s no timeframe, tellingly, for the transformation to happen across the rest of the Marketing business (which houses the publishing assets).

As an investor note from Investec put it earlier this month:

We agree with the strategy of downsizing Marketing for a more manageable hopefully attractive mid-term business, though this is messy near term and execution risk remains

There’s a constant tug-of-war between a need for patience to transform the practices and culture of the business, wait for investments in emergent markets to come to fruition… and the need to make money now

Either way, Levin leaves a legacy of huge change. I don’t think many would accuse him of lacking direction and City analysts and investors have been impressed – UBM’s share price was down 10p today in early trading to 735p on the back of this departure.

Eight years ago, United Business Media was still known as an inky, fairly old-fashioned publisher with some strong print brands, some good events, a strange collection of legacy businesses leftover from a previous era and no real direction. Levin can say he played an important role in changing B2B media.

And here’s an audio interview I did with him back in 2010, when the company’s acquisition spree was really starting to hot up (part one and part two of the the text versions of this chat are worth a look).

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