A bit of spit and polish

Swathes of redundant workers might not agree, but Clarks has a creative leader. profile; Tim Parker
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The Independent Online
If rice cookers, pizza ovens and indoor barbecues are anything to go by, trusty shoe maker C&J Clark is in for an electric shake-up over the next two years. As the family-owned firm trudges towards a stock market flotation, that must all be for the better.

But that will bring little solace for 1,400 employees made redundant last week, some of them 40-year veterans of the Quaker firm whose Start Rite shoes have shod five generations of British schoolkids. New chief executive Tim Parker, former boss of another household name - Kenwood kitchen appliances - also shut three of Clarks' 10 UK factories in the most savage sacrifice to market reality in the firm's 170-year history.

For the staff, it is tempting to see Parker simply as a hatchet man, brought in by a feuding family to make sure twice-yearly dividend cheques keep them in the style to which they are accustomed. Now just 40, he was in nappies when many workers took up what promised to be a job for life in Street and Shepton Mallett - the Somerset towns where Clarks grew up. An outsider, sporting the stereotype 1980s MBA, he already had a long track record of sorting out basket cases before joining Clarks in January this year.

The characterisation, however, would be entirely askew. Clarks is hardly alone in the British shoe industry in being laid low by cheap imports and that elusive feelgood factor on the high street. Rivals Freeman Hardy Willis and Saxone have just gone bust and shoe factories have closed up and down the land. Nor, harried by Timberlands and Doc Martens, is it unique in being a family firm slow to adjust to changing fashion. Britain's biggest, the Littlewoods pools and stores dynasty, has gone through as many ructions. But, put starkly, Clarks has to adapt to survive.

"The management before was shrouded by the history, traditions, emotions and loyalties that hamper judgement," says one company insider of nearly 30 years' standing. "Tim's brief was to look with a fresh pair of eyes at what it takes to make the company successful. He's dynamic, decisive and clear. He's only done what should have been done years ago."

But unlike much of the new wave of British management, Parker has a formidable record of building business, too. Ten years ago he turned Kenwood from a tired old brand, then languishing in Thorn-EMI, into a sprightly maker of all manner of household gadgets.

Deep-fat fryers, kettle jugs, water filters, ice-cream makers, that new pizza oven - and not forgetting the ubiquitous Kenwood Chef; the firm now churns out myriad goods, made in the UK, Italy and China, that fill the shelves of Boots, Dixons and Currys.

Bright, confident, ebullient, sometimes mistaken for arrogant - "He always reckons he was the one that got the toaster right, without burning the toast. It's difficult to prove. But that's typical Tim," one former associate says.

But he is keen on design and believes in investment, which bodes well for the 13,000 staff still on Clarks' books.

He is also refreshingly plain-speaking and sensitive enough now to be totally opposed to a profile at all. He will talk about his ambitions for Clarks but about nothing personal at all.

"I don't feel it's right to blow a trumpet at this time when people are leaving the company," he says. "Making so many people redundant is not something I enjoy. But Clarks has been making closures before, and one of the worst situations is where you have drip, drip, drip - which means people are always just waiting for the next one."

Parker, born into an army family, is an Oxford graduate who joined the Treasury in 1979 for a two-year spell as an economist. He showed entrepreneurial promise from an early age, however: at 14, at Abingdon public school, he was his own company chairman, albeit in a business game, where the school was runner-up in a national competition.

He might equally have gone into politics: at university, studying philosophy, politics and economics, he was chair of the Oxford Labour Club, where his views were radical enough to be labelled Trotskyite.

He has since travelled to the bluer side of the political spectrum; he sends his three children to public school but tempers a firm belief in markets with a liberal view on social affairs.

Unlike many a student hack, bag-carrying for Labour luminaries was not for him. Frustrated, too, by the Treasury's inward-looking culture, Parker did a masters degree at the London Business School and in 1981 joined Thorn-EMI as a bag carrier in the chairman's office instead.

A mass of curly hair atop a six-foot frame, he cuts an unlikely figure in a suit: "Tim's not a vain bloke at all, but five years ago one newspaper called him the 'mop-haired chief executive'. Now everyone repeats it and it drives him to despair," one former associate says.

Thorn quickly spotted his management talent, however, and within two years he was sent out to head a small loss-making engineering subsidiary near Chicago. After two years trying to save it, at just 27 years old, Parker shut it down, putting 100 people out of work. Two jobs later, in 1986, he was at Kenwood, another problem child.

Cuts inevitably followed, but Parker brought designers in to rejuvenate a limited product range, expanded by acquisition, bought a factory in China, and made his first million to boot.

A pounds 54m buy-out in 1989 was followed by a flotation in 1992 and the 750,000 shares Parker retains are worth pounds 1.5m. A handy pounds 560,000-worth cashed in three years ago also paid off the mortgage on the Hampshire vicarage the family calls home.

The decision to jump ship to Clarks after a headhunter's call did not come easily and analysts say Kenwood will miss his flair.

"It was a big challenge, a unique challenge. Every way I looked at Clarks, I saw great things we could do," he says.

Parker has already done more than his homework and enthuses about new concepts in soles and hi-tech materials. "The one thing I've learned in business is to do your analysis thoroughly first, confronting the problem and getting on with it," he says.

With the closures announced, more will be pumped into marketing and promotion and outside designers brought in. More of the 30 million pairs of shoes Clarks sells annually will be sourced from outside and international sales will be expanded. He is keen, though, not to draw the parallel with Kenwood too far: Clarks already has two factories in Portugal, so there are no plans to leap into China. Also, there is the matter of the 500-plus family shareholders, who blocked a pounds 184m sale three years ago.

So far, with a 1998 market debut still in view, Parker has kept the old rebels onside. "A lot of business is common sense. There's no great secret. I try to make the changes, but try to take the people with me. With a fair wind, I don't see the [flotation] timetable is in jeopardy," he says with trademark confidence.