A man you want in the trenches

profile John Clark Takeover tension is mounting at BET but, says Paul Farrelly, the group's chief executive is ready to join the fray
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The Independent Online
"AT six feet six, you'd have to be totally unqualified with a rifle to miss me. I'm the world's biggest target." John Clark, the embattled 54-year-old chief executive of business services giant BET, was talking of his days as a lieutenant in the US Marine Corps in the 1960s, just as the Vietnam war began in earnest.

But he might as well have been referring to Rentokil, which took aim at BET last week with a pounds 1.8bn hostile bid.

Clark looked massively outgunned from the start. His opposite number, Clive Thompson, is a stock market darling, presiding over 20 per cent plus profits growth in each of the last 13 years. Rentokil's opening shot, 190p per share, was a huge 37 per cent above BET's share price before the bid leaked out.

Against that sort of firepower BET's record, as Rentokil gleefully points out, looks dire. There has been huge underperformance in sales, profits, dividends and stock price since 1991, when Clark's tenure began after a 1980s acquisition binge left the sprawling cleaning-to-scaffolding group on the verge of collapse.

But in this game, as the old adage goes, "there are lies, damned lies and statistics". By taking 1993 as the base for comparison (by which time Clark had wielded the knife proper) BET can show its shares have actually marginally outperformed the market.

BET is under no illusions about the difficulty of staying independent. But in the City victory is measured as much in terms of the amount of money extracted as in fending off the boarder, and the market expects a higher offer.

Rentokil is also feeling the heat. Sell notes from several brokers wail of "a deal too far". Its shining reputation is already looking tarnished even before Clark unleashes his own dogs of war.

Clark has been here before. Before moving to BET he was running Core- Mark International, a San Francisco-based food distribution company quoted on the Toronto stock exchange. In 1989 he faced, and saw off, a hostile bid, and later auctioned the company off for C$7 (pounds 3.30) a share, against the C$1.85 at which they had been languishing when he was brought in.

Clark graduated from Wharton, Pennsylvania, with a degree in economics in 1963 but, since he had served in the Naval Reserve while at college, his first calling was more patriotic than pecuniary. "I graduated in the morning, was commissioned [in the US marines] in the evening, and immediately went into action," he says.

Tours of duty included Okinawa in Japan, Taiwan and coastal patrol off Vietnam, although he never saw ground action in Vietnam. "After 13 months, I was transferred back to the US east coast, rather than the west, where the guys were who were put into Vietnam. That probably saved my life," he says. "I was an infantry commander and lots of young lieutenants died."

He married young. His wife, Judy, was a Russian language specialist at the National Security Agency in Washington while he was still a $237-a- month first lieutenant. His daughter Sandy, 26, is now a Hollywood producer of lottery shows, while his son Jim, 23, is a salesman working his way across the US to sunny California.

An MBA at Wharton followed the marines. He majored in marketing, then joined Singer in 1968. By 1971, aged 30, he had become the youngest ever chief financial officer of a Singer subsidiary before taking his first line job - in home furnishings and air conditioning.

Like BET and Core-Mark, Singer had become a sprawling empire. The company had invented the first electronic cash register, but nearly went bust trying to compete with the likes of IBM. Clark fixed that subsidiary, part of which was sold to the UK computer maker ICL, before turning his hand to Singer's loss-making European operations. He tried and failed to buy out parts of Singer Europe before selling it off to other bidders.

It was now 1985, and Clark had worked himself out of a job. He upped sticks again for a two-year stint at VF Corp in the US, where he was involved in buying and revamping Blue Bell, owner of Lee and Wrangler jeans and Vanity Fair lingerie.

He joined BET on 2 April, 1991 - "we agreed, it couldn't be April Fool's Day", he says - after a call from a headhunter he had used at Singer. There were red faces all round at the group, which was in trouble even though his predecessor, Nicholas Wills, had long claimed it was recession- proof: 170 acquisitions in just five years had left it saddled with debt as revenues shrank. "This was a goofed-up place. It's taken a lot of management and time to turn it round,"Clark says.

Founded early in the century, British Electric Traction was a big bus operator until bus nationalisation in 1946, when Wills's father, John, took it into TV, double glazing and aircraft engineering. The company's shooting star logo is also that of its old Rediffusion subsidiary, which won the first London weekday ITV franchise in the 1950s.

Clark stands on his record since arriving: 180 subsidiaries cut by two- thirds and reshaped; underperformers sold, and more disposals likely; margins lifted; management stripped back and rejuvenated - of 250 new executives, 200 are from outside.

He also defends his pay package: pounds 1.1m last year against Thompson's pounds 742,000. He was brought in to do a job, and would fetch much more in the US, he says.

"We've got a substantially new management team. We've gone from an unfocused conglomerate with disparate interests to a six-products group."

Strict financial controls and an emphasis on cash generation also arrived on day one. BET was leaking pounds 163m in cash in 1991 on top of its debt. Since then, more than pounds 700m of debt has been paid off, leaving just pounds 114m at the interim results last September.

"Good business," Rentokil charged in its opening shot 10 days ago, "but what about the management?" For the defence, though, Clark has always said that the first two phases of recovery, "organisation cost reduction" and "total productivity" - Wharton management speak for cost-cutting and revamping marketing, would take three years.

Indeed, profits perked up at the interims in late 1993 for the first time since 1989, and exceeded market expectations. They were up 13 per cent to pounds 65m, with turnover rising again after years of disposals and cutting out unprofitable contracts.

Clark says BET is now firmly in its third growth phase, "customer focus" or "upgrading the portfolio", which again he always said would take another two years to show through. "We're very clear. We've been consistently building the portfolio, with one aim: to pick those product groups for the 21st century," he says, rejecting City fears that a cost-cutter may not be the best man to take the business forward.

He laughs off one "hatchet man" story long doing the rounds: "Our former PR man put it about as a joke that one of the ways John Clark sorts out good managers is to hang a piece of raw steak on a stand, and see who tears into it. Of course, it's not true."

In the last two years, BET has built up its ski and beach resorts arm into the biggest in the US - a new growth area with 5,000 apartments under management. Its electronic security subsidiary has also developed into one of Europe's biggest.

The City, though, has been slow to catch on. Nothing unusual in that, but with brokers forecasting profits of pounds 135m this year and pounds 150m-plus next year, Clark was hoping for a re-rating before Rentokil struck. "Now we're on a growth curve, Rentokil's is a classic move. Its bid is not enough," he says bluntly.

Last week, BET rejected a further approach from Rentokil to buy just the bits it wants, including cleaning, textiles and distribution. To the suggestion of a buyout of the bits Rentokil does not want - conferences, plant hire and resorts -Clark just smiles. A repeat of the Singer experience and reactivation of the small buyout firm he still owns is not, it seems, on the cards.