Achiever on line to the summit

profile; Nick Temple; IBM's head of marketing in Europe has played an important part in reviving the company's fortunes. David Bowen spoke to him
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NICK TEMPLE has been at Henley this weekend, enjoying himself. He deserves a break - it is exhausting trying to bash one of the biggest companies in Europe into shape. Temple is one of IBM's top men in Europe and is trying to do to its continental subsidiaries what he has already done to the British end: rationalise them, streamline them, and try to ensure they help bring colour back to Big Blue's faded cheeks.

Temple has the curious title of Vice-President, Industries, IBM Europe. What this means is that he is in charge of marketing in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, but it also means he is only one step away from the summit of the company. Most significantly, he has been moving jobs quickly recently. The wags always used to say IBM stood for I've Been Moved - but in Temple's case each move has been sharply upwards. His last job was running IBM's banking and finance industry groups in Europe; but he was in post for only seven months before he was given charge of all 12 industry groups. And he is still only 47. That suggests the powers in Armonk, New York, could be grooming him for something seriously big. Ford is run by a Brit, Alex Trotman; maybe IBM will be the next American giant to be tucked under a British belt.

Temple's knack is that he can fit into IBM yet stand out from it at the same time. Many Britons who make it in American companies lose their nationality and their accent in the cause of corporate assimilation. Trotman, with his strange Scots-American twang, is an example. Temple is not: he is thoroughly British (though he prefers to call himself European) and has never fitted the sterotype of IBM man. Not for him the uniform white shirt and blue suit; he wears coloured shirts, whose tails are frequently spotted flapping, and is said to look neat rarely. Nor does he bathe in jargon - quite an achievement for someone working with Americans, in computers, and in marketing. Perhaps most strikingly, he believes in the power of a drink or two to allow his mind to step back and look at issues in a more relaxed way. Most un-American, most un-IBM.

All this, he says, means that he has been used as an "agent for change" within IBM. He went into IBM UK shirt tails flying, and has done the same with his current job. "There were times when we needed to make changes that other people were frightened to make," he says.

Temple was born 47 years ago in Pinner, Middlesex. He had a comfortable middle-class upbringing: his father was a banker with Lloyds, and sent him to boarding school in Gloucester. He was sponsored by IBM to go to university, and became immersed in the company even before he finished his degree. Having joined officially as a systems engineer in 1965, he worked his way up the technical cliff face; he spent the early 1980s developing software in New York and Germany.

IBM had always been run by marketing people, so it was a break with tradition when Temple was made a general manager in the European division in 1987 - and even more surprising when he was made general manager of IBM UK in 1991. This was his chance to bring his free thinking to bear. "I was sent to the UK because the company was in crisis. I had a supportive boss who said go and do what you have to." In part because the recession in Britain was earlier and deeper than elsewhere, the scene here was particularly bloody. He combined standard recessionary cutting - several thousand people lost their jobs - with an attempt to modernise the company's structure. He flattened the hierarchy and "focused" the business, choosing the areas where IBM should hold its ground.

All this caused unprecedented upset in the job-for-life IBM culture. "A lot of people outside said the UK's in chaos. But it worked very well."

It was recognised by the crisis-ridden management in Armonk that Temple had achieved in Britain what much of the rest of the organisation had failed to do. Hence his move to Paris, where he is attempting to pull off the same trick with the European subsidiaries. This is more difficult, he says, because it is harder to make redundancies and move people into different jobs. "Labour rigidity is causing us to lose competitiveness," he says. "It is not just a question of jobs going - markets are changing so we need to change our mix of skills." Britain, meanwhile, is benefiting. "We're probably investing more in Britain because of the flexibility of labour laws," he says.

IBM is being assaulted from all sides by aggressive specialists. On software, its erstwhile ally Microsoft is now its number one enemy. Each of its hardware businesses is being attacked by niche players. It is like a warring country trying to hold off attacks on half a dozen fronts - and until a year or two ago it was falling back in disarray on most of them. "IBM was a little laid back about the competition," he concedes.

Temple is at the centre of IBM's attempt to capitalise on the one asset its rivals cannot match - sheer size. Multinational corporations always have to balance responsibility between geographical and functional control - they usually have a "matrix" structure, which means that each unit is influenced by a mix of the two. Traditionally IBM has given the whip hand to the country barons, on the grounds that local knowledge brings vital local sensitivity. With its move to industry groups, the balance of power has swung the other way - the aim is to provide multinational clients with rapid and co-ordinated support in several countries.

Technology, appropriately, is the key. Temple is now running an empire that runs from Vladivostok to Cape Town to the North Cape. Staff from all over the world use satellite links to bring their expertise to bear on a problem, and Temple himself uses electrons to patrol his vast empire. He travels a lot, but also makes wide use of the desktop video-conferencing systems that have only recently become available. "I can call people up on the network," he says. "It beats sitting around in airports."

Video-conferencing is better than the phone, he says, because it allows more intimate conversations (you see the other person in a window on the screen, which means you can pick up their expressions). But his regular link-ups with his equivalents in America and Asia tend to take place by mobile phone - because they take place at set times wherever the three managers happen to be.

"I could do the job without this equipment, but I would be much more exhausted than I am at the moment," Temple says. This, he implies, is saying something: he tries to get back to his family near Winchester at weekends, but does not get much time for his hobbies - woodworking and cooking.

Even as IBM swings away from its concentration on national baronies, Temple insists it has to stay sensitive to local needs, especially in Europe. "We have to be glocal - that's a good old American expression," he says.

Even before its recent purchase of Lotus, IBM was the biggest software company in the world. Does this mean the business of building computers will eventually be handed over to low-cost competitors? Temple says not. "Hardware is our core competence. Not too many people are capable of developing new technology."