Alba's rapid reactions breathe life into brands of yesteryear

Business Profile: Alba's chief executive moves in and out of markets with an ease unfeasible for Sony or Panasonic
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The Independent Online

Daniel Harris is running late. "There's a Father's Rights demonstration going on down the road," he says. "They've all got these mauve badges. It all looks a bit Life of Brian to me." He then breaks off to give an impersonation of Eric Idle in that film: "From now on I want you all to call me Loretta," before explaining "Life of Brian is my favourite film".

The 43-year-old chief executive of Alba, the consumer electronics company is in an upbeat mood as well he might be. His company has just reported strong results with profits up 19 per cent to £27m and the business is now valued at £250m on the stock market. Given Mr Harris and his family control 40 per cent of the shares, that makes their stake worth £100m, enough to secure a high place on the UK rich list.

Alba is something of a curiosity. Originally founded as a confectionery wholesaler by John Harris, Daniel's father, in the 1960s, it has made its living on the fringes of the electronics market, buying up brands of yesteryear and making them work. Its stable currently includes Bush televisions, Goodman car stereos, Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners and, of course, the Alba range of audio visual equipment. That such a company has managed to survive in a sector dominated by giant corporations such as Sony and Sharp, is an achievement. That it has managed to prosper is remarkable.

Mr Harris explains: "This is a go-go area at the moment. Prices are coming down so much that the value looks great compared with other purchases. I mean you can buy a DVD player for £50 at the moment. What can you get in Burton or Next for that?"

Another key feature of Alba's business model is that it owns no factories, contracting out its manufacturing to plants in the Far East. The company says this cuts overheads, increases speed and flexibility and enables Alba to concentrate on design and innovation. "We give them a drawing and say this is how we'd like them to look like and they get on with it. We take ideas from other areas and apply them to our products. If we see a new Mercedes with double headlights, we'll incorporate that into a loudspeaker design, for example. And though our domestic appliances are all white, we'll add a dash of colour somewhere. That came from a Paul Smith design we saw. That's a crucial difference between us and the others. A big Japanese company will basically be run by the guys in charge of the factories, trying to get the maximum output to reduce costs."

He gives another example. "We adapt to regional trends. The toasters we sell in the north of England have bigger slots that the others because they have thicker buns in the north."

It is also keen on licensing deals. It has one with JCB for power equipment and another with Ministry of Sound for MP3 players. "That was popular with my daughter," he reflects. "That was the first time she saw me as someone other than Austin Powers."

A new area for Alba is celebrity endorsements after Alba enjoyed some success with the Nicky Clarke range of hair care products. Later this year it is launching a new range of fitness equipment carrying the name of Carl Lewis, the American Olympic athlete. The range will include treadmills, exercise bikes and rowing machines. Alba has even roped in Britain's Roger Black to act as a consultant.

Not that Carl Lewis was first choice, mind. "We did some research and people said, 'You've got to have an American.' Top of the list in terms of recognition was Tiger Woods but we didn't even bother ringing him. Second was Michael Jordan but he turned us down."

Also on the list of Alba partners is the celebrity chef Anthony Worrall-Thompson. Sales of his range of kitchen mixers seem to have done particularly well since the TV show I'm a Celebrity Get me out of here. "I wish all our celebrities could be sent to the jungle," Mr Harris quips.

The common denominator here is that Alba moves quickly, picking up on fashions and diving in and out of markets when it thinks the timing is right. It's not something that a Sony or a Panasonic could do. Computers are likely to become an Alba product before long. "We'll be in that market at the right time," Mr Harris says. "Children want a computer that is like a home entertainment centre, with a karoake element and the ability to make up your own DVD of Britney Spears, or whoever."

He also talks about selling laptops with different coloured covers for every day of the week. "A bit like mobile phone fascias," he explains.

Picking up on established products and giving them a little twist is what Alba does best. Its record of developing genuinely new product areas is less good. In the late 1990s it had the idea of an internet-connected Bush television. For a while the share price went crazy but the public wasn't interested and Alba was forced to make a huge write-off.

Whose idea was it? "Er, it was mine, really," Mr Harris concedes. Something like that might lead to the dole queue in other circumstances but not when your family owns 40 per cent of the stock. Having your dad as chairman helps as well.

There is something of the Amstrad about Alba and it is a parallel Mr Harris recognises. "This company probably wouldn't exist without Amstrad," he says. "That was the model for us to follow. They broke the mould, the Japanese monopoly of the UK industry."

The Harrises are friendly with Alan Sugar and the two businesses have shared many staff over the years with Alba's head office in Barking being only a few miles away from Amstrad's base in Brentwood.

Of Jewish extraction, Daniel Harris was born into the business with his father dragging him and his sister into the sweets warehouses when they were children. He did stints at the company in the summer holidays but was not sure he wanted a full time job.

"I was going to go to America to do an MBA. I was thinking about becoming a merchant banker or going into consultancy. But the college said I should have two years' work experience before starting. I went back to Dad's business and two years later I had met my wife and that was it, I never went." His father is now 70 but is still chairman and comes into the office every day. He claims there is no friction. "It's easy," he says. "We have a telepathic understanding."

He claims few hobbies apart from "an addiction to West Ham". But he is keen on hiking and trekking, travelling to Nepal last year with a trip planned to the Amazon in October. "My family is appalled," he says. "They want to go to New York."

He's not into flash cars, perhaps even less so now than he was a year ago when his £75,000 Mercedes was stolen. He was temporarily blinded when gas was sprayed in his face and the assailants threatened to kill him.

His family has thought about buying into West Ham but decided against it. He says of the newly relegated club: "Alba and West Ham's fortunes seem to move in opposite directions. When Alba is doing well, West Ham struggle. So if the Hammers go on a 15 match unbeaten run, sell the shares."

DANIEL HARRIS: THE SON ALSO RISES

Position: Chief executive of electronics company Alba

Age: 43

Pay: £336,000

Education: University College School in Hampstead, north London, followed by economics and business at the London School of Economics.

Career: Joined his father's business in 1981 becoming chief executive in 1991.

Interests: Family, West Ham United and travelling.

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