Allan Cook: The early bird gets the best deal... and a game of squash
A Day in the Life: The chief executive of defence giant Cobham talks to James Moore about the $416m Sparta deal and getting by on four hours' sleep
Saturday 26 January 2008
There is nothing unusual about an early start in the world of business but Cobham's chief executive takes it to the extreme.
"Irrespective of where I am in the world, my day will start at four o'clock in the morning," says Allan Cook. "It's a time when I can catch up with emails, business reading, reports and financial information on the company, competitors and customers, before the meetings start.
"I started doing this 20, 25 years ago. I was managing director of a company in Scotland with a day shift, swing shift and a night shift. The day shift was easy and I could catch a couple of hours with the swing shift at the end of the day but the only way I could see the night shift, other than staying really, really late was to come in early in the morning.
"It helps a lot when you're working in a global industry. We operate in five different continents, so ... this means if I need to I can speak to our business in Australia where it is late afternoon at five o'clock in the morning, then deal with the UK and talk to the US in our afternoon."
After a breakfast of half a grapefruit, fruit juice, and an Actimel yoghurt drink, it is a 10-minute drive from Mr Cook's home to the defence company's Dorset headquarters.
He sits on several industry bodies – he is president of the Society of British Aerospace Companies and chairman of the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing, among others – and this quiet time in the empty office enables him to catch up with reading related to them. He will also deal with the overnight traffic on a pivotal day for his company. Cobham is announcing the acquisition of Sparta, a US defence business that plays a key role in missile defence – "Star Wars" in the popular parlance.
"I'm not setting a standard with what I do, although most of our executives are in early. It is not an imperative. I'm not a particularly late night person. I work better at this time. I had a technical director who was the other way. He'd get in at 9.30am but he would work until 2am. He would leave things on my desk at 2.30am and I would pick them up when I got in."
Mr Cook, 58, heads for the nearby squash court. He is an affable chap, his conversation peppered with anecdotes and little stories told in a warm Sunderland accent. And yet he has a fiercely competitive, even obsessive streak – he admits to being a terrible loser at a game he has played at a competitive level for more than 20 years. Such a loss being enough to put a cloud over his office for much of the morning.
The company's executive committee meets ahead of the all-important morning conference call set up to discuss the deal with analysts and newswires. Mr Cook is keenly aware of the importance of this for setting the tone for the day.
At $416m, Sparta is the biggest acquisition the company has pulled off, but Cobham is already evaluating "two or three" targets and is one of the biggest of several fast-growing "second tier" British defence companies that sit behind established heavyweights Rolls Royce and BAE Systems.
"Sparta provides key capabilities for missile defence and intelligence systems for homeland security in the USA," says Mr Cook. "It is a continuation of our strategy to grow our business into high-technology, high-growth areas. This is an opportunity for Cobham to establish our capabilities into one of the higher growth parts of the US defence industry."
Mr Cook argues that there is little evidence that a Democrat presidency would change this, with elections just a year away, particularly given the intense focus on national security in the country at the moment, and the need to capture the votes of the oft-mentioned "security moms".
"There is evidence that Democrat spending has been as high as Republican on defence historically and there is no evidence that either has a bias against missile defence in the event that there is a change of administration."
Mr Cook also says that Sparta is about more than just the controversial Star Wars programme: "Missile defence comes in many, many forms. What Sparta does is about providing systems engineering and scientific services to the Missile Defence Agency."
Having sold the deal externally, Mr Cook moves on to the job of selling it internally to the executives on Cobham's "leadership team". He also continues the job of calling customers before taking another round of calls from the national and local press.
Mr Cook says he is not a big lunch person and is content to snatch a tuna sandwich and an apple. He does this ahead of calling the US. America currently accounts for just under 50 per cent of Cobham's revenues and that is likely to increase. The call to the company's Washington DC office is therefore highly important.
"When I joined as chief executive seven years ago it was probably closer to 20 per cent of revenues from the US so it has more than doubled."
That growth is set to continue – the US has the world's biggest defence budget and its spending outstrips that of the 19 next biggest countries combined. Mr Cook also argues that the much-debated "special relationship" works for one of the very few industries in which the UK is a global leader. "We have a good relationship with the security side in the US, which is important when you are dealing with classified programmes. We have an exemplary record in terms of protecting their technology. The UK has a special relationship with the US in terms of defence and aerospace. Because of the long-term relationships we have, British defence companies have a unique capability."
In fact the company has an advisory board in the US containing military and homeland security figures which Mr Cook chairs. However, he argues that the UK still needs to retain a "sovereign" presence in the industry and says he was pleased to see GKN taking over Airbus's high-tech wing complex at Filton, near Bristol.
Much of the afternoon is taken up with talking the company's major shareholders through the deal. At 4pm, Mr Cook moves on to tell the senior management at Sparta how the deal has been received. Sparta's management team will remain in place, and Mr Cook will try to speak to each one individually. "Personal relationships are very important, so we want to give them the chance to ask questions, to talk about how it has gone and also to find out if I need to speak again to customers, suppliers, now that a full press release has gone out. On another day, at this time, I might, however, be talking to our office on the West Coast of the US."
Mr Cook holds a wrap-up meeting with the executive team and makes final calls with non-executive directors. He is pleased with the response to the deal and feels the company managed to explain its reasons for doing it to the one analyst who had concerns.
He does not depart for home until 7pm, and will continue taking calls through the evening. "I am fortunate to have the support of my family. I have worked for many great companies and that means spending huge amounts of time away from home. But the family has made it easy for me."
He will not turn in until 11pm but the alarm is still set for 4am. "I've been doing this for a number of years and I've learnt to get by on four hours of sleep or so. I won't be playing squash in the morning, though."
Family: Married with two daughters
Education: Southmoor Technical Grammar; Sunderland University, Honours degree in electronic/ control systems engineering.
Career: 1976 Ferranti's inertial systems laboratory; 1979 Bourns/ PMI; 1985 Managing director of Bourns/PMI responsible for European manufacturing and sales; 1988 Hughes Electronics head of Scottish operations. Later in charge of Hughes (Europe); 1995 GEC Marconi to head the Airborne Radar division; Eurofighter group MD after merger with BAE; 2001 Chief executive of Cobham; 2007 Awarded the CBE.
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