Charlie Banks: After buying 127 businesses in five years, it's finally time to wind down

A day in the life of the Chief Executive of Wolseley
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Charlie Banks doesn't need the 5 o'clock alarm call he set last night to spur him into action this morning. Today is a Monday like no other for the Wolseley chief executive. Not only is he two hours away from unveiling the biggest deal in the plumbing group's 119-year history but the seven-day clock is also ticking on his exit after almost four decades with the business.


In the cool heat of the perfect sort of English morning that has filled the void left by his native America, Mr Banks sets off from Chippenham, Wiltshire, for Wolseley's headquarters in Theale, just west of Reading. He drives himself, savouring his last ever Monday commute. Fittingly for the boss of a company that used to make the eponymous Wolseley cars - the chic Wolseley restaurant on Piccadilly is its old London car showroom - Mr Banks is into his motors. His best souvenir from his five years in Britain is his 1965 Austin Healey. The colour? British racing green, naturally.


Flanked by Steve Webster, Wolseley's finance director, Mr Banks settles down for a morning of intense telephone action. Late on Sunday night, Wolseley snapped up Scandinavia's leading supplier of building materials, DT Group, in a deal worth £1.35bn. The move cements Wolseley's status as the world's biggest builders' merchant and helps to even out the split of revenues the group gets from Europe and North America. It takes the group into the Nordic region for the first time, expanding its global footprint to 19 countries.

Doing deals is second nature to Mr Banks; after all, he has overseen 127 acquisitions during his five years at the helm. But the scale of DT dwarfs the sort of smaller family businesses that have been Wolseley's bread and butter since the days of Jeremy Lancaster, who built up the company in the 1970s, eventually buying the company where Mr Banks worked - Ferguson - in 1982.

"It was nice to finish with that deal. I mean, gosh, I'm not sure how many billions of pounds we've spent on acquisitions but it's well over 2," Mr Banks says. "We've said for several years that we've had the capacity to do a big one. But if you'd asked me last month if we were going to close a big deal before I left, and if I had to give you a yes or no, I probably would have said, probably not."

Focusing on small and medium-sized deals has also saved Wolseley from the sort of acquisition indigestion that can put buying growth off the menu for some businesses. Not that Wolseley sees its strategy in terms of buying growth. Rather, it's about buying customers, products and geographies. Not sales. The secret to success, says the folksy Mr Banks, who hails from Virginia, is "a lot about the size of deals you do, the kind of companies you buy and the culture and how you approach integration. Obviously, the bigger the acquisition, the more challenging the integration is."


By mid-morning, the analysts' questions have been answered and it's time to turn to the press. The Wolseley lifer - he was the first ever management trainee at Ferguson, which he joined on 1 August 1967 - relishes his final moments with the British media. "They've been good to me, or fair with me anyway. As opposed to some of the treatment I've seen people get in the papers, I feel like I've been fortunate. We had a lot of, 'It's the biggest acquisition you've done. You must feel pretty good doing that on your last week.' So there were some nice comments." He thinks UK journalists have a different style from their American counterparts. "There's more concentration on compensation issues, trying to be splashy about it. They tend to be digging for more negative things than you get [in the US]. But for all I can tell, they get more people reading the business pages than in the States."

In between the calls, Mr Banks, 65, is busy preparing for what will be a hectic last week in the job. On Tuesday and Wednesday he has a series of executive committee meetings before a group board meeting on Thursday, which will culminate in a grand farewell dinner in London. There are all those acquisitions to review - 50 in the past year alone, plus others that have yet to close - and capital to allocate to all the different corners of the Wolseley empire.

Wives will be invited to the Thursday dinner, a fitting way to thank his own spouse of 40-plus years, Mari Ann, who has done much to further the Wolseley cause. For starters, Mr Banks would never have left the States without her support. It was her idea to live in Wiltshire. She chose their English house, which she ran in addition to keeping a second home in Virginia. "She and I have lived in New York and Boston and Washington and Atlanta and Los Angeles so we felt like seeing a little bit of the wonderful English countryside. We have enjoyed our time here immensely. The other day I asked her - because she's had to go back to the States for three operations, two hip replacements and another operation during the five years: 'Knowing everything you know now, would you still agree to come over?' And she said, 'Absolutely'."


Lunch is a non-event because Mr Banks is saving himself for a fancy meal out with his successor and long-time colleague, Chip Hornsby, and some of the group's advisers. Instead, he busies himself with the task of clearing out his office, ready for Mr Hornsby, who started on the same Ferguson management trainee programme as Mr Banks. The corner office, which has big windows overlooking the business park where Wolseley is situated, is testimony to the central role Mari Ann and his three children play in his life. Pictures of his family line the walls, providing a pictorial reminder to the rest of the organisation that Mr Banks believes success follows a willingness to put family first.

Other photos tell the story of Mr Banks' tenure. In pride of place is the picture of the Wolseley truck decked out in red and white balloons parked outside the New York Stock Exchange on the day the group's shares listed Stateside. There is a photo, too, of Mr Banks ringing the closing bell at the NYSE two weeks ago on the five-year anniversary of that day. Then there is the signed snap of Arnold Palmer, the golfer. And, of course, a picture of his treasured Austin Healey. He fills sack after sack of papers to be junked or burnt. The task is bigger than he envisaged and he has to set out for London before he finishes.


Dinner is at The Square, a French restaurant in Mayfair. It's a last chance for Mr Banks to indulge his love of fine wines on the company account. He will be footing the drinks bill next week on a family holiday to France. "My daughter said she plans to teach Dad how to relax and ease up on the stress a little bit... I don't feel I have a hard time relaxing, although other people tell me that I do. I love what I do; I love what I've done. I like the people I work with and I like the business." He adds that given the pace he's been working at he hasn't had a chance to think much about his impending retirement. Well, not apart from his plans to hang out with his grandchildren before they become teenagers.