Independent-minded outsider who's taken over the driving seat Rentokil

Business Profile: When his company needed a new chief executive, James Wilde felt the choice was obvious. He was the best man for the job
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The Independent Online

James Wilde says he knew he would get the top job at Rentokil Initial, even though it was a great surprise to the outside world.

The support services company passed over Mr Wilde's superior, Ted Brown, as well as outside candidates, to pick him after Rentokil's big-hitting chief executive, Sir Clive Thompson, said he would retire. "I wasn't surprised," says 50-year-old Mr Wilde. "I believed that I was the best man for the job. I felt I should get it. I wasn't sitting there scheming or anything. I just felt I was the obvious man for the job."

His first action? Doing away with Mr Brown's job of chief operating officer, in effect demoting him to divisional head, in charge of pest control and washroom services. The company was reorganised by Mr Wilde, who took over at the start of this year, along divisional lines, from the old regional set-up.

There were six regional managing directors, plus a chief operating officer, under Sir Clive. This was reshuffled into four jobs, with a managing director for each division (hygiene, security, facilities management and parcel delivery) meaning that three senior managers had to go.

So did Mr Wilde knife Mr Brown, his main rival for the top job? Not at all, he says. "He was my boss. If I had knifed him, he wouldn't still be in the business, would he? He was more than happy to take a sector managing director job.

"I couldn't work with a chief operating officer, operating is where I came up from," says Mr Wilde, pointing to a key difference between him and Sir Clive, a marketing man.

Mr Wilde says that, although he was an internal appointment, he was always an "outsider" to Rentokil, pointing out that he never applied to work there. Mr Wilde was a director at a security business that Rentokil took over in 1993, as its first hostile bid. He was the only director in the acquired business who was kept on. Then, at Rentokil, he ran businesses that were marginal and were eventually sold off.

"I've been a very independent sector manager at Rentokil. I'm an insider but also an outsider. I did not operate in the traditional Rentokil world."

Mr Wilde dislikes comparisons with Sir Clive and the differences between the two men are immense. Sir Clive sat on the boards of many companies, was a business grandee and president of the CBI, politically active and a very polished presenter.

Where Sir Clive would dismiss questions he didn't like, Mr Wilde is much more down-to-earth and approachable. Mr Wilde is still finding his feet as a public speaker and says there has been a "big learning curve" in dealing with the investment community. He does not sit on other boards and is not planning in involve himself with wider business interests.

Mr Wilde was born in Purley, on the London-Surrey border, and there are discernable "sarf London" tones to his voice. He went to Whitgift school in nearby Croydon. He still lives there and his son also went through Whitgift, an independent day school.

"Yes, I'm 50 and I still live in Purley, about half a mile from where I was born," he says, though he cannot cite any particular attractions of this suburb.

Before we all get carried away with an image of a humble man, it should be pointed out that for his company car he chose a new Bentley Arnage, a huge and extremely flashy, refined beast of a vehicle (price £150,000-plus). His private car is a Porsche 911, which he admits, somewhat sheepishly, is just three or four months old.

However, cars are Mr Wilde's passion and he does not have a chauffeur, unlike Sir Clive, to take him on the half-hour trip to Rentokil's headquarters in East Grinstead, Sussex.

"I'm a petrol-head," says Mr Wilde, as if it is a slightly embarrassing admission. "You couldn't name a car I haven't owned."

In his youth, he was able to take a car apart and do his own mechanical work. Now he says, it's just a hobby.

After Whitgift, Mr Wilde became an articled clerk in accountancy. Even at that age, he was determined to be a company director.

"I wanted to go into business. I just wanted to get on with things. I had no desire to go to university," says Mr Wilde.

At the time, becoming an army officer was an established way to become a director but that did not attract him at all. Then, someone pointed out that more directors were accountants than ex-army, and so he went into the profession. But he never qualified. Mr Wilde got his "Part 1" but then became bored. Again he wanted to "get on" with business.

"Accountancy did not excite me very much. At the time maybe it was a bit foolish [to quit] but in the long run it hasn't mattered."

In his early twenties, in 1976, Mr Wilde joined an advertising firm, Charles Barker, though he drifted in and out of this business. In between, he was travelling in Continental Europe, driving and camping, though he denies he ever had a "hippy" period. His name may be Wilde, but he is not, he says firmly.

At Rentokil, the strategy is to grow the business on the Continent. He says his reorganisation of the company along divisional lines is "radical" and will allow greater benchmarking of each activity across countries (Rentokil operates in 40 nations).

Although City analysts worry that the company is vulnerable to continual pricing pressure, which has seen margins eroded every year since 1999, Mr Wilde insists that there are real barriers to competitors wanting to enter its markets. Rentokil's brand and geographical coverage are obvious advantages but he also cites the company's research and development.

This seems surprising. Providing air fresheners and potted plants for offices does not seem an R&D-dependent business but, according to Mr Wilde, Rentokil is a real innovator.

"We do quite a lot of clever things. While it appears simple, there's quite a lot of science involved," he says, pointing to a mouse trap that alerts Rentokil by text message when it has caught something. The company has also developed a robot mop that cleans floors using sensors for guidance, with no human being required.

What of Sir Clive, who has stepped up to be chairman? Surely, after 20 years at the company, he cannot have really let go of the reins?

Mr Wilde says: "My relationship with him is good. He does not get involved in the daily running of the business. The main difference between him and me is that I'm an operator. I'm far closer to the business."


Position: Chief executive, Rentokil Initial

Age: 50

Salary and bonus (2002): £482,000

Career: 1971 - 1976: John M Winter Chartered Accountants. 1976 - 1980: Charles Barker ABH Advertising Agency. 1980 - 1993: Academy Cleaning, which became Securiguard in 1986. Various senior management roles including MD, FD, president (US), director plc board. 1993 to date: Rentokil. Securiguard was taken over by Rentokil. Continued career within Rentokil as: divisional managing director, regional managing director, development director, chief executive designate (with effect from 2002), chief executive (with effect from January 2003)

Interests: Cars