Pilkington's chief spots window of opportunity

Business Profile: Stuart Chambers has the task of piloting the world's second biggest glassmaker back to financial health
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Stuart Chambers says he is in the business of "transparent climate protection". That's windows to you and me.

As chief executive of Pilkington, the world's number two glassmaker, he is custodian of a corporate heritage that stretches back to 1826 - but whose most recent history has been troubled and whose future is only now starting to look more secure.

On the patio of the group's London office, a bow-fronted late Victorian mansion overlooking Green Park, a relaxed Mr Chambers is trying to be heard above the noise. "They are building a dealing room next door and because you are not allowed to build upwards in these buildings they are having to do it underground. That means they'll need a roof with coated glass to control the sunlight." Will it be Pilkington glass? "That's the plan," he says with a smile.

The development should make a dazzling contrast with Pilkington's own Selwyn House. Though opulent in parts - it has a flat on the top floor where executives can stay over - it feels like care has been lavished only in important areas. Some of the windows are scratched ("in a building like this there are lots of regulations over the type of glass that must be used, and it would be too expensive to replace them").

Furnishings are spartan and the glass tables seem incongruous amid the more traditional décor. The potted bushes on the patio are beautifully shaped, but quite dead.

Mr Chambers is based elsewhere, in Pilkington's heartland of St Helens on Merseyside, so there are normally just four executives rattling about in Selwyn House. "We only lease it and, like every new chief executive, I did all the sums and it will cost us £200,000 more to be based somewhere else, even before buying ourselves out of the lease."

He seems embarrassed by the splendour, as well he might given the savage cost-cutting elsewhere in the organisation over the past few years. Pilkington has slashed its workforce from 39,000 in 1997 to 25,000 today. This giant restructuring is popularly identified as the project of Mr Chambers' predecessor, the charismatic Italian Paolo Scaroni whom he replaced in May 2002. But as head of the building products half of the group, Mr Chambers had plenty of slashing to implement himself.

"This was a company with a great past but perhaps no future. It was about survival. We lost the plot in the Eighties and early Nineties and got way out of line with our competitors. People we had licensed our technology to were running their plants better than we were, and that was unforgivable."

Pilkington had been founded as the St Helens Crown Glass Company in 1826 with one William Pilkington as a major investor, and it continued to be family-owned until flotation in 1970. Its recent launches of self-cleaning, energy-saving and fire-resistant glass are the latest in a corporate tradition of innovation of which Mr Chambers is visibly proud. In the Fifties, Sir Alastair Pilkington invented the float glass manufacturing process which creates smooth sheets by pouring molten glass on to molten tin and which has since become the industry standard. Mr Chambers has pictures from Pilkington's float glass factories on his London office wall - "it beats Monet," he says.

In a parallel universe, Mr Chambers is becoming chief executive of Pilkington this month. Sir Nigel Rudd, the chairman, planned at the start of 2002 to groom him for the post and organise an orderly succession 18 months hence. In the event, the changeover was anything but orderly. In May last year, Mr Scaroni was effectively summoned back to Italy by Silvio Berlusconi, who put his name forward to run the Italian super-utility Enel. Within hours of his boss's resignation, Mr Chambers had accepted the post. "It all happened very suddenly. Sir Nigel did a ring round of the board who decided they would live with it, it was the lowest risk, and by 6 o'clock I had been asked. I phoned my wife, Nicky, to say she ought to know that it would involve substantial travel, but she just said, 'so what's new?'."

He says he could not thrive without Nicky running the household in St Helens. A former manager for the Threshers off licence chain, she gave up her career on the birth of the first of their three children 16 years ago. "She looks after everything to do with the house, the bank account, the bills. I've not even been shown the plans for our new garage, and that suits me down to the ground. I don't know what would happen if she went back to work. She's mentioned it a few times. I'm not going to bring it up."

Mr Chambers grew up in Asia as the family followed his father around various engineering posts in Singapore and Sri Lanka, though he returned to the UK aged 16 to finish his education. He is one of the men from Mars who sometimes appear to have taken over UK plc. At the family-owned confectionery and pet food giant, he worked alongside Paul Mason, later chief executive of Matalan, selling Mars products to the big supermarket chains.

Readers can make their own minds up about his "work-life balance" as chief executive of Pilkington. He says: "I very, very rarely don't take my holidays. We try to take a two-week break in August and you can do a fairly effective job with email. There have only been two occasions in the past year when I have had to fly back in the middle of a holiday."

He is already fantasising about a retirement spent on the Mediterranean, indulging his hobby of sailing - though not the racing of lasers he used to enjoy but for which he is now too old. He has something of a habit of giving up sports. "I played golf, got to a decent handicap and gave it up. I also used to have a pilot's licence but you have to fly five hours a year and I let it lapse. I guess I think, 'been there, done that'."

Let's not over-analyse. He says a chief executive job should be for a term of about five years - board and shareholder approval permitting - so he'll be sticking this out for a bit. His mantra is one of squeezing cash out of the operations. This, he says, is "phase two" of Pilkington's return to health, after the restructuring that cost a fortune in redundancy cheques and left it with too-high debts. "Phase three" of investment in expansion has to wait for a further -improvement in efficiency and an economic upturn.

Mr Chambers has promised all this without a cut in the dividend and his reputation, perhaps even his £521,000 salary, hangs on that 5p. Only when he is able to raise the pay-out, will he finally step out of the long shadow cast by Mr Scaroni.


Position: Chief executive, Pilkington

Age: 47

Pay: £521,000 plus bonus last year of £182,000

Career record: 1977-1988 Shell. Joined as technologist and market analyst and became, in 1986, regional sales manager, retail, in the UK. 1988-1996 Mars. National account manager and then European sales director of Mars International from 1992.

1996-present, Pilkington. Joined as vice president, marketing and business development, and was appointed to the board in 2001. Chief executive from May 2002.

Interests: All sport, especially sailing and tennis