Richard Cousins: The reluctant batsman who's stepped out to face the French

Chief executive of BPB
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Richard Cousins was trying yet again to explain a cricket reference to his French managers on a visit, this week, to BPB's giant plasterboard factory just outside Paris. There is clearly good chemistry between the company's chief executive and his French top brass but they can only shrug at the talk of cricket, even when Mr Cousins points out that the veteran Australian player-turned-commentator, Richie Benaud, is president of the French cricket association.

Appropriately enough, Mr Cousins, a cricket fanatic, was watching England play Australia at Lord's in July, in the first Test of the epic Ashes series, when he received a call informing him that France's Saint-Gobain, the building-materials giant, had publicly declared its interest in buying BPB.

That interest has been turned into a £3.7bn hostile bid, but Mr Cousins, who has been gaining a loyal following in the City, is not relishing the limelight. "I haven't really enjoyed it [defending against the bid]. People like me are designed to run businesses, not run campaigns like this," he says.

To some extent, he blames himself for the situation. If BPB's shares had been more highly rated, it would not have presented such a tempting target for the French predators. Under Mr Cousins, City analysts believe the company's performance and future growth prospects have been transformed. It has just re-entered the FTSE 100 for the first time in 14 years. But the story was never properly sold to investors, by his own admission.

Mr Cousins says: "We have not been shouting about it [the company]. Maybe we should have shouted loudly.... In our Day 14 [defence document] we recognised that we have not shouted loud enough."

City analysts agree that Mr Cousins (and the finance director Paul Hollingworth) had been too conservative in their presentation. His style of under-promising and over-delivering and allowing the results "to speak for themselves" has meant that investors had not come to a full appreciation of the attractions of a company operating in the deeply unglamorous world of plasterboard. Mr Cousins is clearly worried that Saint-Gobain could yet end up getting the business on the cheap - though he sees no prospect of that at the current 720p-a-share offer price. "This is a distraction we could have done without. We feel that we are on the road to becoming a great business."

Mr Cousins reckons he is having to spend "95 per cent" of his time on the defence. But he insists there will be no changes in strategy to see off the bid. He says the business is so simple - making plasterboard and plaster - that there is no scope for "white rabbits to be pulled out of a hat".

He announced a £350m return of capital to investors after the bid emerged - that figure may well be raised next week - but Mr Cousins insists he had been planning the move "for months".

It was Mr Cousins, the chief executive since 2000, who has created the group's simplicity and focus. BPB, based in Slough, used to have a strategy of diversifying by buying businesses in allied sectors. Under him, it has sold most of these peripheral divisions, such as its paper mills, and concentrated on making plasterboard and plaster. Unusually for a hostile takeover, Saint-Gobain has made clear that it respects the BPB management, so there has been no personalised mud-slinging going on - Saint-Gobain remains BPB's customer in France.

"We would sooner invest in Indian plasterboard than in diversification in our own backyard. That illustrates how we have grown up as a company. We now have the confidence to grow [plasterboard] in all parts of the world," he says.

Mr Cousins has added plasterboard businesses in the US, to become the No 3 player there, and expanded into emerging markets, including China and India. He is also eyeing an entry to Russia. BPB is global leader for the manufacture of plasterboard - one in five plasterboards is made by the company. To keep up with the opportunities, Mr Cousins spends two days a week travelling, taking about 100 flights a year. He says: "For the next 20 years there is going to be high growth in this market."

It is that growth story which makes BPB so attractive for Saint-Gobain and why Mr Cousins is determined that his company will not go quietly: "At this price our resistance is total." He says that, unlike the many other UK building-materials companies bought in recent years - Blue Circle, RMC and Aggregate Industries among them - BPB is "unique" in offering growth of 5 to 6 per cent a year. That is because use of plasterboard is booming worldwide, further fuelled by BPB creating new types of the product.

The company plans to spend more than £1bn over the next four years on building factories in what Mr Cousins calls "an exciting but low-risk" capital expenditure programme.

"Due to the fact that there has been no personal hostility [from the bid], some people say 'this is very friendly, you're keen to be taken over'. But that is certainly not the case."

He says he has received "excellent" support from shareholders, including some hedge funds, for sending Saint-Gobain away. He describes the French company as a "conglomerate, with poor growth and asbestos [liabilities]".

The fact that personalities are not involved - the bid is essentially a dry argument over valuation - suits Mr Cousins. Those who know him say he has ananalytical approach (he has a maths degree). He has a direct, no-nonsense style, without the pomp and "ego-issues" that surround many a chief executive. He is said to be a good listener, good at getting ideas out of colleagues and is able to keep meetings short. "We do not want to sell this business," he says. "We would only recommend [the bid] if Saint-Gobain table a bloody big number.... A fight like this you can only have if you believe in it. And I passionately believe in it."

Age: 46.

Pay: £1.1m last year, including bonus.

Education: Born in Yorkshire but went to school in Bracknell, Berkshire. Took BSc in mathematics at the University of Sheffield, followed by MA in Operational Research at Lancaster.

Career: Began at Cadbury Schweppes as a market researcher. Went on to BTR, the engineering group, to work on strategy planning. Joined BPB in 1990, working in the UK before being sent to run its Canadian business. Made chief executive in 2000.

Family: Lives with wife and two sons in the Chilterns.

Interests: Watching and playing cricket (batting average 18 for a club side).