The Interview: A cool customer with a track record of giving a warm feeling to shareholders

Anthony Habgood, Chairman-elect, Whitbread

Anthony Habgood is in the middle of one of the more entertaining boardroom dramas playing out in the press at the moment: who should be given the highly coveted chairmanship of Marks & Spencer?

As an M&S non-executive Mr Habgood, the outgoing executive chairman of the wildly successful but often overlooked Bunzl, is one of the store chain's directors charged with deciding whether to reappoint the incumbent - a clearly ambitious Paul Myners, the hyperactive chairman of Guardian Media Group - or find someone new who isn't perhaps quite so close to M&S's chief executive, Stuart Rose.

It has not, however, escaped the notice of a number of M&S shareholders, and fellow board members, that Mr Habgood displays all the right qualities to take on the job: vast experience, huge success and an unusual amount of modesty. But annoyingly for his fans, he recently announced plans to become chairman of another FTSE 100 company, the venerable Whitbread.

So does the chairman of M&S need to be focused pretty much on that job alone, in terms of boardroom roles, or could they afford to flit between, say, two or three? "Bigger, more complex companies obviously take more time. I would not expect the chairmanship of Whitbread to take more than a day or two a week. I think the chairmanship of a company like M&S would take more time than that," Mr Habgood says.

So is that a sign that Mr Myners should start to lower his expectations?

"I'm not going to comment on that, as you would expect. When I joined, Paul Myners was interim chairman, and M&S is in the process of deciding who should be chairman going forward."

M&S and Whitbread certainly stand to benefit from Mr Habgood's presence in their boardrooms. A former management consultant, he made the switch to the real world in the late Eighties, becoming chief executive of Tootal, the textiles group acquired in an expensive hostile bid by Sir David Alliance's Coats Viyella.

In 1991 he joined Bunzl, a company that even today not many people have heard of. Yet in his 14 years at the helm he has transformed it from a hotchpotch conglomerate into a lean, high-performance stock market star even though its core businesses remain seemingly mundane.

After a series of disposals, its main operations are in the modish sector of outsourcing. Bunzl supplies all the bits and pieces that trades such as catering, hospitality and retail need but can't source efficiently themselves - stuff such as plastic bags, trays and cups.

The other distinct part is Filtrona, a smaller business than outsourcing but fast growing. It is a fibre and plastics technology products company that makes, among other things, cigarette filters.

But Mr Habgood has made his changes incrementally. He is one of the stock market's tortoises rather than hares. No big headline-grabbing acquisitions, no drama and absolutely no profits warnings.

"The style has been incremental and we've multiplied value by seven or eight times from a company worth £300m or so when I arrived to something like £2.4bn." This is his modesty kicking in. Earnings per share were 1p when he arrived and are now 34.4p. Sales were £500m and have since risen to £2.9bn.

Mr Habgood is now demerging Bunzl, spinning off Filtrona as a stand-alone company while giving up his full-time executive role to become part-time chairman, alongside his new Whitbread chairmanship and seat on the M&S board.

"The nature of the businesses we started with were very specialist, niche businesses. We had 62 per cent of our sales in the US and the rest in Europe and no single product was common between Europe and North America. It was a real mixture of businesses, from building supplies in Chicago and frozen food in Los Angeles to paper and pulp in New York and flowerpots in Croydon.

"Nowadays, in most of what we do, we are the biggest in the world but although we are a good-sized company we're not a really big company."

The Bunzl trip may not have suited investors keen on the stock market's more extreme sports but those who committed capital have never had cause for complaint. "At any point in time, as you look back, we have created value for our shareholders. They may have been impatient but they have never been hostile. I've never actually detected impatience, by the way."

The demerger was his idea, not - as is so often the case - dictated by frustrated shareholders. His decision to go part-time at Bunzl is another example of keeping destiny in his own hands. "We've developed the business now such that 85 per cent is in the one area [Bunzl] and 15 per cent in a very different area. It doesn't make sense to hold them together."

Despite being executive chairman - a politically very incorrect job title - since 1996, he has never been targeted by those investor groups demanding a separation of the roles.

"I think that one of the issues that has been difficult for business to deal with is that many of these institutions have fund managers who industry see on a very regular basis, but it's become more difficult when those institutions themselves have a different group of people trying to deal with some of these [corporate governance] issues.

"It's difficult for us; they aren't the people we've been talking to, the people who understand the business and the particular issues that any executive is facing. It's difficult for them, they don't know - that is, the people who are asked to tick the boxes or whatever - they inevitably can't and don't know the business issues themselves."

While he's doing his bit to improve relations between the City and business, he admits life is not made any easier for management by the rise of hedge funds, something he saw at M&S last summer.

"I have not noticed that in Bunzl but we've never been in a position that would have provoked a flood of short-term money coming in. But you could clearly see in the M&S situation that hedge funds, or extreme value investors of one sort or another, had a substantial share of the company."

The M&S "situation" was, of course, Philip Green's assault on the retailer when he demanded to be let in to see its books before making up his mind about launching a proper bid. "It's very tricky. A number of people have picked up more recently this business of phantom or virtual bids. It is hard to know what to do with them, as Woolworths has just learnt to its cost. You certainly wouldn't allow a commercial organisation to do it. If another company came along to Bunzl and said, 'Look, if you open your books and let us look at this and this and this then we might bid', I think you would probably say, 'Why don't you bid first then we will worry about it'."

Clearly a calm and self-possessed man, Mr Habgood might appear hard and cold to some. In fact, he has been creating a warm feeling among shareholders for years, which, for investors, is the only thing that counts.

Profile

Pay: £2.8m

Age: 58

Education: Gresham's School, Norfolk, alma mater to WH Auden, Benjamin Britten and James Dyson. Cambridge University (economics degree) and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh (business degree).

Career: 16 years as a management consultant at Boston Consulting Group. Tootal chief executive in 1986. Moved to Bunzl in 1991. Executive chairman role from 1996. He has also been a non-executive at PowerGen and NatWest, and sits on the board of Marks & Spencer. Will become chairman of Whitbread this summer.

Personal: Married with three children. Splits his time between Chelsea and Norfolk.

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