Tim Melville-Ross: Former IOD chief steers a confident course for iconic black cab firm

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The Independent Online

Tim Melville-Ross was not supposed to wake up in Suffolk this morning. The former head of the Institute of Directors has just two hours to get his black-taxi hat firmly screwed on and get down to London where his presence is required in his capacity as the chairman of Manganese Bronze, the iconic cab maker that is, by default, Britain's biggest car manufacturer.

By choice, Mr Melville-Ross, who is one of the FTSE's busier chairmen, would have had a later start, setting out after breakfast from his London pied-a-terre rather than dashing for the train in the dark. But he was late back from a five-day "boys' own expedition" to Wales with his two sons and some family friends, so the train it had to be.

As the figurehead of four companies and the deputy chairman of another, life for Mr Melville-Ross is a constant juggling act. Since his stint at the IOD ended in 1999, Mr Melville-Ross, 62, has been busy amassing a portfolio of directorships. "A friend recently suggested rather a nice formula for a career to me. That as a businessman or woman, your career ought to be divided into three sections: 10 years' learning, 10 years' doing, 10 years' teaching. And that's pretty much what I've done," he says.


A speedy journey gets him to the offices of Financial Dynamics, the public relations agency that looks after Manganese Bronze and DTZ, a property advisory group he also chairs - and just happens also to be where his son, James, works. It's results day for the black cab maker, which normally wouldn't be anything to get overly excited about. But an astonishing recovery in the company's fortunes means investors have been doing just that over the past two months. Since August, the group's shares have more than doubled - as rumours that the group was on the verge of pulling off a long-anticipated deal to crack the Chinese market were finally borne out. The £53m joint venture with China's Geely Automobile Holdings will slash the company's manufacturing costs, safeguarding the future of its Coventry plant and putting black taxi cabs on to the streets of Shanghai and beyond for the first time.


The analysts' meeting is packed, a first for Manganese Bronze, which has spent the past few years struggling to navigate its way back to profitability. It threatened to lose its way three years ago when Mr Melville-Ross's predecessor, Jamie Borwick, reappeared to try to buy back the 60 per cent of the company his family did not own. The company's directors turned off the yellow "taxi available" sign and the Borwicks eventually sold up, ending more than 40 years' history with the company.

But today isn't about the group's past. Nor even China, despite the importance of the Geely deal. Today the iconic cab maker is unveiling its first new model in four years. And so, with the analysts duly dispatched, Mr Melville-Ross jumps in "surprise, surprise, a taxi" and heads off to Lord's cricket ground where a bevy of motoring journalists have gathered for the big event. (And yes, it had to be a black cab; minicabs are very much non grata in Mr Melville-Ross's world. "I like to carry out some market research and ask drivers what they think. Very occasionally, I get my ear bent dreadfully!")


In the confines of the Nursery Pavilion, Mr Melville-Ross and the media throng are treated to a taxi history lesson and shown two loud and brash films about the black cabs. It was left to the managing director of LTI, its black cab subsidiary, to fly the British flag for the company that has been the UK's biggest car maker since the demise of Rover. The British symbolism was hammered home when four curtains fell to reveal four models of the new vehicle - one in each of black, red, white and blue.

To the taxi-taking public, the new model looks much like the curvy, old one, although the company's chairman says that the TX4's better suspension makes London's many potholes and speed-bumps less uncomfortable to negotiate while on the phone. But taxi geeks out there and green-minded passengers will like the fact that it complies with the latest carbon-emissions standard, which all of London's 17,000 black cabs are expected to meet in less than two years' time.


It's wall-to-wall Manganese Bronze for Mr Melville-Ross today, as it has been for quite some time. He says that once things have "settled down and we've got all of our ducks in a row", things will return to normal, with the company taking up perhaps 20 per cent of his time rather than the 80 per cent it has of late. That this is even an issue has led to some criticisms that the former IOD boss has taken on too much - a charge he is at pains to rebut.

"Unless you have a reasonable-sized portfolio as a chairman, how can you have that breadth and experience from which you can draw the sort of ideas and suggestions that you can put to chief executives who don't have that experience and who are asking you for advice?"

The extent of Mr Melville-Ross's portfolio reflects his career. Unusually for someone who has amassed a lot of public sector experience in education (he chairs the council of Essex University), he opted not to take up a place to study history at Cambridge, one of his biggest regrets. Instead, he cut his teeth in business and finance on a sandwich course run by BP, for whom he worked in Libya during the September 1969 revolution that brought Gaddafi to power, before quitting to join one of the City stockbroking firms long since swallowed up. From there, he answered an FT advertisement to become company secretary at Nationwide, the building society that he went on to run aged 40. Hence he also chairs Bovis, the housebuilder, and the mini Dutch investment bank Insinger de Beaufort.

He takes lunch on the run, and is seen leaving Lord's with a biscuit between his teeth, before getting into the TX4 that will ferry him to three back-to-back investor meetings.


First up is Gartmore, followed at 3.15pm by M&G and then Hermes at 4.30pm. China is the main topic of discussion: it is not a done deal with Geely until Manganese Bronze's shareholders agree to be diluted in a huge issue of new shares. Mr Melville-Ross's enthusiasm for the company and its prospects make it hard for investors to dissent. He won't put words into their mouths but is "confident" of their support.

Looking back on his time at the IOD, Mr Melville-Ross seems to lament not making more of his renowned geniality to come down harder on some of the more controversial issues in business. Take executive pay. He regards as a "personal failure" the fact that he did not make more of an issue about the "disproportionately high rewards that go to people who don't deserve them". And he isn't just talking about rewards for failure. "I'm talking about extremely high reward packages for people running organisations which actually in the overall scheme of things are not that difficult to run."


With the meetings done and dusted, there is just time to catch up on some paperwork from his London base in DTZ's Mayfair headquarters. His wife is back in Suffolk, leaving him the evening clear to tackle some of his other companies - and maybe even some of Mozart's Women, the new biography by Jane Glover that he has just started.