Business healers under spotlight

Company doctors are well paid, but many of their patients never recover. David Hellier reports
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The Independent Online
WHEN Raine, the ailing house-builder and construction group, announced last week that Roy Barber, the "company doctor", would take over running the group, its shares rose nearly 15 per cent to 31.5p.

Company doctors - not the medical variety - are peripatetic managers who make a career of turning round sick companies. They are installed at the request of bankers or shareholders and rarely stay in any job for longer than 18 months.

If they get things right, they build enviable reputations and are constantly in demand. Simply by arriving at a company, they can boost the share price and restore confidence. But critics say they often act more like undertakers than lifesavers.

Mr Barber, a former Price Waterhouse accountant, is one of a small number of high-profile company doctors. Others are David James, chairman of the LEP group and Eagle Trust; Eugene Anderson, the former chairman of Ferranti International, the defence company; and Sir Lewis Robertson, chairman of the Stakis hotels group.

The uplift in the Raine share price perhaps had less to do with Mr Barber than the perception that the removal of Peter Parkin, the chief executive, might steady the group after a string of unsuccessful acquisitions.

"I can't say I've ever heard of him, but if he's been instrumental in removing Mr Parkin then he can't be a bad thing for the share price," says Scott Fulton, who tracks the company for Smith New Court.

Others, though, might remember Mr Barber from two recent case histories, in which companies doctored by him ended up in receivership, leaving shareholders with nothing.

The most controversial of Mr Barber's assignments is as company doctor to Astra Holdings, the defence company that in recent weeks has been making headlines through its association with Jonathan Aitken, a former director of one of its subsidiaries that is alleged to have shipped naval guns to Iran via Singapore in breach of the UN embargo.

Not all are happy with Mr Barber's performance there. One former shareholder said of him: "He behaved more like an undertaker than a builder of businesses when he was at Astra."

One of Mr Barber's first acts as chairman of Astra was to call for a Department of Trade and Industry inquiry into the company - which some saw as a strange way to try to enhance shareholders' value in the company.

The report, which cost £2.2m to put together, duly criticised the former management of the company and its former advisers, but can hardly be said to have made a recovery easier to achieve.

Mr Barber paid himself £100,000 or so during his first month at Astra - and a further £332,000 over the next year - was still with the company two years later when it went into receivership.

He also acted as a company doctor for about 18 months to Bimec, a waste management and aerospace company. He took over from the flamboyant Sam Smith in 1992, after the company cancelled its final dividend because of a sharp deterioration in trading.

Bimec was forced to call in the receivers last April, when the banks refused to grant additional facilities. Supporters of company doctors argue that due to the nature of the work, however, they are bound to be associated with failures.

"It's a very high-risk business,'' says John Jackson, the chairman of Ladbroke and former chairman of Brown and Jackson - the group that owned the Poundstretcher discount stores group, which ran into problems with its bankers and had to be rescued by a South African stores chain, Pepkor.

Mr Jackson, who does not consider himself a company doctor even though some others do, says that in a trading community "we need a good supply of experienced businessmen who are prepared to give a helping hand in difficult situations." He says that company doctors need experience; they need to be unflappable; and they need to think that saving a company is an activity worth engaging in.

One of those company doctors, Sir Lewis Robertson, has set up a group called Postern, which specialises in sending management teams, rather than individuals, into struggling companies.

"We get involved in companies that are really close to the wire," says Trevor Swete, the former Hill Samuel corporate finance director who is now managing director of Postern. "We try to help companies avoid going in to receivership, because there is usually a 40 per cent reduction in value afterwards."

Postern has been involved in sending management teams into a number of companies, including Starmin, MTM and Allied Leisure.

Mr Swete says that despite the economic recovery, Postern is busier than ever, partly because banks are increasingly prone to keeping companies alive rather than putting them into receivership.

In addition to its weekly fees, Postern charges a success fee, which is directly related to any enhancement it achieves in shareholder value.

In the meantime, shareholders in Raine must be hoping that Mr Barber really is going to provide the safe and steady management they are waiting for.

In this business, reputation is all. Mr Barber made his reputation in the late 1980s, when, as chairman of Aberdeen Construction, he restructured it sufficently to attract a £61m bid from, of all companies, Raine. Now, after a couple of failures, Mr Barber needs a success almost as much as do Raine's long-suffering shareholders.