City & Business: The new boys who cut above the rest

We live in interesting times, as the Chinese saying goes. Some of Britain's largest companies are in the hands of relative newcomers - in many cases outsiders - and all seem committed, at least in principle, to the management common denominator of the 1990s: focus.

What this means in practice can vary wildly. In the case of ICI, it has been a shift away from its traditional commodity chemicals business and towards niche chemicals - via two big deals which have changed the shape of the company. For Hanson, it has been an unrewarding break-up. For Williams, which was among the earliest to tout the concept of shareholder value, it has been a gradual unwinding of the conglomerate into security and fire protection.

Yet there are more companies which have yet to complete - or in some cases start - their shedding of peripheral items. The list includes some household names of the 1980s: Pearson, Rank, BTR, and GEC.

All have been characterised by the kind of share price underperformance - in some cases as much as 40 per cent compared to the FTSE-100 index - that will have put any fund manager with an overweight position in those stocks out of a job. All are under new, or relatively new, management. Great things are expected; so great that the companies cannot decide what to do yet for fear of disappointing expectations.

Of these, BTR's case will perhaps be the most interesting in the coming weeks. It has disposed of some of its more obviously unfocused candidates like Tilcon, the US aggregates business, which made a prize buy for CRH, the Irish building materials company. Next week investors will be hoping for more than just the standard paint-by-numbers comments to accompany BTR's results. They are likely to be disappointed both by the figures and the lack of bold statements, but probably not for long.

Ian Strachan, the chief executive of 18 months, is putting the finishing touches to his plans and appears to have won the battle against breaking the conglomerate up entirely. While some analysts have pressed for that kind of radical change, it would doubtless benefit only the pockets of the legion of advisers required to complete such a complex task, and leave the shareholders no better off than they are currently.

Instead Strachan's aim will be to shape a coherent set of engineering and automotive businesses out of BTR. There are to be no sacred cows. He will be joined next March by a new chairman, Bob Bauman, who comes with a pedigree of company reshaping and does not have any qualms about making hard decisions. Together they will bring some much-needed vigour to the group. So far investors have been sanguine about the poor share price performance, but this cannot last for long. The chief executives of the other companies waiting for surgery will be watching the operation with interest.

Happy hour for unions

Next week's TUC conference will contain rhetoric more suited to a management consultant's report than a mass meeting in the car park. There will be talk of "partnerships" with business, and some speakers may even get carried away and go into the full canon of "empowerment", "investment in people", and my personal favourite, "paradigm shift". Leading the pack will be Bill Morris, the influential leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, who in the dispute with British Airways in early summer pioneered the concepts of a "virtual" strike (300 strikers and 3,000 sick notes) and that of a "just-in-time" union - averting further disruption and retaining the moral high ground while negotiations continue.

Some of the delegates will mutter into their beer and sandwiches that this is not the role of unions, and that any talk of partnerships is selling out the cause of the workers, who have not exactly had a great time of it in the downsizing frenzy of recent years. In Morris's case, there is likely to be strenuous lobbying from supporters of the striking Merseyside dockworkers, who claim to have been unfairly sacked from their jobs for not crossing a picket line. So far he and his fellow TGWU executives have steered clear of supporting them, and have come under fire for it.

Unfortunately for the dockworkers, their dispute is not one that is terribly popular with union leaders these days. Morris, and the others, are trying to reshape their unions as a more influential force in the boardroom. To do that they need to be seen to have corporate responsibility, and they must take advantage of a new paradigm - yes, that word again - in the workplace.

Which is this: unions, or any other form of worker representation, are more valuable to British companies today than ever before. Having committed themselves to customer service, companies are now more beholden to their staff actually delivering that service. This is true of those companies that make widgets, but especially important for those whose product is customer service. For the latter any dispute or loss of employee co-operation can have a marked influence on the health of their business, and of their brand name, as BA found out to its cost.

Extending this thought a little further, some brands are judged not just on their commitment to customer service, but how they treat their own employees. Asda and Marks & Spencer have turned this into a corporate virtue, and other organisations have attempted to follow suit.

This is not to say that such companies will never again experience industrial disputes. The annual survey of industrial relations published last week by law firm Dibb Lupton Alsop warns that the incidence of industrial disputes will increase in the next year, and that they will be focused more on the service sector.

But it means that the union-management relationship has value again for both sides, after years of confrontation and differing priorities. A company that can find a good working relationship with its employees is in a better position to compete. One that does not, will suffer. The challenge for the TUC delegates will be to turn this windfall of power into responsible behaviour.