Confessions of a company 'lifer'

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW Gordon Campbell : Head of Courtaulds talks to Tom Stevenson
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Shortly after it was announced that Gordon Campbell was to succeed Sipko Huismans at the top of Courtaulds, he received a call from Harvard University. They were running a two-day course on how to be a chief executive - would he like to enrol? To the amusement of his colleagues - who thought two days was far too long to learn all he would need to know - Mr Campbell signed up right away.

Following in the inimitable footsteps of his larger-than-life predecessor, he was humble enough to admit he could probably do with all the tips he could pick up. The lesson he learnt was not what he expected at all, but a useful one for someone planning the future of a multinational corporation, employing 17,000 staff in 43 countries.

"What I came away with was the overwhelming realisation that my American counterparts were completely driven by the material rewards of their jobs in a way that we in Britain don't approach. We spent most of the two days talking about remuneration."

That he was surprised says a lot about Courtaulds' new chief executive, a self-confessed "lifer" with the chemicals and fibres giant and the antithesis of the flash American corporate big-shot. You do not get to be boss of a company the size of Courtaulds by just being a nice bloke, but the abiding impression given by Mr Campbell is of a chap you wouldn't mind playing 18 holes and having a couple of pints with. His new-found American friends would think him a regular kind of guy, but might question whether he was driven enough to count as one of them.

Get him out on that golf course, however, and it would not take long to understand how the junior production manager, fresh from his Cambridge chemical engineering degree in 1968, came to rise to the top of the only company he has ever worked for while still (just) in his forties. How's his golf? "Pretty good, actually. I played off six when I was at school. I don't really play now, but last week, entertaining some Japanese partners, I came back in 43. I know how to hit a golf ball." Behind the bank manager self-effacement lies someone who knows what he's good at.

His self-confidence is apparently shared in the City, where after nine years on Courtaulds main board, the last two as deputy chief executive, he is well known and respected.

There are likely to be plenty of tough decisions in the coming years to test that assessment. Well-regarded as Mr Huismans was, Mr Campbell's outgoing, confident sports-mad predecessor presided over a period of declining earnings per share and an underperforming share price. There is plenty of hard work to do if the company's undoubted technical excellence and innovation is to be converted into tangible results.

In those circumstances, it is not surprising that there are some who believe Courtaulds might have been better served by an outside appointment. "It is possible to argue it both ways but ultimately I will be judged on my performance. I don't think, however, that you should expect any dramatic change in strategy. I've been on the board since 1987 and if I didn't agree with the strategy, then we should have changed it or I should have departed," says Mr Campbell.

That strategy remains to focus on Courtaulds' three core businesses - coatings and sealants, where it leads the world in marine and yacht paints; polymer products, such as packaging and high tech polyester films; and chemicals and fibres, including Tencel, a new lightweight manmade fibre that has taken Japan and America by storm.

Tucked away in a troubled division that was clobbered last year by wildly fluctuating raw material prices and a demand roller-coaster, it is easy to forget that Tencel is a genuine success story. Based on research carried out in the UK, first commercial production in the US and the development of an initial market in Japan, the new so-called "wonder fibre" has shown that Courtaulds can still produce exciting new products and sell them around the world.

Mr Campbell admits that the biggest challenge is to increase Courtaulds' exposure to the Far East where a target of 25 per cent of group sales by the year 2000 has been set. Managing the move away from a US/Europe based business to a genuine world player, and bringing on the local management to run that global business, will be how Mr Campbell is judged.

He knows that, but also knows the limits to what one man can achieve: "What I have to do is create a style for management that allows people to make their maximum contribution. That means creating the right atmosphere and encouraging everyone I come into contact with to operate that way." If people don't agree with what we are doing they should feel confident enough to speak out."

Will it make a measurable difference? "I am certain we will turn the corner this year. I see signs of it happening but we said all along it would be September before there was a significant improvement in performance. But we do have to deliver a very sharp improvement."

He concludes: "Overall, we have to find the trick of growing the whole of the group, not just some of it, and eliminating other parts. That means everybody must perform, because there is no point holding on to businesses that don't ."It looks like the golf will have to wait.