Lucas looks to recover spark: City hopes new chief will inspire revival

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The Independent Online
TOMORROW, George Simpson will make his first public appearance as chief executive of Lucas, the accident-prone engineering group he joined in May. The City, which has a fund of goodwill towards him following his fault-free round at Rover, is hoping he will be able to work the same magic at Lucas.

Analysts feel he has a good chance. The company's products are excellent. They say that all it needs is a bit of rigorous management.

Opinion is divided on whether he will announce radical changes. Lucas's shares fell by 10p to 172p on Friday, as the market decided he would announce a bumper provision - perhaps as much as pounds 100m - to cover closures and redundancies, and perhaps even a rights issue.

They then recovered to 177p, as the consensus that the pruning would be less radical reasserted itself. Nevertheless, it is likely that Mr Simpson will announce further disposals; Lucas still has many companies that do not fit into his master plan.

Analysts believe pre-tax profit will be between pounds 60m and pounds 80m, although it is the provisions - anything from nil to pounds 100m - that have kept them guessing. As well as restructuring costs, Lucas will probably have to set money aside to pay a fine from the US government. Last year, the FBI raided its Utah gearbox factory and found changes had been made to specifications without permission. A purge of the US management followed, but the financial chickens have yet to arrive at their roosts.

Mr Simpson, a plain-speaking Scot, is said to have been shocked by the baronial structure and poor financial control of the group. He has already remoulded the executive, dividing the company into six businesses, and brought the four automotive activities under his direct control. He is dismantling one of the group's three legs - applied technology - and bringing the group back towards its original habitat, the motor industry.

But the best present the new chief executive can give Lucas is a dose of good luck. He was widely credited with masterminding the turnround at Rover, but his real master stroke was being at the top just as changes made by his predecessors finally fed through into the public consciousness and the bottom line.

By contrast Sir Tony Gill, who has run Lucas since 1984 and is now standing down, did many of the right things but will be remembered mainly as the man who failed to cut back hard enough during the recession and escaped takeover by the skin of his teeth.

Under Sir Tony, Lucas seemed accident-prone. The Utah affair was its second recent brush with the US authorities: in May it pleaded guilty to falsifying tests of missile launchers. Sir Tony had previously lost both his finance director and his designated successor in the same year, while his attempts to storm the antilock braking and petrol-injection markets ended in failure.

A more balanced historian would point out, however, that he oversaw Lucas's transformation from a low-tech car components business to a world leader in several high-tech fields. It is the biggest producer of flight- control systems, aero engine systems and car disc brakes. A refusal to cut development spending in the recession means it is still producing potential new stars - such as electronic power steering.

The old management also started, if rather late, to focus the group more carefully. Since 1992, Lucas has raised pounds 70m through disposals. Productivity has finally started to improve rapidly, though again there is a question as to why this has taken so long. The group was one of the first British companies to install Japanese-style manufacturing systems, converting its factories to team working from the mid-1980s.

Nick Cunningham, an analyst with BZW, believes the baronial structure enabled managers to waste such advantages, and that financial monitoring was not rigorous enough to pick this up. 'Plant by plant they were really achieving things, but they did not have proper controls to make them perform,' he said. Now financial systems are in place, 'it shouldn't be that difficult to extract more profit'.

Lucas is not the bid target it was, but is still on the City's watch list. Its name has been linked with T&N and TI, and GKN, BTR or some foreign giants might also find the group attractive. But Mr Cunningham feels that investors believe in its potential - and are unlikely to go for anything less than a knockout cash bid.