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Making music bringing firms back from brink

THE TUESDAY INTERVIEW: Daivd James; Dear doctor: Nigel Cope talks to the top corporate `troubleshooter' recently hired to rescue Sears' struggling shoe division
Attempting to arrange an interview with David James, the corporate rescue specialist, is a complicated procedure.

The "company doctor", who was hired by Sears last week to sort out its loss-making shoe division, has a schedule so packed that even though he works an 80-hour week it has to operate with almost military precision.

"I can do something on Thursday evening, but it would have to be after 7pm. Or it will have to be on Friday later morning because I have meetings all afternoon. Then I'm out of the country for two weeks in Thailand and Australia."

Though he does not officially start at British Shoe Corporation until 19 May he has already travelled to the group's Leicester head office to meet managers and ensure the recovery programme is making progress while he is away. Managers have been told to re-examine budgets and be prepared for a "brainstorming session" when Mr James jets in.

"I am adamant that the business should not just tread water while this programme takes place," he says.

It is a strict, no-nonsense approach that has earned him the reputation as one of Britain's top corporate "troubleshooters" along with Lewis Macpherson who was parachuted into Stakis, the hotels group and Ken Scobie who was brought in at Brent Walker.

A former director of Ford Motor Company, it was a year spent with Kenneth Cork at Cork Gully, the insolvency experts in the 1970s, that persuaded Mr James to devote his career to rescue situations. Since setting up his own consultancy in 1981 his projects have included Eagle Trust, LEP group and Davies & Newman, the holding company of the Dan Air airline.

From his small office near Victoria where he operates with a tiny staff he claims to have secured 23,000 jobs and repaid a total of pounds 850m bank debt.

Yet at 59 he still finds each fresh project an exciting challenge. "I get a buzz every time and I love the learning curve. I had assumed that as I approached 60, then that might be an appropriate time to start to wind down. But it hasn't worked out that way."

He finds now that he is more likely to be called in by frustrated institutional investors rather than the banks.

Under his 12-month flat-fee contract with Sears he expects to devote half his time to the British Shoe project. The other half is spent on his non-executive directors shops at Visual Action Holdings, one of the former Eagle Trust subsidiaries, and he still does consultancy work for Lloyd's of London.

His approach to the British Shoe job is typical of his methods. "I was asked to do the job about three weeks ago. I said I would not give them an answer until I'd seen the business and formed a view.

"I put in about a week and Sears gave me comprehensive access and allowed two finance people to take time to brief me fully."

British Shoe is certainly a patient worthy of the most able doctor's attention. A long running problem, the previous management had shrunk the chain from 14 formats to four. But even with Freeman Hardy Willis, Saxone and Manfield gone, some of the remainder have also run into trouble.

While Dolcis and Cable & Co are trading well, the self-service Shoe Express chain and the out of-town-Shoe City format are both struggling. British Shoe made losses of pounds 9m last year compared with a pounds 7.5m profit in 1995.

But Mr James has already drafted a four-point plan for the rescue. The first will see the re-grooming of the BSC group with the view to selling it as a whole to a single bidder.

He has asked the managing director of each trading format to "revisit" the business plan for the year and submit year-end forecasts for profits and cash flow together with estimates of the next two financial years.

Each director has also been asked to submit a strategy for regenerating the business together with detailed costings. These will be externally validated by Price Waterhouse.

Mr James has also appointed JP Morgan, the merchant bank, to examine the feasibility of selling the whole group or attracting new investors.

Data rooms will be set up in New York and Hong Kong as well as London. "I think the appetite from overseas might have been under-estimated," Mr James said.

If the business cannot be sold as a single entity Mr James plans to devote special attention to solving the problems at Shoe City and Shoe Express.

This could see Dolcis and Cable & Co sold separately or merged into one of the fashion businesses such as Warehouse or Wallis to make them more attractive. The final phase is to tidy up residual matters such as the property portfolio.

"I never work on the basis of having only a single route [to resolve the problems.] One needs to have flexibility."

He says that the outlook for the 10,000 jobs in the shoe shops should be "pretty positive". However, there may be more uncertainty over the 450 head office jobs and possibly the 100 positions at the central distribution centre which is also in Leicester.

The project promises to be hard work and though Sears has not disclosed the fee, rumours suggest it will be in the region of pounds 500,000-pounds 700,000. "I will not disclose my fee but if Sears chooses to do so then that is fine by me," he says.

"Of course, it can be a dangerous business as corporate troubleshooter. I often have to make decisions which are unpopular with staff." Past projects have seen him in the midst of spanner-wielding employees on the factory floor. On one job his head office was stoned.

One also wonders if, given his long hours, he ever gets enough time to spend any of his hard-earned proceeds. "There is not a great deal of time left over. I still go to a great deal of opera and go to Ascot and Newmarket." For holidays he likes to attend music festivals.

Music is a passion. He is chairman of the English Symphony Orchestra and has created his own charity to foster interest in composition and the commissioning or works from established UK composers.

The packed portfolio means there was never time for marriage and at nearly 60 he is still single. "I literally never found the time. This business is death to relationships."

Career File May 97 - current British Shoe Corporation, chairman 1989 - current Eagle Trust, chairman and chief executive 1990 - current Visual Action Hldgs, non-exec director 1993-96 Lloyds of London, external member of council, chairman capital structure committee. 1992-96 LEP Group, chairman 1990-92 Davies & Newman (holding company, Dan-Air), chairman 1987-90 North Sea Assets, dep chairman 1984-87 Central & Sheerwood, chairman Others: Rank Organisation (managing director), Ford Motor Company, Lloyds Bank.