Mr Fixit rolls up his sleeves

Self-confidence has been the key to success for the new managing director of ailing Inchcape, writes Patrick Hosking, and he will need plenty of it in future
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PHILIP CUSHING gives the impression of being a man with no doubts. To every question he provides a fluent, cogent response. He prods the air with stubby fingers to emphasise his well-argued points. Here is a man certain of his own worth, you think, and confident of his ability to fix what's broken.

No wonder he appeals to Inchcape, a company battered by the uncertainties of trading in the real world and bruised by unexpected currency movements. Earlier this month, Cushing was promoted to managing director of the international services and marketing group, best known for importing and distibuting cars. Unless he blots his copybook, he will almost certainly be the next chief executive.

The confidence has always been there. Contemporaries at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took a first in economics, remember him as cocky. "He knew he was bright, and he let everyone know it," recalls one. "He was a bit of a bighead. He enjoyed ruffling people and winding them up."

Cushing stood out then. It was the idealistic post-Woodstock era. While fellow undergraduates pondered careers in social work and teaching, Cushing knew he wanted to go into business. While others joined radical protest marches, Cushing opined that the lecturers were too left-wing. While others spread their wings, Cushing celebrated his final term by getting married, aged 22.

Now 44, he appears just as confident, just as single-minded, just as devoid of doubts about how to cure Inchcape's ills. "This isn't rocket science. What it needs is concentration, focus and follow-through."

He is relaxed about the timing of his appointment, coming shortly after the company's second profits warning in January, and three weeks before its third, last Monday. "It's a good opportunity in the sense that the company is going to go through a difficult period and we need to focus our efforts on making sure it gets through it as fast and healthily as possible."

Inchcape is the incredible shrinking company. Its shares a year ago were trading above 600p and it had a stock-market value of £3bn. Today the shares are languishing below 300p and the company is worth just £1.6bn. Any further decline and it will be kicked out of the Footsie, the exclusive club of Britain's hundred biggest quoted companies.

More humiliating still, the international trading group is now being mooted as a possible takeover target, with Jardine Matheson, its Hong Kong-based rival, in the frame as predator. The main problem has been the strengthening yen, which has made it harder to sell Japanese cars, Inchcape's biggest business, overseas. Weak demand in continental Europe and Hong Kong has exacerbated the problem.

But there are wider concerns. Sir David Plastow and Charles Mackay, chairman and chief executive respectively, have failed to deliver, say critics of the company. According to Tim Harris, an analyst with Panmure Gordon, the share price fall reflects a crisis of confidence in the management . He welcomes the appointment of Cushing: "Hopefully he'll be a breath of fresh air. Services [the division he formerly headed] has had a good performance. His record speaks for itself."

Mackay is equally impressed with his heir-apparent: "He's a very, very competent manager. He's highly organised."

Cushing's job will be to handle the day-to-day running of the group, while Mackay attends to strategy. His priorities will be to cut Inchcape's mushrooming working capital - it has a horrendous £1.1bn of cars on its books at present - reduce overheads and squeeze more out of the marketing spend.

He denies he has been appointed to take the axe to Inchcape's 49,000 staff. "I don't really see myself as a hatchet-man, but in a particular business situation you have to do what has to be done. You have to be very single-minded. There have been and there will continue to be job reductions."

According to Alexander Dyer, chairman of Bunzl, who recruited him as a non-executive director there, "He's definitely a change agent. He's not going to accept the status quo."

Cushing is a relative newcomer to Inchcape. He was head-hunted in 1990 to run its quoted Singapore operation, Inchcape Berhad. After two years he was brought back to London as a main board director with responsibility for testing services, shipping services and buying services worldwide.

Later he added the marketing division to his responsibilities, spearheading the drive of Coca-Cola into Russia and the push of the Timberland footwear brand in the Asia Pacific region.

He personally escaped the worst of the impact of Inchcape's share price collapse. He cashed in the bulk of his 114,610 share options at the share price peak in 1993, making a profit of more than £2 a share. Analysts estimate his new salary will be around £300,000.

According to Mackay, Cushing's elevation to MD was not the result of any recent institutional pressure but the carefully planned result of a process begun last year. But it certainly comes at a timely moment for the beleaguered board. [The nomination committee that appointed Cushing includes Peter Baring, a man with troubles of his own]

Cushing spent most of his thirties at Norton Opax, the fast-growing Leeds- based printing group. He still spends weekends at his Harrogate home with his Swedish wife, Margareta. They have a son and a daughter, both at university.

He was a main board director at Norton Opax and ran the overseas operations. His boss then was Richard Hanwell, who now chairs Farnell Electronics. Hanwell said: "He was an exciting guy to work with. He's got a high intellect. He's competitive and with that comes a certain tenacity. He also has a great capacity to shift work."

When Cushing joined, Norton Opax was small, with a stock-market value of just £15m. Five years later, Bowater bought out the company for £380m with a hostile bid. "It was a period of tremendous growth in an industry which was rationalising fast," Cushing recalls. "We did very well."

Not everyone shares that verdict, however. The company's growth was fuelled almost entirely by large share issues to make acquisitions. Bowater accused the company of "a series of U-turns and failures".

After Norton Opax, Cushing toyed with the idea of going into business for himself. He looked at a couple of management buy-ins in the printing and packaging industry, but finally walked away. Anyway, by this time Inchcape was knocking on his door.

Philip Edward Cushing was born in London, the son of a bank manager. It was a stable childhood. For his first 19 years the family lived in the same house at Southgate. At Highgate School, he specialised in sciences, but regretted it. "I recognised I was only ever going to be an average scientist." He was a keen sportsman, and now enjoys squash, and golf with a 7 handicap.

After Cambridge he joined the mini-conglomerate Norcros as a graduate trainee. He started as a salesman selling print to the advertising industry and recalls the feeling of achievement when six juggernauts drew up outside the factory to fulfil the order he clinched.

His advice to budding salesmen is succinct. "Work hard, keep quiet, let the customer talk himself into giving you the order. Silence is a very powerful selling tool."

By the age of 28 he was marketing manager, reporting directly to the board. It was time to move on. He started a new subsidiary for the Danish group Lego, selling signs for public buildings. After five years the business was turning over £4m. Then came Norton Opax.

The task ahead is his greatest challenge yet. Inchcape operates in more than a hundred countries and almost as many industries. His recipe for success: "Make complex situations simple. Distil things down to a relatively small number of things that drive profits and shareholder value, then stick to them through thick and thin."

Sage advice. Whether it will help Cushing to solve Inchcape's deep-rooted problems is another matter.