'Mr Smith' gets a new identity

PROFILE : Bill Cockburn After 18 months at the helm of the high- street retailer he's off to BT. But why now? asks Richard Halstead

LIFE can throw up all manner of surprises. Just ask Bill Cockburn, the chief executive of WH Smith, who was, in his own words, "tapped on the shoulder a few weeks ago and offered the job of a lifetime".

The man who did the tapping was British Telecom chief executive Sir Peter Bonfield. The job is to run the core UK telecoms business for BT while Sir Peter and BT chairman Sir Iain Vallance jet around the world trying to sew up a global telecoms company under the banner of Concert. Suddenly, just 18 months after joining WH Smith with the brief of blowing the cobwebs away from that sleepy retail giant, Cockburn is on his way again to an entirely different challenge.

"I suppose this proves you're never the master of your own destiny," he reflects. "I had not given any thought to leaving, but this job is an opportunity that does not come along very often."

This is not the first occasion that fate has intervened in his career. Born in 1943 and the eldest of eight children in a working-class Edinburgh family, Cockburn wanted to join Boots as a trainee but was advised by their personnel department to get a degree first. He thought of going to Heriot-Watt University, but when he went to visit the campus - so the story goes - he found the place closed and instead decided to go to a nearby careers fair. There he saw a recruiter for the Post Office, which was offering starting salaries of pounds 618. "A fortune in those days," says Cockburn.

With his appointment at BT, Cockburn will be returning to an organisation he last worked for in 1971, when telecoms was state-owned and part of the vast Post Office empire. Cockburn was plucked from post office management to become assistant to the then PO chairman Sir William Ryland, at the tender age of 28, to wrestle with the introduction of new technology to a highly bureaucratic organisation. Two years later he moved back to the postal side, rising inexorably through the finance department to become chief executive of the Post Office in 1992.

His time with Sir William had a profound effect on him. "That was a defining moment," he said recently. "There I was with this amazing workaholic at a time of turmoil and change. I learned how to take pressure and to work fast and hard." Ironically, his successor as PA to the chairman , flagged as a "fast track" job, was another Scot, Iain Vallance, who will now be his ultimate boss at BT.

The Ryland method - hard work combined with a disrespect for bureaucracy and the status quo - has been a feature of Cockburn's management style ever since. In his short tenure at WH Smith, Cockburn has torn into the "mediocrity" that he saw suffusing the corporate culture, and has tried to rally the organisation behind the idea that to compete on the high street one cannot just put stuff on shelves and expect punters to buy it.

His actions up until now have been mostly confined to reorganising the company's structure, selling off unwanted parts like the office products company Niceday and extricating Smiths from the disastrous Do-It-All joint venture with Boots at a cost of pounds 50m. He also chopped 14,000 items off the WH Smith stock list, a move designed to restore some retailing sanity to a chain that, unlike its specialist competitors on the high street, still tries to be an "everything" store.

At BT he will focus on making the basic telecoms operations more profitable in the face of increasing competition from other telecoms licence-holders, whom he estimates will number 200 within three years. "Telecoms is really a wonderful business. If you can increase the average utilisation of the phone by a residential customer by just one minute a day, that's pounds 350m on the bottom line of BT. At the moment we use the phone for about 10 minutes a day, about half that of the US. The potential here is amazing if you get the marketing right."

It would appear, then, that Smith's loss is BT's gain. But what becomes of the company he has left behind? According to Smith insiders, feelings are divided within the company over his departure. "There's an element, who I'll call the 'Civil Servants' who are glad to see the back of him, because he was shaking a lot of people out of their cosy little empires," says one senior employee. "And there are others, myself included, who feel a bit let down because the job here is only half-done."

Cockburn acknowledges that those two schools of thought will exist after he is gone, but believes that it will not stop his successor from seeing the WH Smith restructuring strategy through. "Managing change is never a popular thing to do," Cockburn says, "but there is no advantage in looking back. This company has to move forward, and my leaving makes no difference. My successor will have the task of implementing the strategy, particularly when it comes to the core retailing side."

So far no successor has been named, but company sources think it will be an internal candidate, probably finance director Keith Hamill. Cockburn has made his own recommendation, which he will not disclose. However he speaks highly of his newest recruit, Beverley Hodson, who joined the company just four weeks ago as head of retail for Smiths, with the mission of jazzing up the marketing in the core high street stores.

Whoever replaces Cockburn will have their work cut out. WH Smith is expected to report profits for the year just ended of around pounds 125m, in line with analysts' expectations and a far cry from the pounds 200m loss (including exceptional charges of pounds 283m) recorded for 1995. The question on analysts' lips will be whether Cockburn's successor can maintain an improved profits record now that the company has seen the benefits of the financial restructuring and now needs to show organic improvement in the newspapers-and-all retail side.

The other WH Smith divisions, Virgin/Our Price, Waterstones and the US hotels and airports retailing operations have been given much more autonomy and are thriving by all accounts. But sources familiar with the company paint a gloomy picture of the core retail division's prospects unless the marketing side receives some attention. "Smiths is like the Norma Desmond of retailing at the moment," says one retail expert. "It's as if they are living in the silent era when other retailers have moved on to talkies and technicolor. The attitude seems to be: we're still big, it's the high street that got small."

Analysts remain cautious about the company's prospects. "There does not seem to be a sales strategy as such within the main chain," says Tony Shiret, retail analyst at BZW. If anything, Shiret says, Smiths have had it too good for too long. "It still dominates the high street, and the margins are if anything too high for the types of products it sells. If it keeps on its current track, the only way is down."

For Cockburn, WH Smith will all soon be a memory, along with the feeling of running the show. The move to BT effectively puts him out of contention for the top slot there, since both his superiors are his contemporaries in age. But it will be mitigated by the fact that Cockburn is swapping a 36,000 employee company for one employing 120,000. "I enjoy getting involved, and I enjoy motivating people," says Cockburn. "Where better to do that than running a huge organisation like BT that is going to have to get its hands dirty responding to a changing market?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Divers at Bouldnor Cliff underwater site in the Solent off the Isle of Wight, where the silt sample containing the einkorn DNA was found
life
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Marketing Executive - B2B - OTE £25,000

£17000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity to join this new...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £21000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Recruitment Genius: Business Control Manager

£36000 - £44000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Encouraging more businesses to ...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower