Lord Simpson, the chief executive of Marconi, is one of those businessmen who has seen plenty of corporate accidents – luckily for him, mainly in his rear-view mirror. A consummate deal-maker, he has mastered the art of exiting tight spots at just the right moment.
His father wanted him to become a journalist. His mother dreamed of him joining the church – the kirk, as they call it where Simpson comes from. He rejected both vocations and became an accountant.
Simpson quickly climbed the greasy pole of business and first came to notice in the mid-1980s when he ran the Leyland truck company, then part of the Rover Group. He sold it to DAF of the Netherlands and within a few short years it had gone bust.
When British Aerospace took over Rover for £150m, Simpson was elevated to the BAe board and put in charge of the troubled car business. He patched it up and sold it to BMW of Germany in 1994 for £800m. BMW repented at leisure, finally selling its "English Patient" to the Phoenix consortium last year for a symbolic £10, but not before running up £2bn of losses.
By the time Simpson left BAe to head up the car components group Lucas, his Houdini reputation was well established. He engineered the sale of Lucas to Varity, a US competitor run by the larger-than-life Victor Rice. Almost immediately, the merged company, LucasVarity, ran into trouble. After a year of turmoil Mr Rice tried to relocate the company to the US. He failed, and a short while later the business fell prey to a takeover.
Simpson's arrival at Marconi, or GEC as it then was, in 1996 was charged with more than the usual expectation. For three years he barely put a foot wrong and managed to emulate that other great wheeler-dealer, Gerry Robinson, by working a four-day week and flying back to his mansion in Scotland at weekends. He also joined Mr Robinson in becoming one of Tony Blair's cheerleaders in business.
Had history repeated itself, Simpson should by now have been safely clear of Marconi. On this occasion his timing has let him down. He was firmly in the driving seat for this latest corporate pile up.Reuse content