One glorious innings, now for the big Test

Profile: Lord MacLaurin: He's turned round Tesco, so can he do the same for English cricket? David Bowen reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Lord MacLaurin was feeling fair to middling on Friday morning. On the one hand Tesco, which he chairs, was looking shinier than ever following a profits warning from its great rival, Sainsbury's.

On the other, New Zealand seemed to be doing a little too well in the First Test. MacLaurin has just started work as chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board (which used to be the Test and County Cricket Board), and the Auckland Test is the first of his reign.

He retires from Tesco in triumph in the summer, and as the English team has been plumbing unprecedented depths in Zimbabwe, it is not surprising that he spends more of his time thinking about cricket than baked beans.

He has, he says, "a huge opportunity" to turn English cricket round. He has two years, maybe more, in charge of a body that has been given a new name, and perhaps a new life. MacLaurin points out that the ECB has a new chief executive as well as a staff that includes "some extremely bright people". Best of all, from a business leader's viewpoint, he is coming into an organisation that can hardly sink any lower - whatever he does, he is unlikely to be chastised for making it worse. And if he can generate, or appear to generate, some improvement, he will be hailed as a saviour. It is not fanciful to see a parallel between English cricket and ICI at its low point in the early Eighties; and between MacLaurin and Sir John Harvey-Jones, who came at the right time, who motivated and who saw profits rocket.

There are certainly parallels between cricket now and a poorly managed company whose sins have caught up with it. MacLaurin went to Zimbabwe, and was appalled. "The whole thing was amateurish in the extreme," he says. As he ticks off English cricket's faults, he highlights worries familiar to any executive. Training: "The team was totally and utterly unprepared for the job," he says. "Nobody taught them about the country, how to handle the media ..." Strategy: "We have to have a strategic plan." Communication: "We have to communicate well with the counties". And so on.

But as MacLaurin well knows, it is dangerous to take the parallels too far. Most of the cricket the ECB oversees is played at county level, but the bulk of the counties' revenue comes from a handful of Test matches. In other words, headquarters is subsidising the subsidiaries - not a normal commercial arrangement. Many of the subsidiaries are, furthermore, disinclined to do what headquarters tells them. In terms of lack of board control, we have to look to British Leyland in the Seventies for any sort of parallel.

So when MacLaurin says that "if I can do a Tesco on cricket I would be absolutely thrilled", we can believe him: he took over Tesco when it had grown paunchy and aimless, and turned it into a mighty power. On Monday its position as the most successful food retailer in Britain was reinforced by a bullish trading statement; Sainsbury's news on Friday just confirmed its rival's lead. MacLaurin will leave the group in June with a reputation as high as that of any retiring tycoon.

Ian MacLaurin was born in Blackheath, south-east London, in 1937. His father was a civil servant who was thrifty enough to send him to Malvern College, the public school. There he showed no great academic skills but was an excellent sportsman, making Kent's second cricket team. He was a good footballer and is still a first-rate golfer.

Sport brought him together with Jack Cohen, founder of Tesco, in 1958. MacLaurin, then an engineering apprentice, was on a cricket tour in Eastbourne when Cohen, on holiday at the Grand Hotel, approached the smartly turned- out team and said he would give any of them a job. MacLaurin took him up on the offer, and joined Britain's fastest-growing company: Cohen's pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap philosophy was just what post-war Britain wanted.

Although MacLaurin is often described as a Cohen protege, he says it was the retail director, Arthur Thrush, who really took him under his wing. There is also a widely-held belief that MacLaurin is Cohen's son- in-law, with the implication that a spot of nepotism was at work. That is not true - the two were not even particularly close. "Jack was a rather remote individual," he says. There was a Cohen son-in-law, Leslie Porter - who is married to Cohen's daughter, former Westminster Council leader Dame Shirley Porter and who became chairman after Jack - but neither this nor the company's strongly Jewish flavour stopped MacLaurin making it to the top.

But not without a fight. MacLaurin insists he is a "team player" but admits that he fought one battle on his own. It was 1977: he wanted to abandon Green Shield Stamps, the family wanted to hang on to them. After a fierce board battle, he got his way. "That was my individual battle," he says. It was also the start of the new Tesco: it shed its downmarket image, and leapt aboard the bandwagon that was pulling supermarkets out of town. It transformed its image from cheap and dowdy to middle market, even posh on occasions. The gap with the patrician Sainsbury's was eaten away.

Then the recession of the early Nineties arrived, and the group was caught out. Consumers no longer wanted gold-plated chicken breasts, they wanted value and Tesco's market share was being assaulted by companies like Aldi that had borrowed its old pile-it-high clothes. Then Tesco pulled rabbit after rabbit out of the hat. It introduced a "value line" that matched or undercut the discounters on commodity items, while maintaining its margins on most of its range. It set up small Tesco Metros, to reflect the reaction against out-of-town giants; it introduced the Club Card, wrongfooting Sainsbury's in the loyalty stakes. Now Tesco is no longer closing the gap on Sainsbury's. It has overhauled it.

How much of all this was MacLaurin's doing? He calls himself a team player. "After 1977 I sat down with Arthur Thrush and drew up a list of people who would carry this company through the next 20 years," he says. "I like to delegate - my skills are selecting the right people."

Surprisingly, City analysts do not seem sure whether this is correct. One says MacLaurin is not so much a team player as a front man; he says the real brains is David Malpas, the low-profile managing director who is retiring next month. The analyst agrees, however, that MacLaurin has indeed promoted well: his successor Terry Leahy (who will be chief executive rather than chairman) is a young marketing man given his head by MacLaurin. Another analyst, by contrast, has called MacLaurin a "typical retailing dictator". A third takes a middle road. Until Tesco's bad times in 1992, he says, MacLaurin was an autocrat, convinced that he was always right. The shock of 1992 made him realise he was not, which was why he handed over to young Leahy.

Whether by accident or plan, Tesco has a satisfactory succession, and MacLaurin gets the brownie points for that. He has a peerage, and on Wednesday he stood up for the first time in the House of Lords.

"My maiden speech was a slightly more terrifying experience than my first AGM," he says. "It was an emotional experience - you never think you could end up in a place like that." His speech, on corporate governance, went down well, and Baroness Thatcher was "very nice and sweet" about it.

MacLaurin sits on the Tory benches, and is an unshakable Conservative. "In my formative years here I saw the Labour government at work", he says. But he is depressed by the state of the Tory party. "Our economy is the strongest in Europe but the Government is not doing well," he complains. Maybe the Tory party will be a good turnaround project when he has finished with English cricket.