People & Business : Cockburn's new job brings an old rivalry to the fore

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The Independent Online
When Bill Cockburn described the offer from BT to become its new UK managing director as "irresistible" and "glittering", what he didn't mention is a rivalry with BT's chairman Sir Iain Vallance that dates back to the time when Harold Wilson was the new Labour Prime Minister.

Well, roughly. Mr Cockburn joined the old Post Office in 1961, while Sir Iain joined the same organisation in 1966. The pair were born within three months of each other in 1943 and as they climbed the corporate ladder a rivalry emerged.

Several decades later along came Margaret Thatcher, and BT was detached from the Post Office, with Sir Iain at its helm. Mr Cockburn elected to stay with the Post Office side, but his hopes of leading it into the private sector a la BT were dashed by the Government. So he upped stumps and went off to rescue WH Smith - but not for very long, as it turns out. Now Sir Iain and Bill are re-united. Who knows - will Bill win the race in the last lap?

Here's another shock departure: John Thomson, chief investment manager with the venerable Standard Life, has unexpectedly resigned over "management differences."

The mutual, with pounds 52bn under management, is striving hard to expand its unit trust and PEP side, and apparently Mr Thomson didn't like the "pace and order" with which this was being done.

Sandy Crombie, Standard Life's group chief investment manager, dismisses any ideas that Mr Thomson might be in line for a fat-cat-style payoff: "He's resigned. He wasn't pushed. There is no compensation."

Mr Crombie explains: "We have short notice contracts here." He says Mr Thomson handed in his resignation a week ago, and since then they have been planning how to break the news in an organised way. Asked what Mr Thomson now plans to do, Mr Crombie replies simply: "He'll be looking for a job."

Mr Crombie refuses to go into further detail about Mr Thomson's reasons, but the problem seems to stem from Standard Life's expansion plans. Independent financial advisers traditionally regard the company as an insurer, and look to fund management companies for unit trusts and corporate pension funds. Standard now wants to break into this lucrative market - and fast.

Sadly Mr Thomson is unavailable to explain which bit of this strategy he disagrees with.

Fancy some nice new furniture for the boardroom? Why not commission it from someone who's spent most of his life in business, but now prefers the workshop to the office. Peter Bielby, a former senior vice president of Gemini Consulting, left the $500m Boston-based management consultancy three years ago to design and build modern furniture.

After 20 years in consultancy Mr Bielby studies furniture-making at Parnham College in Dorset, the design and carpentry college attended by Lord Linley. The main difference between consulting and building a chair is that you are "dealing with the material as opposed to the immaterial", he says. He now charges pounds 120 a chair, or a chunky pounds 10,000 if you want a boardroom table.

His first collection will appear in an exhibition starting on 30 June at The Gallery in Cork Street, London. At the moment, though, he's still ankle-deep in sawdust. "I've still got seven days to go," he says confidently.

If you think you have a busy schedule, spare a thought for Martin Day, a partner with the law firm Leigh Day. He is currently representing former British prisoners of war in their claim against the Japanese government, has been leading Britain's only class action against tobacco companies and is also representing people who claim a link between electro-magnetic fields and cancer.

Speaking from Japan yesterday, Mr Day said he had just finished "a fantastic day in court". The former PoWs are claiming damages from Japan for alleged mistreatment under the Hague Convention of 1907. One of the government's main claims, that individuals could not sue under international law, took a battering yesterday, he says.

He is also organising the UK class action by 47 lung cancer victims against Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher, with a hearing pencilled in for 1 July. "It's the first ever British no-win, no-fee group action," he tells me. Then on the third of July he is expecting a survey to be published which should radically strengthen the argument that living near high-voltage pylons can increase the risk of cancer. He is due to represent two children in court.

So how does he find the time? "I only get involved in cases that I'm interested in myself. I enjoy cases with a political element to them, where my heart as well as my brain will be involved."

Before you get too envious, Mr Day pricks the bubble: "Having said that, my wife and kids would like to see more of me."

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