People & Business: The road to the top starts at pounds 250 a year

SIR ROBERT MALPAS will celebrate his 71st birthday on Sunday, and is preparing to step down as chairman of Cookson, the materials technology group, in favour of Sir Bryan Nicholson. Sir Bryan, 66, is currently chairman of Bupa and is a recent president of the CBI.

I rang Sir Robert yesterday while he was on holiday in Portugal, where he was just about to take a dip. He says this Sunday will also be the 50th anniversary of the first day of his first job, with ICI in 1948. "I joined on my 21st birthday, on a salary of pounds 250 a year," he recalls.

Sir Robert temporarily resumed the chairmanship of Cookson in December after Richard Oster left the group to pursue other interests. Sir Robert was previously chairman of the circuit board components and ceramics maker from 1991 until last September. Mr Oster, the former chief executive, had taken over from Sir Robert as chairman the previous month.

A keen advocate of the links between technology and business, Sir Robert will not be "retiring" in the golf'n'gardening sense. He will expand his role as a director of the Spanish company, Repsol, where he gives advice on chemical issues, and he is still co-chairman of Eurotunnel. He also plans to advise various small private companies and start-ups.

His successor, Sir Bryan Nicholson, will join Cookson as a non-exec in September and chairman the following month. He will continue heading Bupa, which he says will probably retain its status as a provident association, contrary to speculation that it may convert, "building society" style, to a plc.

"Any decision to convert lies with the board (of Bupa) and the 150-strong governing membership - but there are considerable advantages in staying a provident," says Sir Bryan.

After all, "buying healthcare is different to buying baked beans," he points out.

How very true. Sir Bryan, who is also a non-executive director of engineering groups LucasVarity and GKN, still sits on the CBI board and is keen to see interest rates come down, as you might expect. "The next move should be down, not up," he says.

JOHN SHEPPERD, one of the City's favourite bond analysts, will be reunited with his former colleague Ian Harwood when he joins the economics team at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson (DKB) in September.

Mr Shepperd was chief economist and bond pundit at Yamaichi Securities until the Japanese house decided to cut back its research side in the UK. He will report to Mr Harwood, now global head of economics and strategy at DKB.

Mr Shepperd and Mr Harwood last worked together at SG Warburg Securities (now part of Warburg Dillon Read) in the years during and after Big Bang, 1986 to 1993.

Mr Shepperd will be working with DKB's bond and currency research group headed by Guido Barthels, global head, and Reiner Back, deputy head, in Frankfurt. He will be joining a hot team: in this year's Extel survey, the DKB global economics team came top.

STEVEN DOWNES is becoming something of an expert in fast growing retail chains. He is joining Spoils, a kitchen reject shop group based in Ipswich, as finance director, the same job he previously did for La Senza, the lingerie chain.

Mr Downes's previous jobs have included being director of the Victorian Trading Company and divisional finance director of Signet Group, formerly Ratners.

Mr Downes's job at Spoils is a newly created post on the board, which is headed by Anthony Graham-Enock. Last year the company poached Andrew Farnham from Top Shop to be retail operations director. Spoils has ambitious plans to expand from its current total of 34 stores to 100 outlets by 2007.

VI GROUP, which designs and distributes computer aided design systems, has appointed Peter Wharton as group finance director and an executive director with immediate effect.