Policemen are getting younger, so are bosses

Delayering and downsizing, not to mention the cult of youth, are so prevalent that these days it is not just policemen who are getting younger. Company executives are, too, writes Roger Trapp.

Nevertheless, 32-year-old Tim Robinson still stands out from the crowd. For the past six months he has been managing director of the UK arm of Silicon Graphics, a Californian computer company.

Although the organisation (unlike IBM, his previous employer) is expanding rather than contracting, this must still be a daunting task for someone who many would regard as lacking sufficient experience.

To Mr Robinson, who joined Silicon Graphics in April 1995 as European marketing director, it all comes down to participation. "If you're going to spend the energy to employ high-calibre people, you might as well give them space," he says.

Although his job is made easier by the fact that the information technology industry is younger than most and therefore staffed, and often run, by people barely out of college, he points out that he is the youngest member of Silicon Graphics' UK team. He insists that he does not feel uncomfortable about this, but only because he does not expect to know everything. When it comes to new initiatives or decisions to be made he always consults, but he stresses that this process only goes so far: "I've got to make the decision."

Some would say that such a leadership style is easy enough to apply in a young company like Silicon Graphics where the technology is so advanced that no one can understand everything and where the type of people employed are likely to be creative and unsuited to the strait-jacket. But Mr Robinson says: "A huge amount of this is applied common sense. The balance of command and control and creativity will vary from organisation to organisation."

Mr Robinson knows this from being intimately involved in the integration with Silicon Graphics of Cray Research, after the merger that took place at the time he was handed the reins.

Bringing together the two cultures has been a challenge but he says that the Silicon Graphics culture is becoming infectious, with the phrases "Make a Difference" and "Make it Fast" particularly influential.

He is a fan of allowing people to do their work in their own way and in their own hours (as a father of young children he tends to leave at 5.30pm and work at home for a couple of hours later), but he insists that this is no "creative Nirvana".

"The company is largely driven by the business model, and if things don't fit into the business model they don't happen," he says. He is also keen to stress that his operation, which this year had revenues of about pounds 95m and employs about 275 people at its headquarters near Reading and in three other locations, is not just an offshoot of the $2.8bn (pounds 1.66bn) turnover US organisation.

"It's a fairly stand-alone subsidiary," he says, though he reports to top management headed by Edward McCracken, the chairman and chief executive. Customers of its "visual computing" simulation systems range from the BBC to Jaguar, which used Silicon Graphics equipment in the design of the XK8 luxury sports car. In an attempt to provide a top-class service to the film and television post-production suites that use its equipment, often for special effects, the company has also opened an office in Soho

Mr Robinson and his colleagues have been keen not to replicate more of the Californian way of life than British staff can bear, though he has followed the US headquarters in supplying mountain bikes as a means of helping staff travel between different buildings. Moreover, Mr Robinson is keen to foster the spirit of innovation that has proved so fruitful for companies of this type.

He says his priority is to work with customers and partners to maintain the momentum built up by Silicon Graphics in the UK. He adds: "I try to bridge technology and what it can do. What I like to be able to do is explain what technology is there."

This role utilises his old marketing training, but he also sees an opportunity for co-ordination. While the Cray deal was a straightforward merger, he sees the future bringing more of the partnerships and alliances that have begun to spring up in all sectors, from oil exploration to retail. Consequently, future growth will not necessarily bring more employees.

Silicon Graphics will prosper, he believes, by attracting people with a technical background to do interesting work in a company that has critical mass but is not so big that they are just cogs in the machine and have difficulty making an impact.

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