Profile: Coal's champ of the pit stop: Richard Budge, who once got his kicks from racing cars, is running against a clock again as he floats a company in a bid to save 11 marginal mines. David Bowen reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RICHARD Budge does not want to appear rich. His enormous suite in the expensive Grosvenor House Hotel overlooking Hyde Park is nothing more than a sensible meeting place in the run-up to his company's flotation, he says. He saves money because his car is parked free. And he has repeatedly assured City investors that he does not drive a pounds 120,000 Bentley Turbo - people ask, for it is apparently the surest sign of profligacy. He makes do with an pounds 89,000 Mercedes 600.

All this has much to do with a little trouble Budge has had with the City over the salary he will get when his company, RJB Mining, comes to the market shortly (the prospectus is published on Wednesday). He initially wanted pounds 400,000 a year. Some fund managers reportedly said they would sell their shares on the first day of dealing if he was given it, and his pay was trimmed to pounds 225,000.

If Budge is upset by this, he does not show it. 'Money has never been a motivation,' he says. 'I do my job because I enjoy it - it doesn't seem like much of a chore.'

There are many who will say that anyone who has built a company with pounds 65m turnover should be rewarded at least as well as a City high-flyer. And if Budge succeeds in his plan to rescue up to 11 British Coal pits, many more will say not only that he should name his price, but that he should be canonised as well.

He would make an unlikely saint. A large man with a soft Lincolnshire accent, confident - full of himself, even - he wears a tie that places him in the Harvey-Jones school of extroversion. Alongside his Mercedes and an E-Type Jaguar, he has a collection of 12 Chevron racing cars from the Seventies. He also has nerves of steel - he must do, because he was one of the most successful amateur racing drivers of the last decade. That is only one of the unusual facets of a man who wants to head one of the biggest coal-mining groups in Europe.

Richard Budge was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, 47 years ago. His father was a local builder, and he was sent to the local grammar school. Here he showed an unusual mix of talents, doing well in maths, geometry and, most of all, art. He found when he was 16 that he could paint saleable landscapes for 25 guineas - not bad for an hour-and-a-half's work - and he was also fond of surrealism. Encouraged by his art teacher, he enrolled on a fine arts course at Manchester University.

After three months he decided that as an artist 'you can either satisfy your commercial potential or yourself - but not both'. He left and joined AF Budge, the contracting firm recently started by Tony, a brother eight years older.

He started by carrying bags of cement, but worked his way steadily up through the ranks. When he was 21 he oversaw a million-pound contract to build five miles of the A19; he still gets a buzz when he drives along it.

Budge discovered a basic management lesson early. 'When I was 19 I told a bulldozer driver to level a rubbish tip,' he says. 'He said, 'If I do it I will get bogged', but I told him to do it anyway. He did get bogged, it took me 10 hours to get the machine out and I missed my tea. From then on, I always asked the operator's advice.'

Although he had consciously abandoned his artistic side for the technical one, he says he found road- building 'as creative as art'. But it was not until 1972, when AF Budge became involved in opencast mining, that he really won a chance to use his imagination. He becomes quite lyrical about the intricacies of the efficiently exploited mine. 'You have 14 seams in a 400-foot hole: imagine all that material]' Or: 'Did you know a working void moves five to seven metres a week?'

AF Budge, by now a medium- sized contractor, moved into opencast mining in an effort to keep its machinery busy in the winter, when roads were not being built. In 1974 it won its first main contract, to exploit a mine in County Durham for the National Coal Board. The NCB was impressed, and Budge won six of the first eight contracts it then tendered for. By 1978, with Richard now joint managing director, it was the biggest opencast producer in Britain.

By the early 1980s, opencast mining had become so specialist that equipment could no longer be shared with the road-building side: RJB now has 14 pounds 1m loader trucks that dwarf traditional contracting machines. The two sides of Budge naturally grew apart, though it was not until 1992 that Richard finally took his own operation off as a separate company. He denies there was a split with his brother, though he was against Tony's plans to expand the house-building side. AF Budge went into receivership last December.

In 1981, when he was already 35, Budge took up motor-racing. He had always had the urge, but not previously the money. His wife was not keen, so he promised to stick to old cars, historic racers. He did not tell her that his proposed vehicle, the Bolton-manufactured Chevron B8, was almost as fast as a modern racing car. For eight years he came first or second in his class: his moment of glory was triumph in the Alton Park Gold Cup, previously won by the likes of Jackie Stewart and Jacky Ickx. 'I was the first person on the cup whose name I didn't know,' he says. He once raced and won in front of 100,000 people at Brands Hatch on Grand Prix day, and was asked to drive in the 24-hour Le Mans. To the relief of his family, he gave up racing three years ago.

Budge says: 'I was not a racing driver - I was a businessman who had a hobby.' But he maintains the sport helped his business by keeping him fit; he also developed the handy knack of being able to send himself to sleep at will. He used it before races, and now uses it between meetings. If he could teach others the same trick, he could probably make another million or two, but he cannot. 'I've tried on my wife, but she's still an insomniac,' he says. Meanwhile, he keeps up his racing interest with a stable of Chevrons, one of which is raced by another driver. His company also sponsors the race series: anyone invited for RJB Mining hospitality should bring earplugs.

He married young - his silver wedding is the week after next - and he has two sons. He did not want either of them to join the family firm, but both perversely took themselves off to the Royal College of Mines. The younger, he recently discovered, has secretly applied for a job with his company.

Few sports generate as much adrenalin as motor racing. Budge has not tried to replace it with another sport - possibly because his abandonment of the fireproof suit coincided, more or less, with his decision to go hell-for-leather for spoils of the British Coal sell-off.

Cecil Parkinson announced the 'ultimate privatisation' in 1988. Budge decided it was time he learned more about deep mining. His company was not completely inexperienced - it had run deep mines in the United States for 18 months in the 1970s and provided coal-washing services at several British pits. In 1990, he bought the private Blenkinsopp mine, near Carlisle. He believed he could make money from it, but it was also a useful test-bed for his ideas.

He does not believe there is a magic technical solution that will increase efficiency overnight - Britain's mining techniques are far in advance of those he found in the US, he says.

But he does believe, first, that British Coal's pits are grossly overmanned, and second, that there is a deep-rooted problem of low morale. By applying the lessons he learned from the bulldozer driver when he was 19, he reckons he can do wonders with the miners who are left. 'These guys want the responsibility and accountability - they really want to be a part of what's going on.'

At Blenkinsopp, he decided early that there was little he could do to make it more efficient, even though much of the coal was mined by hand. Instead, he sought new markets for its output, which has as a result increased from 80,000 to 150,000 tons a year, and should reach 250,000 next year. This is an example of his 'horses for courses' approach: he believes that each mine must be looked at carefully, changing a technique here, finding a new outlet there.

But Budge faces a barrage of scepticism, not just from the City, and there is no guarantee that his plan will succeed. The unions are suspicious of him, and many industry watchers believe his ambitions are unrealistic. The family reputation is also tarnished by the collapse of AF Budge. Richard Budge has a heck of a job in front of him. But if he pulls it off, he will no longer have to make excuses for the size of his Grosvenor House suite. Maybe the City will even allow him a little more money.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments