Profile: Cut from the finest cloth: It was the dream opportunity for a financial journalist when Martin Taylor was plucked from the FT where he wrote about companies in the Lex column and given a chance to run one at Courtaulds. William Kay reports

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The Independent Online
IN A relatively short career, Martin Taylor has had to get used to more than his fair share of jealousy.

After Eton, Balliol, Reuters and a few years of sticking journalistic pins into corporate reputations as the anonymous but magisterial Lex columnist on the Financial Times, Taylor smoothly moved into Courtaulds 10 years ago.

The chairman, Sir Christopher Hogg, soon marked Taylor out for greater things, and within a few years he was being measured for the chief executive's chair at Courtaulds Textiles, which was demerged in 1990. He is still only 40.

'Yes, I have had to get used to a certain amount of resentment, particularly when I was younger,' Taylor admitted as he curled himself round the armchair in his spartan room in the heart of London's rag trade. 'But,' he quickly added, 'the people at Courtaulds have been remarkably supportive.'

As well they might. Sir Christopher has dominated Courtaulds since 1979, to the point where he could make one of the cleaners chief executive and there would be little more than the odd eyebrow raised.

'It was a great help to have Chris Hogg's backing,' Taylor agreed. 'He has awesome judgement, which everyone here respects.'

Sir Christopher reciprocates, observing recently: 'It's not often that you have someone working under you who is in a different class to yourself. I think he is.'

That judgement has so far been handsomely borne out. Although the annual turnover of Courtaulds Textiles has declined from pounds 988m to pounds 922m in the past two years as unwanted operations have been sold, pre-tax profits have risen from pounds 39.9m to pounds 42.2m and earnings per share from 28.9p to 31.1p

It is a more than respectable performance through the worst of the recession, particularly in an industry where demand is so easily postponed. The performance of Courtaulds Textiles contrasts sharply with the severe pain being felt by clothing retailers.

More importantly, as far as Taylor is concerned, the company's cash pile has risen from pounds 10.3m to pounds 49.7m and borrowings are down from pounds 345m to pounds 249m.

'We had to get borrowings down,' he explained, 'because at the time of the demerger we agreed to take on most of the group's debt in order to give the non-textile business the financial capacity to grow.'

The demerger period, which in effect lasted five years from the decision to divide, was a time of great fascination for the cerebral Taylor.

'We explored just about every option,' he recalled. 'We even thought - briefly - of organising a management buyout for Textiles. Another possibility was to sell it to one or more other companies.'

Such considerations were like Royal Jelly to Taylor, whose brain moves so fast that his mouth is always racing to catch up. Physically he is a tall, almost boyish figure with an open manner. There are few character lines etched on his face, which is perhaps to be expected in a man who seems to have never suffered failure.

In many ways, the most surprising thing about him is that he did not take a first-class degree at Oxford. But there were good reasons.

Although his heart lay with the classics, he took A-levels in maths, chemistry and physics because he felt ill-educated in those subjects, then opted to read English at Balliol. Before going up, he spent a year teaching in Karachi, and within a fortnight of going to Oxford he changed his mind and asked to read Chinese.

The dons took a dim view of such frivolity and made him wait a year before switching. So he effectively obtained his second in two years rather than three.

It would be easy to put such butterfly behaviour down to a disrupted childhood. Taylor was born in Burnley, Lancashire. His father, an accountant, died when Martin was young. But his mother remarried and his stepfather, a wholesaler, was wealthy enough to send him to a Yorkshire prep school, then Eton.

But the changes were more likely due to a low boredom threshold, which also made journalism his natural early career choice.

Like many before and since, he used journalism first as a travel pass and then as a means of touring British industry to peruse more serious job prospects. He joined Reuters news agency in 1974 and four years later landed at the FT.

'The great thing that Lex gives you is access,' he pointed out. 'You get to see every company twice a year, if you want to. That's very valuable experience.'

When Taylor let it be known, three or four years on, that he was ready to quit the hack's life for something more meaningful, he was besieged by offers from the City. Industry, in the throes of the 1980-1 recession, was not in the mood for indulging a bright lad from the Pink 'Un.

But Taylor decided that broking and banking was not for him. 'There were tons and tons of talented people in the City,' he said. 'I couldn't see myself making a significant contribution really, and I did feel that industry was far more in need of people than the City was.'

This view found a sympathetic ear in Sir Christopher Hogg, who also turned his back on the financial world early in his career. The two had already met through mutual friends.

He recalled: 'Martin was being offered the chance to be head of research at a large stockbroking firm. I told him, 'You must be mad. Have you ever thought of coming into industry?' He had a spell at our head office, then went off to textiles and never looked back.'

Taylor, inevitably, sees the move in more intellectual terms: 'I'm interested in the whole question of the social purpose of companies,' he declared, 'and in the complexity of the job - the number of choices and the huge difference in outcome between getting it right and getting it wrong. My preferred choice was for a large, complex business, and that was Courtaulds.'

Taylor had little idea of what he would do there, but he was confident that once he got inside, he would find a niche. So it proved.

He began as Sir Christopher's personal assistant, and spent his first day being lectured by his new boss on the finer points of Courtaulds. Significantly, even in 1982, the chairman used a chart showing the group divided into textiles and non-textiles. Taylor was then set to Lex-type tasks of analysing bits of the organisation.

But the big change was moving into the clothing division, where he had a line management job.

'I thought they were crazy to send me to clothing,' Taylor said. 'I thought I had none of the qualities required to succeed in it, but I couldn't have been more wrong.'

He discovered that the clothing manufacturing process is very simple - 'buy the cloth, cut it up and stick it back together again', as he put it.

'And it's very fast-moving,' Taylor explained. 'It's a business where innumerable small decisions have to be taken and you get feedback very fast. If it's a good decision, things get better very soon, but if it's a bad one things get worse, so you are rewarded or penalised very quickly. In some industries you can make a mistake and not be aware of it for years.'

Before long, Taylor was ordering ranges of clothes, pricing them and haggling with retailers like a pro. Just in case he put a foot wrong, Sir Christopher wisely placed a minder at Taylor's shoulder - Ian Rae, who is now working under Taylor on the Textiles board.

'Everyone talks about what Chris Hogg did for me, which was tremendous,' said Taylor, 'but I owe Ian an enormous debt in that he knew exactly how much to leave me alone and, when I did something particularly stupid, he was there to catch the ball. I couldn't have asked for a more helpful environment.'

Taylor accepts the 'perfectly arguable' logic that there is no reason to stop at demerging Courtaulds into two. Why not four, six or eight? But he believes that further tidying of Textiles will simply involve more disposals, on top of the dozen or so in the past two years.

'We would have sold more,' he said, 'but for the current business climate. We don't need the money, so we can afford to wait until we can get the price we want, and the managers of those businesses know that.'

As for the future, Taylor is too much of a workaholic at the moment to worry about what lies beyond the recession. But it is a safe bet that, at his age, he has another move or two in him yet.

'I hope I will be in a completely different industry in 10 years,' he said. 'If my colleagues thought I'd still be here in 10 years' time, they'd all jump out of the window. If people don't move on, they just repeat themselves and they get stale. I left the FT, although I loved it, because I just had a sense that I'd done what I was doing for long enough. When that happens here, I shall leave.'

(Photograph omitted)