Profile: First choice: a man who can: Francis Baron: David Bowen meets an executive whose career spans pilchards, television and now a travel group

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The Independent Online
FRANCIS BARON gave his four- year-old son James a shock at eight o'clock on Wednesday morning. 'He came into my room and said: 'You're still in bed daddy]' He'd never known it before.' Usually Baron leaves home in Kensington at 6.30am and is in his office at Gatwick by 7.45am. Wednesday was different, because the day before he had announced one of the most fundamental marketing restructurings ever attempted.

Not only had the travel group Owners Abroad - of which he was chief executive - changed its name to First Choice, it had converted its eight brands to three, and is spending pounds 20m on a marketing campaign to tell everyone about it.

As part of the launch razzmatazz on Tuesday, Baron had subjected himself to a televised interview with Jonathan Ross. He deserved his extra couple of hours in bed.

Baron, an amiable 47-year-old with a passing resemblance to a young Sir John Harvey-Jones, was not fazed by this new role, because changing roles is what he does best. He has been an engineer, a marketeer, a general manager; he has sold pilchards, made carpets, traded (and been arrested) in Africa, and run a television company. Few British business people can have quite such an impressively rounded CV.

Born and brought up in Suffolk, where his father had a textile sales business, Baron went to Cambridge to read mechanical engineering. Since he was a bright chap, his degree took only two years. So he spent his final year playing rugby (he just missed a Blue) and cricket, and occasionally following a trendy course called Principles of Industrial Management.

After university - 'for no particular reason, but they seemed nice people' - he joined the Marconi Division of English Electric, and worked in the micro- electronics division for two years. At that time, in the late Sixties, the company's Witham plant in Essex was the biggest silicon chip factory outside California.

Baron soon discovered why it was to lose its lead. 'The industry was too dependent on defence contracts, and management was pretty amateurish. As a newly qualified scientist, I was struck by the fact that we had a good product, but there was no attempt to create a consumer market for it.'

He became convinced he was in the wrong place. 'When you work in an engineering environment, it is quite clear how dependent you are on what the marketing people do, but you have no input into it,' he says. So he moved to Spillers, where he had a variety of junior marketing jobs selling pet food and bread.

Having learnt marketing, he went on to business development at Guthrie Corporation. Guthrie was a long-established trading group that was busy turning itself into a conglomerate. These were the days of Jim Slater and Jimmy Goldsmith, and the motto was 'buy or be bought' whether or not what you bought had any relevance to the business. After two years Baron became managing director of a business that both traded in Africa and imported pilchards.

Another two years on, at the age of 32, he was running a pounds 120m turnover business, still importing pilchards and trading in Africa, but also running three carpet factories. He knew it was a bizarre mix. 'It was quite clear there was not a lot of logic in the deals being done,' he says. But he accepted that was how business worked. 'We held people like Goldsmith and Slater slightly in awe. You never knew if you would find yourself working for them.'

The mix did, however, give him a breadth of experience that few managers in a more rational world would get. Tramping around Africa was particularly mind-expanding. 'I aged 40 years in that period. If you had any edges to be knocked off, they got knocked off.'

He pleads the Fifth Amendment on the business methods he had to use, but cheerfully acknowledges that he bribed his way out of his stickiest corner. Nigeria was like the Wild West with the additional spice of regular coups d'etat. Britain, the former colonial power, was still regarded with great suspicion, and after a president was assassinated, Baron found himself under house arrest in a sweltering Kano hotel. He persuaded a soldier to arrange a boarding card on the only plane leaving Kano, a Sabena freighter en route from Zaire to Brussels. 'Guards came on to the plane in full battledress to check passengers. Our friendly corporal had obviously squared it with them, because we were allowed to go.'

In the early 1980s Guthrie was taken over by the Kuala Lumpur government, and Baron was approached by a headhunter working for W H Smith's Simon Hornby. Hornby had decided that W H Smith's traditional print-based business would eventually be undermined by electronic media, and that the company should throw itself into the embryonic world of satellite and cable television. To run it, Baron says, 'he was looking for someone with a combination of a technical and general management background, and marketing flair. I was one of the few people to fit the bill.'

His time at W H Smith is not generally seen as success. After seven years the television business was still losing pounds 6m a year, and was sold off. An insider at the company is more generous. 'I wouldn't regard his time as a failure,' he says. 'The strategic view was probably wrong in the first place, and having been given a brief, Francis executed it well.'

Baron built up a company that was sold for pounds 60m, and was second only to Sky in the satellite business. But, the Smith man says: 'He was a bit isolated and was regarded with suspicion by his peers.' They were jealous of the high television salaries, and: 'There was a feeling the television side had a licence to spend money.'

Baron was not good at breaking down this distrust. 'He had a slightly brusque, stand-offish manner, which didn't help in a clubbable group. He was very much an outsider.' This was a shame, the insider says, 'because he had many good qualities. He was very clear-thinking, analytical and a tough negotiator. He seemed to develop quite a loyalty in the television team'.

W H Smith sold the television business, not because of its losses, but because trouble in other areas forced it to offload non-core businesses. Baron found the buyer, a Franco-American consortium, and stayed at the renamed European Television Network for a year.

He is blunt about his reason for leaving. 'I found the French absolutely impossible to work for. The way they do business is totally different from ours.'

His disappointment was tempered by the sale of the 5 per cent stake he had negotiated, which yielded 'the odd million or two'. He used some of this to set up a television company, which he impishly called Anglo-Saxon Television; and some of it to buy a 203mph Aston Martin Vantage, which he has been happily testing on an Autobahn.

After nine months - last summer - he was approached by Michael Julien, who had just become chairman of Owners Abroad Group, one of the big three holiday operators, with the brief to rescue it. 'When he went through the problems I thought: 'This sounds like a complete basket case - I'm not going to get involved.' '

But as he talked with Julien they both changed their minds. 'We came to the conclusion it was basically a good company that had not been managed well.' The fact that it had kept going for a year while, in effect, having no top management was the proof - and meant it could be rescued. 'It was a classic turnround case,' Baron says. 'I joined last November and knew from day one what had to be done. It was a matter of making sensible if tough decisions.'

Though he could become popular as a company doctor, he intends to stay at First Choice for a while. He cannot say whether he will be there for ever, though, and is certain about only one thing: 'The only people I would not work with are the French.'

Baron is modest about his meteoric rise. 'It's just as much about being in the right place at the right time as having ability,' he says. 'I was there when the opportunities arose and I got the job.'

He married late - 'though I lived life fairly well as a bachelor' - meeting his wife, who worked in advertising, at the Marlow Regatta. He has a two-year-old as well as James.

His technical background proved useful during the First Choice razzmatazz. 'None of the guys putting up the equipment could out-tech Francis,' a colleague says.

Baron's omniscience must also annoy some of his staff, for he produces his own financial and planning models on his computer before passing them on to his finance department. 'You don't lose five years of scientific learning,' he says. 'The training is always there.'

(Photograph omitted)

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