Profile: Learning to cut the mustard: Sir Michael Colman - Reckitt's courteous leader may need to be tough in the months ahead, says William Kay

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The Independent Online
COURTEOUS is the first word that springs to mind after a conversation with Sir Michael Colman of the Colman's mustard family. But his air of unruffled calm, born of five years at Eton and a lifetime's practice, has been severely tested this week, for the mustard business is to pass out of family hands after a little matter of 180 years.

'Regrets? Yes,' he admitted, 'there is always an anxiety about things like that, because we have a record of looking after businesses and the people who work in them. 'Regardless of my personal viewpoint, we felt that we were running out of future commitment to the business, so the best thing was that we should find someone to buy it who wished to be committed.'

Although Sir Michael, 66, has collected an impressive list of worthy honorary appointments, from the Church Commissioners to the Royal Warrant Holders Association, he has known no other employer than his family firm and its public successor, Reckitt & Colman. He is the third holder of a baronetcy created in 1907 in honour of his grandfather.

At Stoke Holy Cross, a water mill near Norwich, the first Jeremiah Colman started milling mustard and flour in 1814, to produce the familiar hot English mustard flavour so beloved of the roast beef-eating classes in this country - and spat out by virtually the rest of the world.

After another 40 years, Jeremiah had teamed up with his nephew, James, and they had moved the operation to Norwich. They used the starch thrown off from the mustard flour to make laundry blue, taking them into competition with Isaac Reckitt's starch works across the Humber in Hull. The two businesses spent most of the first half of this century carving up markets, but they did not finally merge until 1954. A year later, Sir Michael formed a merger of his own, when he married Judith Wallop, daughter of Vice-Admiral Sir Peveril William-Powlett.

'The business has always been part of my life,' Sir Michael said in a matter-of-fact way, 'because it was something which my father and indeed my grandfather did. But it didn't hold much appeal for me. I had no ambition to go into business.' Instead, he had his heart set on guns and the other paraphernalia of war. Not, it should be noted, because he shared other youngsters' love of making things go bang: he saw it as an opportunity to serve his country.

'I suppose I was a bit foolish as a young man,' Sir Michael reflected. 'Anyway, the war came to an end just before I was old enough to join up.' He had to console himself with a spell of national service in the Royal Marines.

Then his father, Sir Jeremiah, suggested that he 'give business a try'. He was soon shipped up to Hull, to work in J&J Colman's international division.

Sir Michael observed with characteristic restraint: 'It became apparent to me that there were a lot of people in the business who really wanted young people like me to commit themselves to learning about the management. So I thought that, as I was fortunate enough that I owed what prosperity I had to the development of the business, I had better stay around and see if I was needed. I didn't expect to stay at all. I thought my ideas would be unacceptable, but I was very surprised when I was asked to stay and given responsibilities.'

He concentrated on the foreign side of the business, eventually becoming a director of the overseas board in 1962. He ran the industrial division for a couple of years before going on the main board and creating the group's first corporate planning department in 1970. Sir Michael became finance director in 1980 and chairman six years later.

In the past eight years, he has stamped his understated style on the group. 'We don't like the big egotistical decision-taker in our company,' Sir Michael declared sternly. 'We don't have a personality cult. You must recognise that my role in the company is not as the great leader, but as the partner, working with people to achieve their aims. It was not until I saw the business in human terms that I recognised what I was expected to do.'

The question for Reckitt shareholders is whether this gentlemanly approach can be combined with the ruthlessness that is increasingly a condition of survival in the international consumer goods market to which the group aspires.

The decision to sell Colman's mustard, along with other food and drinks brands such as Robinson's barley water, was made to raise money for an ambitious transatlantic bid, which Sir Michael hopes will catapult Reckitt into the premier division of household goods and toiletries. It is paying pounds 1bn to buy L&F Household, the Lysol disinfectant group, from Eastman Kodak.

'We do feel that this move will put us in a position to compete with the big companies like Procter & Gamble, Colgate and Unilever,' Sir Michael said. 'We think the advantages outweigh the fact that we have had to look for another organisation to acquire our UK food businesses.' While over half the Reckitt group will still be in the UK and the rest of Europe after the L&F deal, a third will be in north America and 10 per cent in Asia Pacific.

'The group has changed greatly since I joined it,' said Sir Michael. 'Many of our products, like Brasso, Windolene and Harpic, used to be in little uncompetitive niches. But now the consumer has become more discriminating and competition is becoming fierce.'

Last year, he was pitchforked into a far more critical situation, where the problems of consumer resistance had been compounded by mismanagement. He became the First Commissioner - equivalent of chairman - of the Church Commissioners, which had lost pounds 800m in property speculation. The average churchgoer, meanwhile was still giving no more than pounds 3 a week to help the coffers.

'There is no way we can apply a quick fix to the problems of the Church Commissioners,' Sir Michael intoned. 'Everyone knew what the problems were. The difficulty was that we hadn't worked together to reach agreement on how we were going to set about them. We have real problems of living within our means.'

Translated, that means the Commissioners will have less money to dole out to the parishes. So either parishioners are going to have to cough up more when the weekly collection plate is passed round, or vicars will have to eke out their stipends even further.

Last month, he brought in Christopher Daws, an accountant who used to work for Cadbury Schweppes, to be finance director.

''I was asked to come in because I have a commercial background,' Sir Michael explained. 'The first thing I have done is to work with people to identify the issues. It's not intellectually difficult: it's a question of having the will to deal with them.'

In that sense, the problems of Reckitt and the Church of England are curiously similar. Both are long-established groups with well- known brands that are facing tough challenges and strong competition.

'I am looking to the year 2000 to resolve the Church's difficulties,' said Sir Michael.

While the Church's long record of survival should see it through, Reckitt, minus the mustard, has an uncertain future that may yet ruffle even Sir Michael's well-groomed feathers.

(Photograph omitted)