Profile: Quiet knight of the five-and-dime world: Sir Geoffrey Mulcahy: The man who smartened up Woolworths remains reticent as Kingfisher's share price raises questions in the City. Helen Kay reports
Sunday 20 March 1994
He will also have to come up with some smart answers to questions about poor Christmas trading and a switchback performance by the company's shares this year.
Sir Geoff, a man of the people on whom a knighthood sits awkwardly, will almost certainly stick rigidly to his script, delivering one or two carefully prepared jokes, and disappear from the stage just as fast as his long legs can carry him. Sir Geoff is 'a genuinely shy person. He doesn't enjoy popular attention and he has no time for ceremony or pomposity,' said one long-standing acquaintance.
After a batch of bad news in the past few months, Kingfisher's blue-and-yellow plumage is looking rather tattered. In January a poor set of trading figures, including news that sales were down 7 per cent at Darty, the group's French acquisition, sent the shares tumbling from their high of 778p.
They slipped even further in February, following the unexplained exit of Mair Barnes from her post as managing director of Woolworths. A resounding silence from Kingfisher's Marylebone Road headquarters fuelled rumours that her scalp was the price for pre-Christmas overstocking at the high street chain.
The shares have since struggled back some 50p, to 589p, but are still nearly 25 per cent off the December peak after a profit downgrading to pounds 295m-pounds 305m.
'I think Geoff hasn't helped his case because of the communication problems,' said John Richards, retail analyst at NatWest Securities. Richard Hyman of Verdict Research agrees. 'What is certain is that Kingfisher has lost quite a few brownie points because of its reticence at the moment.'
Naturally, the group's perspective is different. Nigel Whittaker, its corporate relations chief, insists that Sir Geoff is keeping his powder dry because he believes in adhering to the Stock Exchange regulations. This is true, but it does not disguise the fact that Kingfisher's chairman prefers purdah to publicity. This time he has paid the price for his silence. 'I think he's been badly stung by the reaction of the market,' said one industry commentator. Sir Geoff has seen his wings clipped quite savagely, yet only a year ago Geoff Mulcahy, as he prefers to be known, was flying high. He had just been knighted in the New Year Honours List - a tribute he ascribed to a 'team effort'.
The title, he said, 'is actually a first-rate recognition of what Kingfisher has done - and it was my happy lot to be in the position of the person who received it'.
By April he had notched up two more triumphs: the pounds 1bn acquisition of Darty, the French electrical retailer, which is widely regarded as an excellent purchase despite the pummelling it has taken along with the French economy; and luring Alan Smith away from Marks & Spencer to be Kingfisher's chief executive.
Smith's recruitment was undoubtedly a coup. 'He's a real asset and has a great role to play,' said Hyman.
'What Woolworths needs is an injection of all the things you associate with M&S,' Richards said. 'After 25 years there, Alan Smith should certainly be able to deliver them. It's very important to split the roles of chairman and chief executive - especially as Geoff Mulcahy is very good on strategic issues but not a thoroughbred retailer.'
In fact, Sir Geoff is anything but the conventional salesman. Born in Sunderland in 1942, he grew up in Worcester, where his father, a civil engineer, had his own business. The young Mulcahy was educated at King's School, Worcester, before reading for a degree in chemistry at Manchester University. On graduating, he joined Esso as a management trainee but must have shown early promise, since Esso then sent him to Harvard Business School to study for an MBA.
After 10 years at Esso, in a range of jobs from labour relations and marketing to planning, Sir Geoff joined Norton Abrasives, the American engineering company, as finance director for northern Europe. Three years later, in 1977, he joined British Sugar, where he first encountered the late John Beckett, the man who spearheaded the move to Woolworth Holdings five years after. It was 1982 when the Paternoster consortium, backed by Victor Blank at Charterhouse Bank, paid pounds 310m to take Woolworths off the hands of its American parent.
Sir Geoff joined Beckett and Whittaker a few months afterwards as the numbers man in the team brought in to transform Woolies from its tired five-and- dime formula into a focused retail chain. The prophets of doom were around then, as now. 'People referred to it as Mission Impossible,' he recalls, although they were eventually forced to eat their words. Kingfisher, the name chosen for the rapidly expanding Woolworth Holdings in 1989, now includes Superdrug, Comet, Charlie Browns Autocentres and the B&Q do-it-yourself stores, in addition to a totally revamped Woolies.
The 'Everyday Low Pricing' strategy on which the group is now run is undoubtedly Sir Geoff's doing, although most people say its execution is still faulty. But it was not until 1986 and his appointment as chief executive, followed by a hostile bid from Dixons that Sir Geoff really emerged from the shadows - although it could hardly be said that he suddenly developed a public persona.
Indeed, when a private investigator was put on his trail by Dixons, the gumshoe could find nothing worth reporting save that he set off for work very early and returned very late.
Sir Geoff shrugs off any suggestion that he is a workaholic, but staff insist that he is. They say he will fly halfway round the world just to visit a store.
Whittaker qualifies this observation. 'I think workaholic is the wrong word,' he said, cautiously. 'Geoff hugely enjoys his work and sees it as just as pleasurable as any other activity.'
By and large, however, the impression he conveys in the City is that of man-as-machine.
'He's not the most exciting person', said one industry expert.
'He's very able, and I've got a very high opinion of him - but if I was thinking about the businessman I would most like to be stuck in a lift with, Geoff would not get my vote.'
Talk to most of Sir Geoff's acquaintances ('He doesn't have friends as you and I understand that word,' said one man), and the image that emerges is remarkably consistent: praise for the razor-sharp mind, respect for the man's achievements, comments about his lack of humour, his single-mindedness and self-control. 'Geoff's lost all interest in the outside world,' said an acquaintance. 'He's quite dry,' said another, describing how, when Mulcahy attends a City dinner, for example, he sips one-and-a-half glasses of wine and is usually the first to leave.
Yet there are also some strange inconsistencies between the myth and the man. For a start, Sir Geoff actually has quite a keen sense of humour. He can be both sardonic and self-deprecating on occasion. The impression of total control is also somewhat misleading, although it is very much the image he would like to convey.
'You should never worry. All worry gives you is heart attacks and ulcers and things,' he says. And it is said with utter conviction, as his fingers tear apart the coloured paperclips he keeps in an ashtray close to hand.
'Geoff is a totally stressed person,' said a long-standing acquaintance. 'He keeps himself under control and doesn't lose his temper easily, but he's become less and less relaxed over the years.'
He also spends less and less time on his boat, aptly named No Comment. In fact, Whittaker said he cannot remember the last time he took a holiday.
Sir Geoff assiduously cultivates the macho image. He would have you believe that he is a tough and ruthless operator. But the truth, said one old acquaintance, is that he's actually rather nice - 'in some ways too nice. He has difficulty being decisive with people.'
In fact, almost everyone admits to liking Sir Geoff, though most people then add that they do not really know him, that nobody does. But if he is much warmer than he likes to pretend, he is also more vulnerable, despite the carapace he has spent so long developing.
He will, for example, scrutinise this profile of himself carefully and tear it apart for clues about who has contributed to the portrait.
But whatever he may think privately, he's unlikely to admit to anything that smacks of weakness.
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