Profile: The man who would be king of coal: David Bowen meets a bid contender for the very industry that unceremoniously threw him out two years ago: Malcolm Edwards

Click to follow
THERE was a time when the British coal industry was run by small, bespectacled men with antique cufflinks. If Malcolm Edwards - who fits the description - has his way, that time will come again.

Next month Edwards' company, Coal Investments, will be bidding to take over the rump of British Coal. More accurately, it will be bidding for the five regional companies into which it has been split, sometimes with a partner, sometimes without. He may not win any of the companies but, in theory, he could get the lot - which would include 16 operating and seven mothballed pits.

The industry feels Coal Investments has a good chance of taking over at least one of the companies, which would make it an important player in the newly privatised world of mining. So does the City, which has pushed its share price up from 16p last October to 129p.

Even without a regional company, Coal Investments will become a substantial deep mine operator. Next month Edwards will be reopening two of the mines he has already leased from British Coal: Hem Heath, which used to be called Trentham, and Silverdale. Markham Main and Coventry will start operating later in the year. Edwards also has a small Welsh pit, previously in private ownership, which has never been shut down.

This sounds baffling. If British Coal, with all its resources and skills, could not keep the mines going, how can Edwards? It is a question that baffles even those who understand the industry. 'He appears to be pursuing a totally suicidal course,' one consultant says. 'He's talked a good story,' says David Price, editor of the newsletter Coal UK. 'But the risk is that it could all come down to earth with a dull thud.'

The experts are prepared to accept that Coal Investments can produce much more cheaply than British Coal ever could, and can probably fight off imports. Edwards himself says flexible production methods - untrammelled by British Coal orthodoxies and overseen by an engineer who has worked in Australia - will double productivity, and production costs can be brought down to hitherto unheard-of levels.

'British Coal traditionally produced 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes per man year,' he says. 'We have to get our mines above 3,000.'

But they find it difficult to believe that even Edwards can find a market for the coal the mines will produce, given the power generators' determination to concentrate on gas. 'There is no possibility he can run all the mines and make a profit: he's got to close some,' Michael Prior, a consultant, says.

Edwards says he is busy finding customers for the 2 million tonnes his existing pits will produce by the middle of next year. These will be industrial companies that installed coal burning equipment in the 1970s but found themselves ignored by British Coal. Edwards has the contacts to win their business, and says he will find a home for his coal by offering them a better service.

He admits the market for the regional companies' production is much less certain, because nothing is guaranteed after the current contracts run out in 1998. 'It's a black hole,' he says. 'But if you want to develop in coal mining in the UK, you must look seriously at the regional coal companies: I reckon if anyone's going to make a go of it, we will.'

Edwards is an unlikely entrepreneur. On 27 February 1992 he left British Coal's headquarters, where he had been commercial director for 18 years. He had not expected to leave that day. But at least he has since received a pay- off of a quarter of a million pounds.

He was 57: a good age at which to cultivate his garden in the picturesque Wiltshire village of Downton. 'I didn't consider it,' he says. 'I wasn't going to be put out on the street; I knew a lot of people and I actively enjoy business.'

He is looking forward to starting a career as others are winding theirs down. 'As soon as I become an elderly gentleman, I'll go off and do what elderly gentlemen do,' he says. 'I'm not one yet.'

Edwards was born in 1934 and had a childhood disrupted by the War. His father, curator of the London Hospital's medical museum, believed the capital would be flattened and Malcolm was shunted around the country as an evacuee before coming back to Alleyn's, a public school in Dulwich. He won a history scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, just failed to get a First, then joined the National Coal Board.

This was not so odd. The NCB ran one of the best graduate training schemes at the time, and there was fierce competition to join it. Cecil Parkinson failed, but Edwards succeeded. 'There was nothing second best about the Coal Board then,' he says. 'It was pioneering the use of computers, and all sorts of exciting things were going on.'

He soon moved to the marketing side, where the dynamic young Derek Ezra (later NCB chairman) was in charge. Edwards took over the marketing department in 1973, just as the industry was being thrown into upheaval. On the one hand, the NCB was wracked by two massive strikes, one of which brought down the Heath government. On the other, the oil price was rocketing, giving coal a huge advantage, and Edwards was able to double prices.

He inspired fierce loyalty among his staff, but was a ruthless bargainer. 'He was disliked by many people he dealt with because of his hard-nosed attitudes,' Prior says. 'He had a reputation for being rough and tough when it came to getting contracts.'

It was not until the mid-1980s that he started to become seriously concerned about British Coal. While the miners' strike was damaging, it was the collapse in oil prices in 1986 - followed by a collapse in coal prices - that really undermined the corporation. It was incapable of reacting except by cutting and, Edwards says, 'it developed a sort of arterial sclerosis.'

He believed there had to be fundamental change. As Cecil Parkinson was announcing the privatisation of the coal industry to the 1988 Conservative conference, Edwards was speaking at a fringe meeting. He wanted privatisation, he said, but it must be done before that of the electricity companies, and in a way that did not put coal at a disadvantage to other fuels.

It soon became clear the opposite was happening. The electricity industry was privatised first, and said it favoured gas. The government, meanwhile, promised a huge subsidy to the nuclear stations. Edwards was furious, and told the world. 'His performances at conferences were party turns,' Prior says. 'He would make witty speeches that would slaughter the nuclear subsidy.'

Edwards felt he had no choice, and is critical of his colleagues who said nothing. 'An industry doesn't defend its markets by being silent,' he says.

By the turn of the decade Sir Robert Haslam, the chairman, was not on speaking terms with the Energy secretary, John Wakeham, so British Coal was dissolving into rival baronies. Outsiders wanting to talk to Edwards were surprised to find themselves talking to a public relations company in Soho, London that appeared to act on his behalf, often in opposition to the official British Coal line. He denies this: the PR company represented the marketing side of the whole coal industry, he says. But he does not deny that there was a schism between those who wanted to fight tooth and nail to keep coal's market and those who did not. 'I admire him for fighting for British Coal when all the others were rolling on their backs,' Prior says.

His frustration boiled over only after Neil Clarke became chairman in 1991. He felt the new man was happy to preside over decline and did nothing to fight coal's corner. Relations deteriorated so fast that something had to give. Edwards hoped it would be the Conservative government: Neil Kinnock had told him he would become chairman if Labour won the April 1992 election. In the event he was sacked unceremoniously in February, and when the Tories held on to power he started looking for a new career.

The planned privatisation did at least give him the opportunity of buying what he could not run, and he set about looking for a company to use as a stock market vehicle. He found Geevor, which used to mine tin, and reversed into it last autumn.

The City viewed his plans with concern - previous coal company floats had not been triumphs - but he gradually talked them round. They liked him and he liked them. 'I'd never talked to City people before, but they were exceedingly perceptive. I enjoyed talking to them.'

Now he has the little matter of making his plans work. 'They should,' he says.' And my role will become less and less as they do. It will have to, because at some stage I am going to die.'

(Photograph omitted)