Profile: The unreconstructed rebel: Colin Parsons: Taylor Woodrow's chairman insists on going his own way, William Kay discovers
Sunday 18 September 1994
'I think paternalism is a virtue,' he said in his Welsh-Canadian twang. 'There is a lot of fresh air in Taylor Woodrow which there was not previously. And contrary viewpoints are welcomed and accepted - well, I would not say accepted, but, er, debated.'
Parsons, a tall, lean 60-year-old who goes running - not jogging, note - at 6am, became chairman of Taylor Woodrow in 1992, when the once-great construction and house-building group was in the depths of despair. He succeeded Peter Drew, who had developed the run-down St Katharine's Dock by the Tower of London, but had also poured resources into property and leisure. He resigned in March 1992, three weeks before the group was due to announce its first loss in years.
Parsons was approached on bended knee by the non-executive directors, all the more desperate because he had spurned them once before. In what hardly ranks as an example of team spirit, he turned down the chairmanship before Drew accepted it in 1990.
'I had been offered the job two years before,' he admitted, 'and I turned it down because at that time I didn't really see the need for me to have to come over. But on the second occasion there was clearly an atmosphere of crisis and something had to be done very quickly. It was a matter of all hands to the pump. I could see it was essential that the spot not be empty for too long.'
Other accounts have suggested that he wanted to make sure his children were properly embarked on their careers, and he makes no secret of the fact that his wife, Alice, was in no rush to come to England. She was a Scots schoolteacher who emigrated to Canada the year before he did. They met there the following year, 1960.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that the timing of Parsons' initial refusal and subsequent acceptance of the Taylor Woodrow chairmanship could not have been more fortuitous. In 1990, when Drew picked up the gauntlet, the world was sliding inexorably into recession. Two years later, the odds were stacked unequivocally in his favour.
So it has proved. Since a clear- out year in 1992, when Parsons presided over a pounds 94m loss, the group has been recovering well. Last year's profits were pounds 30.2m, and last week Parsons announced that half-year profits had more than doubled, from pounds 10.1m to pounds 22m. The 1994 outcome should not be far short of pounds 50m, and analysts are already pencilling in pounds 60m for next year.
It is a far cry from the grammar school in Neath, South Wales, where Parsons was educated in an environment about which he does not enthuse. His father, an insurance agent, encouraged him to qualify as an accountant, the classic defensive qualification for a numerate child of the lower middle classes of those days. 'But my father's predecessors were miners,' he pointed out.
He spent a formative couple of years in the army, which still noticeably informs his demeanour and outlook. Although it is not yet compulsory for Taylor Woodrow staff, the short back and sides would surely be Parsons' preferred coiffure. His addiction to invigorating runs also has military roots.
It would have been easy for him to have settled in the army or small-time accountancy, like thousands of his contemporaries. But, true to character, Parsons rebelled. 'Britain in the late 1950s was full of restrictive practices, trade union activity and government interference,' he recalled. 'I was young, full of vim and enthusiasm, and the business environment was beset by terrible political strife then prevailing in Britain. It was arrogant conservatism versus rampant - is that the word? - yes, rampant socialism.'
So Parsons headed for Canada where, he likes to put it, he was 'knocking on doors looking for a job'.
More prosaically, his accountancy qualification earned him a routine posting with the Toronto branch of KPMG Peat Marwick.
Then in 1959 he joined Monarch Development Corporation, one of Canada's biggest builders, not long before Taylor Woodrow took a 60 per cent stake. Parsons worked his way up the ladder to the presidency of Monarch in 1977, and logged a proud record of non- stop profits and dividends. He even managed to host a television chat show in his spare time.
But, just as he lamented the decline of Britain, so by the 1990s he was ready to leave what he regarded as a corrupted and low- slung Canadian economy, branded by the rest of the world with a declining currency.
'There has been a reverse brain drain from Canada to Britain,' he said, 'and more companies than ever have pulled out of Canada in the last few years. It's been a revelation, coming over to Taylor Woodrow. It's rejuvenated me.' Retirement is the last thing on his mind.
Thus refreshed, Parsons took a hacksaw to what he regarded as the complacency, overmanning and featherbedding he found in the company he had been taught to revere from afar.
'No one, from me down, is assured of a job for ever,' Parsons declared. 'If businesses in the group do not show profits, things will have to change. We had become too cosy. We are now very much redirecting the company into areas where we see good profit opportunities.'
His main thrust has been into housing and trading, where the group sells equipment and materials to the rest of the construction industry. The other two divisions, property and construction, are being toned down.
'I think the days of the big profits in heavy construction are gone for a long time,' Parsons said.
Off duty, he and Alice like to go sightseeing and tour historical sites. 'We are very fond of Scotland,' Parsons explained, 'but we are particularly attracted by the North of England. We like the people there - their bluntness.'
But Parsons is never far away from another globetrotting business trip, as Taylor Woodrow has interests in North America and Australia. This does not please Alice.
' 'Why won't you stay still and why won't you stay at home?' is what Alice is always asking,' Parsons admitted. 'But I have to keep on the move with a business like this, don't I?'
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