Glen Renfrew was only the seventh chief of the Reuters news agency. In his era, however, the company, now 154 years old, was transformed into a giant of real-time financial information delivery.
He was in his generation the driving force behind the company's embrace of technology. He led the company into the first simultaneous transatlantic public float, achieving global recognition for Reuters and very considerable gains for shareholders and staff. In his decade as chief executive, from 1981 to 1991, Reuters hit the jackpot in most senses. Renfrew was firmly in the Reuters tradition of colourful, cosmopolitan autocrats with a taste for the good life, although he was far more approachable than his idiosyncratic predecessor, Gerald Long.
Born in 1928 in Aberdare, New South Wales, the son of a miner, Renfrew studied modern languages at Sydney University and joined Reuters, then a rather British and upper-class organisation, in 1952. He could be funny about his origins. When talking in Moscow to some Soviet official he announced that he was the grandson of a miner. The official gurgled with appreciation. Furthermore he was the son of a miner. Another gurgle. But he was (expletive deleted) glad he was not a miner.
Famously he joined Reuters by calling in at the front desk wearing shorts (it was said). He was assigned to Comtelburo, the lowly commercial arm which helped keep the glamorous foreign correspondent part of Reuters going in those far poorer days. He was sent on a series of postings to develop primitive commercial services delivered by bulletin or teleprinter in South Africa, South-East Asia and Belgium. In those days the young gentlemen of Comtelburo had to do everything - devising business models, writing the product, sending out the bills, erecting the radio mast and so on.
In 1964, after Reuters gained by negotiation the valuable rights to market and operate the "Stockmaster", a primitive computer terminal displaying in real time US and other equity prices outside North America, Renfrew was put in charge of the business equivalent of a frigate, the computer division.
Early European prospects for the service found it conceptually hard to grasp. Was it a telephone? A well-known consultancy thought we might find a world market of five terminals. The price was a very modern-sounding $950 a month. But Reuters had started on its long march towards creating a huge empire of computerised information services in financial markets around the world.
In 1971, Renfrew took over a rather more substantial frigate in the form of Reuters' operations in North America, which he proceeded to turn into a very separate fiefdom. The key brave decision to start a Reuters operation in North America independent of the Associated Press and Dow Jones had been taken by Gerald Long back in the Sixties. Renfrew built his Reuters North America on technology, which fascinated him, even at one point setting up a personal computer assembly plant on Long Island.
His ideas on technology architecture revolved around exploitation of broadcast over satellite and cable facilities. The vision was breathtaking in its grandeur, long before the internet and Microsoft. As history turned out, Reuters' business success was rather more rooted in technology based on slow telephone lines aimed at the expanding foreign exchange market liberated since the early Seventies. The Reuters Monitor and Dealing Services came out of Europe in the main. Nevertheless Renfrew and his rival, Michael Nelson in London, were taking Reuters on a transformational and exuberant ride beyond the world of news agencies from which there has been no turning back.
In 1981 the board preferred Renfrew over Nelson as successor to Gerald Long and by 1984 profits had surged beyond the 1980 level of about £4m. The lid on the boiling pot of shareholder expectation could no longer be held in place. Renfrew, with the board, led the company towards a public float on both sides of the Atlantic at once, despite anxieties over the future independence of the company in its public form. The Founders "golden" share and, for a time, dual equity classes were devised to allay, so far successfully, fears that Reuters would lose the independence which is so vital to its brand and business model.
In his decade as CEO, the company hit a golden phase of rapid revenue, profit and share-price growth. Acquisition such as Instinet, the automated equity brokerage business, put Reuters on the American map to a far greater degree than the technology plans of the Seventies. Towards the end of the Eighties, however, the company perhaps inevitably was coming to be regarded as arrogant, complacent and slow - suitable challenges for a new leader.
Renfrew was combative, articulate, linguistically gifted and, in a sense, grand. After his last presentation to stock analysts in New York, the city he liked best, the audience stood and cheered him to the echo for delivering so much creativity, producing so much shareholder value. He was perhaps overly mesmerised by technology but, back then, technology was not available off the shelf to everyone and it contributed massively to the possibilities of the business.
He was mesmerised by the US, Japan and Germany. He had trouble taking the UK seriously. I once, naïvely, asked his permission to take the London Stock Exchange to court for some reason or other. He advised me first to consult the great and the good, whose indissoluble relationships he described in an earthy Australian manner. We did not sue.
After leaving Reuters in 1991, he and his wife, Daphne, lived in Bermuda and sadly saw little of his former colleagues.
David UreReuse content