Brian Davidson: Turnaround artist: what next for Crown Paints?

The Business Interview: After a tricky few years, Britain's biggest independent paintmaker is back. Sarah Arnott meets its chief executive
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The chief executive of private equity-owned Crown Paints is so enthusiastic about the future of the company he's even considering buying it himself. "This is a cracking, cracking business," says Brian Davidson, when we meet at the venerable British manufacturer's spruced up – and freshly painted – headquarters in Darwen near Blackburn.

There is some cause for such gusto. In the single year since Mr Davidson was brought in by Endless to turnaround the ailing business, it has upped its market share, made an extra 1.5 million litres of paint, and seen profits double to more than £20m on revenues of £180m. To put it in context, the year before Akzo Nobel sold to Endless in 2008, Crown Paints lost £13m, not accounting for goodwill.

"We've got the hunger again," Mr Davidson says with some satisfaction. "We've bucked the trend of a market that is still slightly down."

Now, with the finances back on track, Endless is looking for buyers for its 83 per cent stake with an estimated price tag of £100m. Mr Davidson is coy about his future plans – and with reason, given that the first meeting to discuss ownership options was only two days before.

"I'm being a bit vague because my number one responsibility is to the business," the habitually straight-talking Glaswegian admits. "No bets are off, all bets are on – we are genuinely at the stage of considering the future of the business with the stakeholders."

One real possibility is a management buyout led by Mr Davidson himself. "There is the potential for the business to remain independent," he acknowledges, "but I want to make sure in that case that the business is sufficiently capitalised, because I'm not going to put it at risk by taking on high debt levels."

Whatever the outcome, Mr Davidson is keen to stay on as the chief executive, if the new owners want him. "I'd like to be here in December – maybe under new ownership – and looking at a good set of numbers," he says.

Mr Davidson's passion for work is not entirely new. After eight years at the bus builder Paxton, he admits he "loved the business". But just 12 months at Crown Paints has "reignited" him.

"This is the first job for years where I go to bed at night and think about things because I don't want to switch off," he says. "There have been stressful days, obviously, but the last year has been the best of my working life."

The appointment nearly did not happened at all. In 2009 – after decades in the bus-building business that included the turnaround of Mayflower and an MBO at Plaxton – Mr Davidson was planning to take a year off. But the Crown Paints job was simply too good to turn down.

"It was an underdog of British manufacturing, a sleepy business with a phenomenal brand that needed reawakening," he says. "Then once you're here, the whole package – the business, the brands, the investors – just gets you."

The evidence of progress is all around us. Mr Davidson's office is in the 1950s headquarters at the Darwen site thatis also home to one of two Crown Paints factories which churns out millions of litres of paints, primers and polymers each year in mill buildings dating back to 1905.

No longer "something out of Stalinist Russia", Crown House's corridors are now bold Crown Paints shades, and the redecorated boardroom replaced pictures of Winston Churchill with minimalism and modern colours. "Twenty four-year-old B&Q buyers don't care about Churchill," Mr Davidson explains. "When they ask on the shop floor why I'm spending money on the HQ, I tell them: if you are going to be making paint, I have to sell it."

Compared with the business itself, Crown House is positively new. The stalwart of British manufacturing has roots stretching back to a calico printing shop set up by one James Greenway in Darwen in 1777. But it has a chequered history in recent decades. Ownership passed from Reed International to Nobel Industries, which then merged with Akzo and, as Akzo Nobel, bought ICI Worldwide, the owner of arch-rival Dulux. Cue a management buyout of Crown Paints, funded by Endless, and a mission to turn a tired subdivision of a global conglomerate back into a plucky market challenger pitting its all against Dulux.

"We're not trying to take over the world, we're delighted to be the challenger brand," Mr Davidson says. "But before we weren't challenging, we were whimpering."

The lynchpin of the transformation is Mr Davidson himself. He admits he can be "quite a hard taskmaster", but he prides himself on a down-to-earth approach that includes walking the floors in the factories every two weeks, knowing "literally hundreds" of his staff by name, and ensuring his open-door policy is "come in for a cup of tea" rather than "can I get a slot in his diary?".

Staff have responded well. Down in the factory, among stacks of virgin cans and vats of creamy paint squirted like giant Mr Whippy, employees greet the prospect of yet another revolution in the ownership of the business with a certainty that "Brian will see that it works out all right", whether he stays himself or not.

Mr Davidson's personal touch is the hallmark of his style. He is also unrelenting in his focus on getting things done, including securing a £25m financing deal last January, instituting a £6m capital investment programme and getting a grip on costs with renegotiated purchasing deals. "Look at this," he says, brandishing an intricate, multi-coloured chart with every relevant metric for every division of the business. "Hitherto, managers only saw the results a couple of weeks after the end of the month; now I get a detailed summary by 10am every Monday showing exactly how the previous week has gone and what the forecasts are."

The weekly update is the keystone of the new Crown Paints, the subject of a Monday management meeting that brooks no absences and allows for no delays. "It has given us a bit of urgency," Mr Davidson says with a chuckle. "It keeps the machine running faster and keeps people focused."

With an admirable stab at diplomacy, Mr Davidson tries not to speak badly of his predecessors. But the frustration is clear. "It is very different when a business is part of a corporate structure with a lot of departments reporting into a headquarters in another country," he says. "It is common then for a business to react slowly because there is a lot more politics and a lot more indecision."

An independent Crown Paints, fuelled by up-to-the-minute sales figures and a hunger to take the fight to Dulux, has no such lethargy. "We've got our arms around the business now in terms of decision-making," he says. "There's no fannying about."

All that remains is to find a buyer with a suitable plan for the company. "The exciting thing is not just the new ownership but what will be done with the business afterwards – that's what keeps me awake at night," Mr Davidson says.

Crown prince

* Brian Davidson has been CEO of Crown Paints since December 2009.

* He joined after more than 20 years in the bus building industry, including helping turn around the ailing Mayflower, and leading the management buyout at Plaxton in 2004.

* Crown Paints employs 1,400 people, but the duty doesn't end there. "Being chief executive isn't just about making money," Mr Davidson says. "Ultimately, we support about 7,000 people and you have to take that social responsibility."

* Mr Davidson is married with two children, aged 13 and 19.

* His favourite paint is emerald green.