Profile: Emperor's new shoes: Alan Bowkett didn't make Clarks fit, but that won't sink a grand design, says David Bowen

David Bowen
Sunday 09 May 1993 00:02

Viewed from the other side of the great swamp of recession, the business world of the 1980s seems like another planet. The clever and aggressive creatures who prowled over it, hunting and pouncing - the likes of John Ashcroft and John Gunn - have in large part disappeared. The few survivors from this species of young deal-maker are regarded today with some suspicion.

Alan Bowkett has many of the distinguishing marks of the breed. He has an MBA. He spent the 1980s buying, selling and restructuring companies. He came away from his last sale with many millions of pounds in his pocket. At only 42, he is now chief executive of Berisford International and has plans to build a new conglomerate.

His first acquisition was to have been one of Britain's biggest and best-known private companies, C&J Clark. That ambition collapsed when the shoemaker's shareholders voted on Friday not to sell out, but it was a rare failure for Bowkett. He says that he already has other targets in his sights.

Leaning back in his chair at Berisford's headquarters, an axe's throw from the Tower of London, Bowkett gives every impression of relishing the experience. He is still only half-way through his lunchtime roll at four in the afternoon, thanks to endless meetings and phone calls with bankers, journalists and folk from the City. He is a large affable man, with hair already grey despite his still-youthful looks. His rugby-playing days are over, and his stomach has spread in appreciation: he leans back, jacket off, and talks with the animation of someone who is living on adrenalin and loving it.

So it is a surprise to learn that the last thing he wants to be called is a deal-maker. 'I have to throw 110 per cent effort into this Clarks offer, but I dislike it. It's necessary, but it does not add value.' What he is, he insists, is an industrialist.

It emerges that Bowkett has a grand scheme for the new Berisford which, if followed through, will fully justify his claim. He wants to create a new style of conglomerate that would combine the best commercial aspects of Anglo-Saxon management with the long-termism of the Japanese. With more than pounds 1m of his own money invested in the company, he has more at stake than simply proving a theory.

As he talks, the image of the red-braces deal- maker fades ever further into the background. His huge manufacturing group, with perhaps pounds 1bn market value and pounds 4bn sales, will judge itself not only by financial ratios, but also by such measures as quality, waste reduction and training effort. The use of such physical tests is increasingly used in 'benchmarking' exercises by companies that are trying to close the gap with the Japanese. But it is almost unknown among the modern numbers-driven conglomerates.

The idea of starting with a philosophy, then looking for companies to fit it, is also unusual. But Bowkett is convinced this is the way forward for manufacturing. 'I do believe there are no problems with the British economy that couldn't be counteracted purely by us being able to manufacture goods of design, quality and value, again and again and again.'

Only time will tell whether he will indeed build a new Japanese-style conglomerate. If he does, he will prove he has undergone a Pauline conversion. Five years ago, when he was still struggling with the ball-bearings company RHP, he told me he got 'an immense thrill from a deal', and added: 'I find it very difficult to change from dealing to managing.' Now he says: 'I've grown.' And all because he worked with the Japanese and was seduced by what he saw.

Alan Bowkett has the same working-class grammar school background as many of the shooting stars of the 1980s. During the Second World War, his mother, Margaret, was sent to work at Ransome and Marles, a ball-bearing company in Newark (which her son bought 45 years later). She hated it, and ran away to join the Wrens, where she met and married a seaman, John. Alan was born in 1951, and was brought up in Newark and Worcester. He went to grammar school in Kidderminster and moved smoothly on to an economics course at University College, London, and so to the London Business School, where he did an MBA.

Here he veered away from the high-flying career in finance towards which he was hurtling. He was one of two MBAs in 100 who went into industry rather than the City, and joined Lex Service. According to his contemporary Gerry Robinson, now chief executive of Granada, he was 'a guy who operated with great clarity and had very good judgement: I always felt he would do good things'.

He became one of the youngest directors of a Lex operating company, and was in charge of strategy for the industrial division before he was 30. In 1983 he fell out with the chairman and switched to the services conglomerate BET. He spent three years 'buying and selling companies, getting rid of the dross and turning things round. People like me were given responsibility, and if we picked up the ball and ran we had a great time.'

In 1985, at 34, he was given a chance to run BET's second-biggest company, Boulton and Paul. Once the constructor of the Defiant nightfighter, it now made building materials and steel structures. It was losing market share, and Bowkett set about turning it round. Using the analytical tools business school had given him, he cut costs, closed two factories and developed a coherent strategy.

He also learned that these skills took him only so far. 'Business schools don't teach you anything about people,' he says. 'At Boulton and Paul I had to change attitudes, getting people to participate and breaking down the us-and-them attitude. If you are suddenly making someone work till eight at night, they and their wives have to know why.' (Bowkett himself is a solid family man - he and his wife, Joy, have four children).

He was well paid, and could have risen much higher in BET. But, he says, he had a 'burning desire to be wealthy', which meant he would have to stop being a wage slave. 'I met Greg Hutchings (of Tomkins) for lunch,' he says. 'I thought, 'He's a smart guy, but I could do that'.' So he joined up with two former colleagues, and started to trawl through balance sheets to find companies that looked ripe for reviving. While he was doing this, his share options from BET became tradable - on 19 October 1987, Black Monday. 'I had mentally spent the pounds 100,000 I thought I was going to get: as it was, I got about half that.'

But Black Monday did not affect the real economy, and at the end of 1987 he bought RHP for pounds 72.5m, one of the largest management buy-ins so far. RHP was a creature of Harold Wilson's industrial strategy: formed by a merger of Britain's three big ball-bearing makers that was designed to head off the foreign threat. It failed, and by 1987 was under pressure.

His headquarters was in Newark, in the same building that had once so oppressed his mother. RHP was suffering from under-investment. Bowkett closed one factory, and stepped up his homespun morale-boosting philosophy: he wore bright red braces, for example, in the belief it would signify to the workers that the boss took an interest.

But it was only when he started working closely with the Japanese ball-bearing giant NSK that he saw how much could be done by the relentless application of common sense. 'My conversion came when I was talking to the manufacturing director,' he says. He learned about cellular manufacturing, the importance of 'software' (people) rather than 'hardware' (machines) and the principle of kaizen, or continuous improvement. 'What I found surprising was that it was all quite simple.'

In 1988, Bowkett told me his preference was to stay at RHP and build an empire. 'But if someone comes and offers to pay enough for it, that will leave me with a lot of money and no job,' he said. A year later, NSK did just that, offering pounds 210m for the group. Bowkett was attacked for selling Britain's only ball-bearing company, but insists he had no choice. 'I started doing a good job, but we were getting outspent all the time. It was a business that definitely needed a partner.'

He found himself with a lot of money and no job. Since boyhood he had aimed to become a millionaire by the age of 35. He failed. He did not make it until 39.

Bowkett had been a Conservative councillor in Ealing, London, 10 years earlier, and remained a member of the party. He did consider a political career, but decided he should stick to what he knew. He retains a strong interest in education, however, and as treasurer of the University of East Anglia is highly critical of government policy, which he says could undermine long-term recovery. He also believes teachers' pay should be raised by 50 per cent, then linked totally to assessment.

Instead of plunging into public life, he developed his plan for a British conglomerate run on Japanese lines, and started to look for a vehicle from which to launch it. He settled on Berisford, which was in a terrible mess but had a market value large enough to allow him to make a big move quickly. He bought 6 million shares for pounds 1.25m, and set about reducing the vehicle to its bare chassis. After a year, with most of Berisford's commodity businesses and property sold off, he was ready to move. He identified five companies that would, he though, benefit from his new style: guinea-pig number one was to have been Clarks.

Whatever targets Bowkett does eventually snap up, however, he will need to prove there is a half- way house between ponderous paternalism and ruthless 'Hansonisation'. The shadow of the Eighties hangs heavy: let us hope Bowkett can shrug it off.

(Photograph omitted)

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