Profile: John McGrath - The man who'll mix the drinks

The chief of GMG Brands knows how to keep a clear head, writes Ian Griffiths

Ian Griffiths
Saturday 17 May 1997 23:02

John McGrath does not look like a rocket scientist. He does not talk like a rocket scientist. In truth he is not a rocket scientist but he does hold a first class honours degree in applied physics. That is not, perhaps, the qualification you would expect from the chief executive elect of the world's largest drinks company.

Later this year, regulatory authorities willing, McGrath will exchange his position as group chief executive at Grand Metropolitan for a similar position at GMG Brands, the product of Grand Met's pounds 24bn merger with Guinness which was announced last week.

It is the second time in 18 months that McGrath has emerged as custodian of the top job. In late 1995 he was chosen in preference to David Nash to lead Grand Met towards the next millennium. Last week he was nominated as the man to oversee the creation of the world's seventh largest food and drinks company. The competition this time round was less intense. McGrath was really the only candidate for what will be an extraordinary management challenge.

McGrath is liked and respected not only within Grand Met but also at Guinness where his strengths in the fiercely competitive international drinks market have been well appreciated.

"John is a good man and he is a nice man. He commands huge respect and I am sure that is why he was the obvious choice for the job," one colleague observes.

Good and nice are not always attributes associated with successful executives but McGrath is no ordinary executive. His grounding in applied physics took him naturally towards engineering, which again is not the natural training ground for the marketing and brand-oriented world in which McGrath now operates.

However, these unconventional credentials have proved to be no obstacle to a man who has developed a crisp and clear management style.

"John is immensely quick and he goes straight to the heart of the matter," an associate says. "He is very open to ideas and he is very direct."

These are skills which are as relevant to a drinks company as they are to the motor industry where McGrath spent much of his early career.

It is a career which has had a momentum of its own rather than being precisely executed.

"I realised I was going to be a general manager in 1975," McGrath recalls. "I would love to tell you I had a great strategic plan to be where I am but that is not true."

McGrath was born in Ruislip as the winds of the Second World War were blowing across Europe. His father was in the air force and the family was dispatched to Canada before McGrath's first birthday.

He was brought up in the Canadian countryside where he learned to admire farmers. But if the prairies beckoned they were deprived of the chance to claim the seven-year-old McGrath as their own when the family returned to England. He still says "Sure" rather than "Yes" but that is the only legacy of the Canadian experience.

A more lasting impression was left by his time working for Ford at Dagenham. He was a member of the Barber Babes team - a group of young managers assembled by Ford finance directors John Barber.

"Ford was like a business school in its own right," McGrath recalls.

"The two periods of my career which I have enjoyed the most are my time at Grand Met and working for Ford."

After an early career which also took in companies such as the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, the National Coal Board, Jaguar and Stone Platt, McGrath finally arrived at Grand Met in 1985 as group director of Watney Mann and Truman brewers.

"I joined Grand Met because it was an exciting business which was growing fast and very successful," McGrath says.

It was the first step towards a quite glittering career which has brought the McGrath management philosophy to an ever broader circle of Grand Met employees.

"I am a great believer in giving people the freedom to succeed, which also means giving them the freedom to fail - but not too often," McGrath says.

He is not a man who needs to be in constant control and when he is on the road looking at the group's businesses he is not in daily contact.

He has supreme confidence in the people around him who he knows are perfectly capable of running the business without regular interference. He does not take his work home with him. If he is relaxing at the cinema or theatre he is not burdened by thoughts of what is happening in the office.

This confidence in his colleagues reflects McGrath's own self-confidence which allows him to focus on the bigger issues rather than the minutiae of the business.

"I try to decide, maybe at the beginning of a new year, that there are two or three really big things that I need to do," McGrath says.

"My attention to the in-tray is really quite limited. The task really is to sort out what is important from the stuff which isn't. I believe that if you deliver two or three big things then that differentiates you from other managers."

Ironically, the merger with Guinness was not one of those big things which had to be delivered. The concept was first articulated by George Bull, now Grand Met's chairman, at a management strategy conference in France in 1989. He argued the need for a step change in the drinks business and a move to what he called the premier league. The concept has been refined since and finally became possible in March when the Grand Met share price began to reflect more accurately the value vested in the business.

The merger gives McGrath another opportunity to put his wealth of management skills to the test and to add yet more to his fund of knowledge.

"I am a very good listener and I learn a lot from other people, " McGrath says. "Because I am basically self-confident, I do not worry about saying 'I am sorry I don't know what you are talking about'. So it is quite easy for me to learn quite quickly because I go and talk to people. I don't have to be some precious god who expects to have perfect knowledge."

No one would describe McGrath as precious. He is very much the man of the people. Now he has to prove he is the man of even more people.

"If anyone can do this, John can," a colleague remarks. "The time is right for the merger and John is right for the time." There is no mistaking his enthusiasm and delight at the merger and he is thrilled by the response of the Grand Met staff who in some cases cannot contain their excitement. However, he is also the voice of restraint and reality.

"You can't allow the two ships to drift. You need to give clear direction because things will happen slower than people want," McGrath cautions.

"We have to be careful that the top management doesn't move too fast. We have been on to this since the middle of March, but 99.999 per cent of the staff have only been on this since 7.30 am Monday morning. If you race on ahead you are going to leave an awful lot of people behind. We want to move quickly but bring everyone with us."

In keeping with his commitment to clarity, McGrath has not become cluttered with the mind-boggling detail of the transaction. His objective is breathtaking in its simplicity and its modesty.

"I would take a lot of pride if GMG Brands was viewed as a very well managed international business, because if we are that then everything else will get delivered."

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