THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: neville simms; Captain Sensible's show is on the road

The chief executive of Tarmac gave up treading the boards for life in a hard hat

Tom Stevenson
Sunday 25 June 1995 23:02

Neville Simms looks an unlikely thespian, neatly trimmed grey hair, sensible glasses and chauffeur-driven Jaguar parked outside Tarmac's head office in Mayfair, London. But he looks back fondly on his days with the National Youth Theatre in the early 1960s before he gave up treading the boards for life in a JCB mechanical digger.

It has probably been a less glamorous 30 years, wearing a hard hat on the Black Country relief road, and one suspects the chief executive of Britain's biggest housebuilder and quarry group is enjoying his latest role in the limelight as saviour of one of industry's best-known names.

One of his first duties at the top of the company he has served for 25 years was to announce a pounds 350m loss for the year to September 1992. A year later he had trimmed the red ink to pounds 43m and last year Tarmac was firmly back in the black.

After the excesses of Tarmac in the 1980s, when head office turned a blind eye while the subsidiaries went on a crazy spending spree, Captain Sensible has turned the business round in double-quick time.

He may have given up his more star-struck aspirations but Mr Simms is also enjoying his new-found place rubbing shoulders with the Great and Good. Alistair Morton's nemesis on the TML Channel tunnel contracting consortium, he now sits on the private finance committee headed by Kenneth Clarke, and his most recent appointment was to the court of the Bank of England where he is happy to point out to Ken and Eddie the damage rate rises would cause a traumatised industry.

Kicking the mud off his boots as he prepares to enter the corridors of power, Mr Simms is touchingly loyal to the Government his company supports financially but which some might claim has done more than anything to destroy the industries in which it operates.

"We take the view that it would be preferable to operate in the free enterprise culture of a Conservative government. We have invested a lot as a nation in becoming more self-sufficient and we think it better to continue that process rather than enter an era where there is a risk that things are taken out of our control."

Alert to the straws in the political wind, even before last week's surprise resignation, however, he adds: "But equally we have worked entirely successfully under a Labour government. Whatever the bias, whatever part of the built environment the government wants to stress we tend to benefit."

But it was the Tories' emphasis on home ownership that almost brought Tarmac to its knees three years ago and Mr Simms is aggrieved at the Government's refusal to support the housebuilding industry.

"The Government were huge promoters of home ownership and that was very good for the industry, but it has been remarkably silent on the issue for some time now and actions behind the scenes have seemed to contradict that previous stand."

What could and should it do to help the industry now? "I'm not a great believer in reversing things but I could imagine a new type of Miras for new homeowners. There would have to be some guarantees though to take away the fear that it would all be blown away again. As for the changes to mortgage benefits for the unemployed, I think anything that hasn't actually happened ought to be reviewed."

Contradictory as this all sounds, it is typical of Mr Simms, the pragmatist. He has never been ashamed to change his mind, much to the chagrin of the City, which never seemed to know whether Tarmac was expanding its housing plans or reining them in. And as the private finance initiative builds a head of steam his brand of practical compromise looks like being emulated by the industry. Tarmac is one of the driving forces behind the new era of partnership between Government and the private sector and Mr Simms is passionate about the initiative and its frank acknowledgement that each party has different things to offer. "I'm enormously enthusiastic. It's a subject I have been struggling to promote since the early 1980s. We've gone through Paul Channon saying we've got to do it a different way, through shadow tolling to a motorway network that in 10 years will be owned by the private sector, charging live tolls. I'm absolutely certain, it's my firm belief that it will be the best for the travelling public."

The success of the private finance initiative is crucial for Tarmac, which even more than its construction peers is highly dependent on the UK economy. It has been a thankless task building anything in the past four years, during which the private sector has stopped putting up office blocks and the Government has all but stopped its ambitious roads programme.

"The recession has not yet ended for the construction industry, but the end is in sight. We've had two years of rising volumes - the difference between this recovery and the previous one is that the line is rising at an almost infinitesimal rate. The last quarter's figures were not good and that shakes people but the long-term trend is very gently upwards."

Against that background it takes a genuine optimist to be enthusiastic about a construction industry oversupplied by firms ready to tender bids for contracts under cost to provide the cash flow to pay the banks. Mr Simms is that optimist, however.

"We are clogging our roads. It makes no sense environmentally and its bad economically. Once it's in the private sector that will not happen. The private sector will put in roads that are economically viable and people will pay to use them."

If he sounds a man driven by a vision, he is; a vision that sounds out of key with the times but is passionately held and absorbs most of his energies.

What do you do when you're not working? The first and only question to stump him. "I played a game of golf last week but really I just stop working. I suppose you go through a stage in life when you just work and then you mature a bit."

But not just yet. Having never done a job for more than four years Mr Simms reckons the turnaround at Tarmac is an eight-year job. Any return to the stage will have to wait a while.

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