MT Business Lifeforms: The corporate saviour

Simon Kelly: serial turnaround artist, portfolio chairman and TV pundit.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Look - it's Simon Kelly, the man off the telly! And on half a dozen big-name boards; and on numerous government advisory panels; and in the Telegraph, the Economist, and sometimes even the Sun. For his next trick, ladies and gentleman, if you please, the talented Mr Kelly will be turning round the ailing northern machine tool giant Florant plc (not, of course, that this means he'll be neglecting his dozen or so other jobs).

His strategy? The same that has always served him so well: debts will be paid down and profitability restored; shareholders' interests will be safeguarded; jobs retained; efficiencies made and costs cut. Then, two years to the day, he'll ride off into the sunset, having taken another company off the critical list and restored it to rude good health. All he asks for is your support, a readiness to embrace change and a smidgen of equity to ensure, as the Americans say, he has some 'skin in the game'.

In an age when any half-cocked troubleshooter styles themself a 'company doctor' few have done more to deserve the mantle than Kelly. This 'patron saint of basketcases' (Investors Chronicle) has passed his healing hands over a dozen enfeebled firms in the past 10 years. All have responded to his invigorating touch.

Nor have any been quick fixes - this is evidenced by the rhetoric that trails him. Where other turnaround CEOs 'take over' or 'step up', Kelly is always 'parachuted in'.

He hails from a Presbyterian Scots background, a Glasgow grammar school boy who started work in a bank. Those who remember Kelly from this time recall a likable fellow with obvious potential. But, more than anything else, an extraordinary grasp of detail and ruthlessly analytical mind.

His finest moment, perhaps, was when he asked a particularly probing question during a presentation by a widely disliked regional manager. 'Well, Mr Kelly,' the man replied briskly, 'if you think you can do better, perhaps you'd like to take over this presentation.' He did, and he did.

From RBS, he moved on to Tasker Reilly Holdings, an oddball conglomerate based in the north-east. There he found himself in charge of its loss-making subsidiary, Northumbrian Poultry, an outfit widely regarded as, ahem, a turkey. Kelly acted decisively, ruffled a few feathers, and within two years turned it into a golden goose. He performed a similar feat of corporate alchemy at TRH's ailing plastics and rubberware division. A clipping from the time shows him resplendent in a newly profitable pair of boots, the caption predictably 'Kelly's Welly'.

After putting the boot in, Kelly headed south, where he assumed the chairmanship of the ailing Bolton Provident. He was a controversial choice: chickens and rubber were one thing, said the pundits, but a huge and messy life assurance business was quite another. Policyholders feared for their schemes and staff for their jobs. But the no-nonsense Scot rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in. Five years on and Kelly was a hero to unions and the City alike. During the turnaround, Bolton shed exactly two jobs: the marketing director and one non-exec.

The rest, as they say, is history - an impressive litany of corporate resurrections. His proudest boast is that not one firm has gone into receivership. Not one. How does he do it? There's no secret, he says with slight false modesty. Just understand the business, win over the staff and work hard. Why does he do it? Every business has the potential to be profitable - he loves figuring out how. Has he ever put a foot wrong? Well, there was that lottery project in Liverpool - but he was talked into it against his better judgment, and most will concede that Midas himself couldn't have gilded that particular turd.

For such a successful man, Kelly has remarkably few critics. He lives a life free of ostentation with his wife. He sits on the board of several charities: lucky them, his magic appears as efficacious in the voluntary sector as elsewhere. There are, however, those who say he spreads himself too thin. As with a top London restaurant, his name above the door is no guarantee that he's actually there on the day; what you mostly get is one of his minions. Few expect every meal in a Gordon Ramsey restaurant to be cooked by the potty-mouthed gastronaut himself. Why, Kelly seems to have asked himself, should business be any different?

Most recently, we have his foray into reality TV with Channel 4's surprise ratings winner Doctor Business. On one hand, this has led to predictable charges of dumbing down and suggestions that Kelly is starting to believe his own hype. But then again, as a normally acerbic TV critic pointed out, anyone who can get the public discussing p/e ratios with the kind of fervour they normally reserve for morons in the jungle deserves all the hype that he gets.

SIMPLY SIMON

1940 Born June 24, Glasgow, educated Hutchesons Grammar School

1958-64 Executive, Royal Bank of Scotland

1965 Joins Tasker Reilly as MD of Northumbrian Poultry

1967 MD, Tasker Reilly's Durham Plastics

1969 Executive chairman, Bolton Provident

1974 Chief executive, Avanos

1977-2005 CEO or chairman of 12 different companies, seat on 13

government advisory panels, various charities

2004 Simon Kelly is Channel 4's Doctor Business

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