UK: Britain's new breed of risk taker - the nouveau risque. (2 of 3)

UK: Britain's new breed of risk taker - the nouveau risque. (2 of 3) - First Leisure's equally buoyant chief executive, John Conlan, believes that he failed in his first ambition: to be a performer on stage. Visitors to his Soho office might differ on th

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

First Leisure's equally buoyant chief executive, John Conlan, believes that he failed in his first ambition: to be a performer on stage. Visitors to his Soho office might differ on this harsh judgement. But Conlan's personal exuberance does nothing to detract from his hard business sense.

From a start in the 1960s organising concerts for The Who and Stephen Stills, the 48-year-old Conlan now runs a highly successful leisure business. Irish-born Conlan was given his head in 1982 through a £42 million buyout of First Leisure from Trusthouse Forte. His first ventures were seen by competitors not just as risky but as sheer madness. "We would take a business worth less than £1 million and then spend £4 or £5 million building it into a discotheque," Conlan says. His philosophy: "Give the customer more for his money than he expects." Next he dressed up tenpin bowling, pulling it out of the "slightly suspicious low life" and selling it to families. Now huge entertainment complexes are his passion.

His formula for addressing risk, says Conlan, one foot resting casually on his knee, is simple: "A lot of homework - but you can't wait for ever. Sometimes you have to trust your gut and go for it." The key is home-grown management. "We try to find the high flyers and put them on the fast track." As the board owns 35% of the company, Conlan keeps his eye on returns rather than growth. His cautious expansion strategy was criticised in the booming '80s. But now, as others shy away, Conlan is prepared to gear up - if somewhat cautiously: "We always try to build one recession into our five-year plans."

Every decision at First Leisure is debated aggressively. "Someone said our executive meetings are more akin to a street brawl," Conlan grins. And when he has to take a risk? "It always scares you," he returns, but to succeed "you have to constantly initiate change". And the secret of keeping your nerve? He smiles grandly: "Keep young."

In 1987 another MBO, at a mere £330,000, took place. It could have been cruelly boring - the directors were civil servants; it was yet another consultancy; and the chief executive, Rod Aldridge, was a family man, rash enough to remortgage his home for the sake of some independence.

The Capita Group, helped by 3i, severed itself from The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountants (CIPFA) with no guarantee of clients and with a name and new location that no one knew. "But all the clients came with us," the stocky, light-bearded Aldridge says with quiet pride.

Today the company runs five businesses, has 8,500 customers and turns over £20 million, all due to a textbook success of niche exploitation. The one-time office boy Aldridge and his directors are intimately familiar with their market: local and central public services. "We know a lot of the people we try to sell to and we recognise their problems. From day one we have never been in overdraft. And we have a hell of a team spirit," Aldridge sums up in his rapid-fire manner.

And this is only the beginning. Capita has been set up so that each arm - consulting, computers, training, marketing and managed services - can feed off the clients of the other. The 12 businesses each have a hand-picked managing director, someone "with something to prove", who is given a long leash to fulfil his own business plan. The 43-year-old Aldridge likes this stretched, segmented approach. "If (each unit) is small enough, accountability can be assured." Stability of income is safeguarded by long-term contracts.

Aldridge's business acumen is partly born of experience and is partly of the prissy homespun kind. "You should never forget your roots," he reflects thoughtfully. "My style of life is many many times in advance of my own upbringing, but the ideals are the same: the family is important and money and debt are well controlled."

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