UK: Editorial - New '90s role models.

UK: Editorial - New '90s role models. - Old-fashioned is definitely in fashion in business today. Gone are the '80s high-flyers fed on a diet of hype and debt. Today's stars are those where cash is king, debt is shunned, the whims of one man are subsumed

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Old-fashioned is definitely in fashion in business today. Gone are the '80s high-flyers fed on a diet of hype and debt. Today's stars are those where cash is king, debt is shunned, the whims of one man are subsumed to the collective, well thought-out strategy of a board, the cult of personality is unknown, and innovation is confined to produce lines and market-place rather than the balance sheet.

A role model for this '90s company is Caledonia Investments, the Cayzer family vehicle. Under the wily Lord Cayzer and now his nephew, Peter Buckley, Caledonia has had an uncanny ability to buy assets at the bottom of the cycle and to sell at the top, and to spot which markets to attach, always thinking long-term.

These newly-fashionable, old-fashioned companies are thick on the ground, mainly in the North and Scotland. Here the in-built resistance to tick and fear of the tallyman seems inherent in the corporate sector. Few of the spectacular corporate failures have come from Scotland or the North. Mainly it has been London or South Eastern companies that have been hammered by the weight of debt they ill-advisedly built up in the '80s. Not so the Thomson family in Dundee (DC Thomson), or Baxters, or many of the whisky companies. Their main worry is where to place their investment income to get the best return.

Unemployment is higher in the North than in the south, but is growing proportionately much more slowly. House prices, too, have not fallen off a cliff. Scottish and Northern house prices rose by 4 and 3.5% respectively last year, while London and South Eastern prices dropped by 7 and 7.5%, according to the latest Halifax Building Society survey.

New manufacturing companies in the North and Scotland display some of the best old-fashioned traits. Attention to detail, product innovation and an unrelenting attack on costs, mean that they can make money - and lots of it - operating in which might sometimes seem the most unpromising markets. Kevin McDonald's Polypipe, based in Doncaster, makes plastic piping and suchlike for the construction industry, which would seem a pretty suicidal market right now. Not a bit. Polypipe flourishes. So does near neighbour, Spring Ram, whose brash hoardings announcing "the site of another new factory for Spring Ram" litter the Yorkshire motorway - and this for a business in bathroom fittings. The welcome return to thrifty Victorian values calls into stark focus many shibboleths about regional aid. Ravenscraig shows the futility of government picking and then propping up industrial winners. It was the Macmillan government, which built this plant for cynical political ends. While this government understands that private sector investment (overseas or domestic) is the only effective route to secure long-term industrial jobs, there are signs of complacency.

Britain's record in attracting new jobs (Nissan, Toyota etc) is first-class but Japanese companies, here or planning to move in, are becoming worried about a potential shortage of British skills particularly in critical management areas.

Rather than more Ravenscraigs, government and business (old and new) would do well to pump up efforts to improve management training and education and shop-floor skills.

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