UK: Profile - Sir Lewis Robertson - STAKIS' COMPANY DOCTOR.

UK: Profile - Sir Lewis Robertson - STAKIS' COMPANY DOCTOR. - Chris Blackhurst is overawed by the most methodical man in Scotland.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Chris Blackhurst is overawed by the most methodical man in Scotland.

1922

Born Dundee. Educated Ardvreck Preparatory School, Crieff and Trinity College, Glenalmond. Went on to train as accountant with family firm.

1946

Left the RAF and joined father's textile firm as a director. Spent two decades building up business.

1958

Made member of local regional health authority. This was followed by membership of Monopolies Commission and chief executive, Scottish Development Agency - in all has sat on "13 quangos".

1971

Left family firm after boardroom power battle. Became chief executive, Grampian Holdings, a struggling conglomerate. Success at Grampian led to calls from banks to rescue other companies in trouble.

1991

High-profile mission: to save Stakis. Fires son of founder and cuts back staff. "Banks put me in because in the seven cases I've done so far they've got every penny of their loan and and interest back".

1992

Now sits on boards of seven companies. Rebuts criticism of high fees. "I am expensive. It is very foolish to pretend there could be or should be a cheap corporate rescue service. Anything companies get for peanuts are fit for nothing but monkeys".

There is something quite terrifying about Sir Lewis Robertson, the chairman of Stakis hotels and well-known company doctor. With his big eyebrows, sombre clothes and deep Scots burr, he appears more suited to the pews of Edinburgh's Episcopal cathedral which he attends without fail at 8 am on Sundays - complete with the old unadulterated prayer book, of course - than lunch at Chez Gerard, the Mayfair restaurant where we meet. Still the restaurant does have two attributes dear to Sir Lewis's heart: simple wholesome steaks and good claret.

What inspires fear is not so much his manner and appearance - he is actually jollier than he looks - but the knowledge that you're in the presence of somebody unique. For it is impossible to imagine anybody quite so organised and disciplined. By his own admission, he is "very exact, very disciplined and passionately methodical". Every minute of every day is spend doing something useful. All his energies are channelled to the immediate job in hand. Nothing is allowed to distract him.

As he talks, your own inadequacies begin to surface. If only you used your time so efficiently ... if only you didn't lie on the sofa watching television or laze in the garden ... if only you weren't so easily diverted from what you are supposed to be doing ...

The 69-year-old chairman of Stakis and two other plcs (Lilley and Havelock Europa), director of three more (Aristuein and EFM Income Trust and Scottish Financial Enterprise), Sir Lewis made his name rescuing companies and turning them round. Together with fellow company doctor Ken Scobie he recently set up his own specialist rescue consultancy, Postern Executive Group.

Over the last decade when business was heading for the wall, the banks and shareholders sent for Robertson: first at F H Lloyd, then Triplex, Borthwicks and Lilley. With each one his approach has been the same. He insists on being chairman. "I must have absolute authority or I won't start," he says. "On my word processor is a clear provision that the board must adopt or I won't do it."

After that he launches a two-pronged attack, to restore internal confidence and pacify bankers. Borrowings and costs are slashed, more efficient management systems and tighter controls introduced and, more often than not, new advisers and managers appointed.

Then he is on his way again. "My total possessions go into an A4 box," he says. "I have my own desk blotter and preferred kind of hold puncher and stapler. And I also take my own kind of coffee which is very strong."

Soon, he hopes, he will be able to consign Stakis to his files. In 1990, Sir Reo Stakis's high-flying, Glasgow-based hotels and casinos group made profits of £30 million. The following year, with profits halving and the share price plunging. Sir Reo made way for Sir Lewis. Head office staff was cut by a third, developments put on ice, a disposal programme launched and Andros, the chief executive son of Sir Reo, forced to stand down. "Reo and I hoped that with senior level guidance he could do it," says Sir Lewis, "but I'm afraid because of the time and scope there was no room for a personal re-training exercise. Having concluded he had to go I had no alternative but to get on with it - not least because the jobs of a whole lot of other people depended on me getting it right."

So far, though he has not got it quite right. The property slump and recession have made the sale of the group's 19 casinos - as Sir Lewis refocuses the group towards hotel and healthcare - well nigh impossible for the time being.

This year, after a £47-million loss in 1991 which included an exceptional £43.7 million charge to cover reorganisation costs and falling property values, Stakis may make a small profit. But until things improve properly and the casinos can be sold, Sir Lewis will stay. He will not grow impatient and compromise, though. Such normal human frailties are totally contrary to his nature.

The first sign of his regimented approach to what for most people half his age would be an intolerably busy life - as well as his company doctoring, he sits on the boards of numerous public, academic and church groups - comes when the Stakis public relations man warns not be late. Sir Lewis, he cautions, is always on time.

The PR man takes down the precise address and phone number of the restaurant for Sir Lewis to enter into his computerised diary. He first mastered the computer at the age of 60 and has taken to it and the fax "like a duck to water". Only Sir Lewis, it emerges, is allowed to keep his diary. He sends staff a list of his movements three months ahead. That list is then supplemented later by a second one setting out exactly where he will be and how he can be reached every half hour of every day for the week ahead.

Then there is the four-page personal and career outline that Sir Lewis brings to our lunch. Packed with exact dates and detail it, too, has been compiled by himself. Under "recreations", he gives "computer use and listmaking".

He claims, with some justification to be the most methodical man in Scotland, as three stories from a profile supplied by his office, show. In 1976, when he left Grampian Holdings for the Scottish Development Agency his successor found not just a list in a desk drawer of favourite hotels in every city he was likely to visit but the precise rooms he wanted as well. And when he buys a new suit it hangs in order behind earlier purchases until he first wears it. The third story dates from the time when Sir Lewis and his wife moved to Edinburgh and their new doctor was giving him a check up. "Clearly an obsessive personality," murmured the GP as he put his notes away. "Well I am," beams Sir Lewis.

The day we met he had spent the morning at the Berkeley Hotel, quietly "catching up on the computer and dictating machine". Just before leaving for the restaurant, he handed the tapes to his driver to courier them to Edinburgh. Woe betide Datapost or his staff if his letters were not ready for him to sign on his return.

Most days he can be found in meetings in Scotland or working from his office at his central Edinburgh home. At night he is in front of his computer. His one moment of relaxation comes when he has a "short break for supper, a drink and a coffee with my wife before going upstairs again at 9 pm". There are limits, though. "I can't work much beyond 12 pm without feeling weary. I close down the computer between 11.20 and 12.30 - it records the time so I always know when I finished." Only then will he catch up on what normal people spend their evenings doing: listening to music or reading one of his collection of some 6,000 books, all of which, it goes without saying, are logged on his computer and shelved in order.

Passionate about most things Italian, he spends two long week-ends a year in spring and autumn in Venice. His holidays are also logged on the computer in advance. "One week in June and three in September - they are sacrosanct."

His ability to shut out the rest of the world would make him a natural academic. As well as Italian, he reads books in German and French and serves on the advisory board for a new edition of Scott's Waverley novels. Other interests are classical music and photography.

Even there he does not do things by halves. To mark his 70th birthday, he is hosting and paying for a concert given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the distinguished conductor Norman Del Mar at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh for 250 relatives and friends. "It is the one occasion when the guy who pays the piper can call the tune," he says. As for photography, every time he does a rescue he buys a new gadget for his Nikon.

He is not afraid of mocking his eccentricity. The word his wife Elspeth uses to describe him, he says, is "fussy". To prove the point he tells how, when he took over Stakis the first thing he did - this to a company in deep trouble, don't forget - was to hand the office staff a list of "style points". Among the do's was indented paragraphs in letters - "I've no truck with the modern way" - while the don'ts included the word "importantly". "It is wrong. What you really mean is more important." Quite what a psychiatrist would make of Sir Lewis's addiction to doing things right, heaven knows, but he would probably say it began with his birth into a family of well-to-do accountants in solid Dundee at the beginning of the 1920s.

It was compounded by being sent away to boarding school, to the tough regime, in those days, of Trinity College, Genalmond where he still managed to enjoy himself, despite being "a most unathletic boy".

He first acquired his taste for commerce and properly run businesses when he left school in 1939 to join the firm of accountants in Dundee founded by his grandfather. His brother had gone into the same firm and while his father had diverted into trade, it still seemed "the natural thing to do".

He has, he says, never wished he had gone to university. "I've been lucky and determined. I've not regretted things that did not happen. One the whole I've led a very satisfying life."

His accountancy training was interrupted by War service. In 1942 he joined the RAF as a photographer but because he could read Italian was soon transferred to intelligence. It was there that his natural love of lists, methodology and patience came into their own as he learned German and was sent to GCHQ to crack enemy codes and cyphers.

On demobilisation, he returned to Dundee and joined his father's jute business. His brother had been killed in the war and his father wanted help. "I had not completed my accountancy training but had enough feel for numbers to keep the financial directors under control."

They were heady days for the local jute industry. In 1946, he notes with typical precision, there were 39 firms within 20 miles of Dundee. Today there is one and a half.

By 1954 he was running the business. A mixture of acquisitions saw it expand and in 1958, in a reverse takeover, become listed company, Robertson Industrial Textiles. In 1965, he merged the firm with a larger family company to form Scott and Robertson. When the Scotts staged a boardroom coup in 1970 - an episode still referred to within the Robertson family as the Revolt of the Pygmies - he resigned. "They didn't like the look of the 20th century when I hauled them into it and showed it to them," he growls of the Scotts. "Dundee is a smallish town with fairly limited ideas."

The former family firm has since been swallowed up by British Polythene. In Sir Lewis's world, looking back is a sign of weakness and loss of control. "Then is then, now is now. I'm not interested in what happens to the firm. I never look over my shoulder."

He sat on various public bodies, most notably the regional health authority and the Monopolies Commission. Nevertheless, unemployment was a severe jolt to the system. "I assumed I was running the family business as well as I could. It was a big shift to be cut loose."

His pay-off - "more like a small finger-shake than a golden hand-shake" - was a year's salary of £18,000. Married with four children, it was a difficult time. "We had some capital so we didn't have our backs to the wall but we weren't exactly well-off," he says. "It was economically limiting to retire and besides, I don't play golf so I found it boring." After toying with the idea of moving south to London and a fresh start, he was headhunted to save Grampian, a Scottish group - with interests in just about everything - that had fallen on hard times.

He moved to Edinburgh and started a second, more successful career. "I never imagined I would do anything else. I assumed I was in Dundee for life. Only when that life ended did I launch out into something else," he says.

Within five years, Grampian was restored to health and its profits trebled. He then moved to head the newly created Scottish Development Agency. He liked the job but not the political interference and after four years he returned to his new-found love: corporate rescue.

At 59 he was invited to run F H Lloyd, the Midlands steel founders. When it was saved, he automatically went to the top of every bank's emergency list. He has a file on his computer consisting of formal rescue approaches. It fills three pages and contains 100 companies, including 12 so far this year.

Some may be accepted, most will be rejected - but the requests will keep coming. He has no plans to retire. "I prefer to think in terms of phasing down," he says. "I have the great benefit of being a pluralist but I haven't reached that stage yet. Although I must not go past my sell-by date - I hope some candid friend will tell me when I do." Whoever he or she is will deserve medal.

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