UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (5 of 8)

UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (5 of 8) -

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When Sir Ralph Halpern was chairman and chief executive of The Burton Group he insisted on all photos being taken from the front - to reduce the appearance of his long nose. Laurence Cooklin, his successor as chief executive, is not so vain. "My nose is smaller and close to the grindstone."

Cooklin could not be more different from his flamboyant predecessor if he tried. Unlike Sir Ralph - dubbed "five times a night" and the "Naughty Knight" by the tabloids for revelations about his nocturnal activities - Cooklin's main form of relaxation is building and flying radio-controlled aeroplanes. Mild mannered and softly spoken - in appearance he closely resembles the Irish singer Chris de Burgh - Cooklin obtained a degree in industrial economics from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Chicago University.

After a short spell in management consultancy he joined Burton. After working elsewhere in the organisation, Cooklin joined Halpern at Top Shop, the Burton subsidiary. For the next 16 years he tagged along behind Sir Ralph, eventually joining him on the main board as deputy managing director. When Sir Ralph was forced to quit last November, Cooklin, aged 46, took over. He was virtually unknown outside Burton, but within the company he is known as an outstanding methods and systems man. All his skills will presumably be put to the test in the current shake-up at Burton, which has so far cost some 1,600 jobs.

It is a measure of David Jones's different style that three years since becoming chief executive of Next, he is still known as the man who ousted "gorgeous George". The differences between Jones and his former boss, George Davies - the man who reshaped the high street in the '80s - are extensive. Jones is a chartered secretary and certified accountant; Davies dropped out of college. Jones is a team man; Davies did things himself. Jones is methodical; Davies is intuitive. Above all, Jones is a manager while Davies, he admits, "was and is a brilliant entrepreneur. But my style is to develop teams and provide the environment for people to develop their potential under a structured management. George did not believe in having such a management structure."

Jones went to Worcester Cathedral Kings School - the same school that Geoff Mulcahy, the Kingfisher head and fellow grey man, attended. Like John Major, Jones did not go to university. Instead he left school at 17 to join Kays, the mail order firm, as a clerk. Ten years and a correspondence course in accountancy later, he was its finance director.

Since inheriting Davies's troubled empire, Jones has wielded the axe - cutting jobs and closing stores. His axe has other uses. Last year, in a move almost unthinkable in Davies's day, he cut his own pay by 2% to £395,000. In 1991, against all the prevailing fashion for higher executive pay, Jones is cutting his salary by a further 50%. This "hair shirt" approach to management fits the grey image entirely.

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