As we meet outside the Playhouse in his home town, Nottingham, Mike Brown is self-effacing about being in the spotlight. 'Usually, the focus round here would be on someone like John Gielgud. This is my 15 minutes of semi-fame.'
The father of MT's annual Britain's Most Admired Companies (BMAC) survey is more comfortable behind the scenes, preferring to leave the limelight to big names like Leahy and Stitzer. Meanwhile, he toils away in his office at the Nottingham Business School collecting and analysing peer assessments from Britain's top companies, in anything from chemicals to construction. The aim: to discover which firms have earned the highest respect of their rivals, and to measure those elements of business success that, since they don't appear on a balance sheet, are often overlooked. 'Accountants don't recognise intangibles such as reputation,' says Brown. 'For them, it comes under "goodwill". Someone in marketing would lump it in with "brand value". In HR, "intellectual capital".'
Reputation, though, is what the BMAC poll, which next appears in December, is about. And far from being a mere academic exercise, the survey has real practical uses. Brown frequently fields calls from firms wanting to know how they've performed, to provide a benchmark for the future. 'It's this advance knowledge that adds value to what you're doing,' he says.
Brown has hands-on experience. After graduating in economics from Nottingham in 1976, he worked in California for six years, running a construction firm, with a stained-glass business on the side. He shows a pragmatic eye for an opportunity: 'The sun shines over there - people want beautiful windows.'
Having looked out on business from both the office and the classroom, Brown can see how the two worlds interact, or fail to. 'There's an ocean between them, with academics writing almost exclusively for other academics. They don't help business enough, and vice versa. I stand on the bridge between the two, providing a voice that I hope helps industry.'
Brown and his research have been doing their bit for some 15 years now. When he returned from the US in 1991, his love of the classroom led to an MBA at the Nottingham Business School, where he is now director of post-graduate corporate programmes. It was for his dissertation that Brown first got involved with hunting Britain's most admired, in a collaborative effort with research partner Stuart Laverick. What could have been a one-off was given legs by a chance meeting in 1993 with Charles Skinner, MT's editor at the time, who gave the survey a permanent home.
BMAC is a study of the 10 largest companies, based on market capitalisation, across 22 industry sectors. A look back through years of winners and losers gives a unique perspective on the changing condition and concerns of UK plc. Cadbury Schweppes, Unilever, Shell and BP all shone in the first survey, and have continued to be admired and highly ranked. But new challengers have appeared. Brown cites BSkyB's impressive performance, and former public companies such as Sage thriving on the back of large government contracts. But companies can vanish from the lists - either delisted like Bhs, bought out like NatWest and Burtons or simply usurped by high-growth competitors. Whole sectors can lose relevance - for example, textiles replaced by telecoms.
The survey can be used to reflect fluctuations in optimism across the sectors. 'Right now, there's great confidence in construction,' he says. 'In insurance they're saying times are tough, and their responses reflect that. There was a time when you'd find four or five property firms in the top 20. Now you won't find any.'
Brown has taken some flak for his findings. In identifying the country's most respected firms, he has inevitably wound up highlighting the less revered too - and some managers don't like that. One went so far as to call him 'the death of my company'. He had a similar experience when he appeared on BBC radio a couple of years ago. 'The presenter came on air asking: "What's it like being the worst company in Britain?" I was thinking: My god, I have to reply to this.' The manager called later to take him to task on what he'd said. 'At the end of it I felt quite bad,' says Brown, 'but three days later the papers picked up on a story damning the company and I felt vindicated. After all, these are the perceptions of people in the industry.'
Brown accepts that BMAC is subjective, with companies being judged on such intangible criteria as quality of management, quality of marketing and capacity to innovate. 'But we find that as soon as people in the industry put these thoughts out there in the survey, it becomes new knowledge. There are companies that ignore it, but others do massive amounts - calling to find out where they came last year, and asking me to go and have a chat with them.' Brown glows as he recalls how Rentokil changed all its vans to read 'Rentokil - Britain's Most Admired Company'; how Terry Leahy visited the business school on the back of the survey to field questions from suppliers; the district council that called him from Toronto to ask how a particular company had performed, and how his positive report secured it a 'massive contract' in Canada; and how twice he turned down investment houses looking to buy his information.
'I love talking to businesses, meeting people and helping them,' says Brown. 'I've been very fortunate to be able to present at conferences and to accept invitations from leading blue-chips and consultants to go in and explain my findings. The reaction from participants has been the biggest fillip to continue doing it.
'We want to share best practice in business, to demonstrate the admiration and esteem of British companies. As Levi's chief Robert Haas once said: "There's only one client - the reputation of our organisation."'