Britain's Most Admired Companies: Bricks and mortar win the day

Chaired by the colourful but savvy entrepreneur Tony Pidgley, housebuilder Berkeley Group has put the blue-chip corporate names in the shade to win the accolade of Britain's Most Admired Company 2011. Andrew Saunders reports.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

- Go to the BMAC homepage to see a full list of winners and winners for each category and sector

Despite the fact that the annual Britain's Most Admired Companies Awards have been going from strength to strength for over two decades, 2011 still manages to be a year of firsts for the nation's most respected ranking of peer plaudits in business.

For starters, we've got a new kind of winner from a sector that has never topped the poll before, and a brand-new Most Admired Leader, to boot. We've also included a range of new companies and sectors, thanks to some subtle tweaks to the methodology that better reflect the modern corporate landscape in all its heterogeneous glory.

The big news is that Britain's Most Admired Company 2011 is Berkeley Group, the apparently recession-proof housebuilder founded by its chairman, Tony Pidgley, back in 1976. Not only is Berkeley the first builder to top the poll, Pidgley secures the signal honour of becoming the first entrepreneur ever to secure the coveted Most Admired silver star, joining the ranks of blue-chip corporate titans such as Unilever, Tesco and BP.

Berkeley's commercial performance is hard to fault. The firm has long been regarded in the City as a breed apart from its rival housebuilders, thanks to Pidgley's nous and legendary knack of dodging the property market's periodic and disastrous downturns.

But the man himself is a long way from being the archetypal sober-suited captain of industry who is usually to be found at the helm of MT's winning companies. How many of them are former Barnado's boys, brought up by gypsies in an old railway carriage? How many have built a billion-pound company from scratch, literally brick by brick, starting with a single house in Surrey 35 years ago? How many have faced down a boardroom coup led by their own offspring? And how many have bared their Dagenham cleavages to the nation on primetime TV?

Pidgley has been, and done, all these things and more, a larger-than-life figure who, like so many of his breed, would probably find it intolerable to work for anyone other than himself. As MT editor Matthew Gwyther wrote in 2003, when Pidgley was the subject of the MT interview: 'It's not often that the boss of a plc attracts the adjective "colourful". Most companies like to portray those who sit around the boardroom table in black and white, if not pinstripe. Colour and a healthy share price are not thought to sit well together. Tony Pidgley, however, comes with an aura of colour both around him and trailing a rainbow in his wake - and we should be thankful for that. There is enough in the life of Pidgley for a Technicolor epic.'

Now 64, he may have taken a step upstairs, appeasing the corporate governance police by becoming chairman to former FD Rob Perrins' MD, but it's hard to imagine that he keeps anything other than a close eye on what's going on in the business. He and Perrins make a formidable team, delivering profits up 23.5% to £136.2m on revenues up 20% to £742.6m for the year to April, and winning this year's overall award for Quality of Management.

The message for our shaky times could hardly be clearer or more apt - enterprise, innovation and bootstrapping hard work are the qualities required by UK plc, if we are to save the day while all around us the eurozone is in meltdown and even the mighty US economy has lost its mojo. Qualities that Pidgley and Berkeley embody perfectly.

Elsewhere in the table there's plenty of action, with only half of this year's top 10 making a repeat appearance from 2010. One such is second-placed premium booze biz Diageo, the name behind many of the world's favourite drinks. Its biggest seller - Bailey's Irish Cream - will no doubt be used for any number of festive toasts between now and the end of 2011. A former overall winner, Diageo bounces back from its lowly 22nd place last year, thanks to careful stewardship of its brands and a highly targeted growth plan in Asia and India, convincing the emerging middle classes there of the value of decent liquor. Diageo also takes the award for Community and Environmental Responsibility, in recognition of its leading role in the debate over drinking and health.

Like winner Berkeley, many of this year's top 10 are smaller FTSE 250 or 350 firms whose fleetness of foot enables them to negotiate the vagaries of the current economic climate. Take third-placed Rotork, whose valves are staple components in the always-vigorous offshore industry, or fourth-placed Aggreko, provider of temporary power to everything from hospitals to music festivals and gigs.

As the survey's author, Professor Mike Brown of Birmingham City Business School, points out: 'Small cap companies do very well in this year's Most Admired, perhaps because they are inherently more agile and closer to their customers - qualities that enable them to react quickly to what is a very uncertain and rapidly changing economy.'

This year's highest top 10 climber is another smaller firm, Derwent London, up from 58th to fifth overall. In common with 10th-placed Shaftesbury, Derwent is a commercial property outfit focused on prime sites in central London - a fact perhaps indicative of a defensive mentality in the country at present. Like precious metals, bricks and mortar (especially high-end bricks and mortar) offer a haven in times of economic turmoil.

But the big boys get a look-in too - corporate stalwarts Shell, Unilever and Rolls-Royce come in at seventh, eighth and ninth. Rolls-Royce makes an interesting comparison with Tesco, overall winner on a record six previous occasions. Both firms have a new CEO this year, having lost the services of two of the biggest figures on the UK boardroom scene, Tesco's Sir Terry Leahy and RR's Sir John Rose, who both retired earlier this year. The result? RR slips only two places under new boss John Rishton, perhaps because it's a firm whose identity is bound up more in its products than its leader. In contrast, Tesco - for which Leahy had become the legendary figurehead - plummets from eighth to 41st. Plenty for new chief exec Phil Clarke to get his teeth into there ...

An equally big surprise this year is the debut of Irish bookie Paddy Power, straight in at number six, probably the highest new entry in BMAC history. The firm, which has 319 betting shops across the UK, was founded in 1988 and is known not only for its garish yellow and green livery but also for its robust approach to marketing, offering 16-1 in 2008 that US president Barack Obama wouldn't finish his first term of office, for example. Unlike some in its sector, Paddy Power manages to combine traditional betting shops with a vigorous engagement with the latest technology - some 81% of its EUR45.3m operating profit comes from online activities.

To keep Most Admired fresh and on terms with the ever more diverse UK corporate scene, changes have been made to the selection process and methodology. Alongside the core of companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, more privately held firms are included this year, and more UK subsidiaries of foreign-owned multinationals. This has resulted in some new sectors, such as Gaming and Transportation Services. But the guiding principle for inclusion remains: only firms that publish sufficient data for their peers to be able to make quantitative as well as qualitative performance judgements are chosen.

Another big shake-up has occurred in the Most Admired Leader award as a direct consequence of the retirement of Leahy and Sir Stuart Rose of M&S. These retail titans have dominated the Most Admired Leader gong for years, so it has been interesting to observe this year's much closer contest, with the votes shared between many more contenders.

The winner by a modest margin? Rose's replacement at M&S, Marc Bolland, with 5.3% of votes cast. Bolland has made a big impression in the UK, despite having spent most of his career elsewhere. At Morrisons, he helped put the northern favourite firmly on the national map, before taking what is seen as the best job on the high street at M&S.

Occupying the middle ground is a tough job in hard times and M&S is not out of the wood yet, as its first-half profits demonstrate. Down £28m to £320.5m on the same period last year, M&S has discounted heavily to maintain market share. But Bolland expects a strong Christmas and is sticking to his investment guns, spending an anticipated £750m on new stores and refits by year-end.

In joint second place come the now-departed head of Reckitt Benckiser, Bart Becht, and Unilever boss Paul Polman. Unilever is now growing faster than it has for three years, thanks to Polman's vigorous leadership. But judging by the scores, it will be a long time before anyone manages to garner 34.9%, Terry Leahy's winning score last year.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Most Admired is its focus on perception. Peers rank their sector rivals across the nine criteria as they see fit, so their scores are influenced not only by hard performance and commercial data but also by a variety of intangibles, ranging from gut feel about individual firms to their general level of optimism or foreboding about the market. These intangibles may be summed up in the sector totals - 'optimism' scores, if you like. Some sectors are perennially optimistic - so retailers, for example, often do well. Others - telecoms for one - tend to be downbeat, whatever the state of the economy.

Thus Vodafone, although one of the few British firms capable of going shoulder-to-shoulder with its largest international rivals, has never won our top trophy. Its commercial performance is undoubtedly impressive, but the Admiration factor is lacking.

This year's optimism scores are revealing, as ever. There's a near-tie for most optimistic sector, with Business Support Services on 621.6 and Beverages on 621.4, perhaps because outsourcers are set to do well out of the Government's drive to privatise more public service provision, and booze sales are famously recession-proof. Property scores well too, at 615.9, compared with 534.5 last year. But what will happen to this sector over the next 12 months? Will prime real estate maintain its historic value through bad times and worse?

There may even be economic cheer here too. Engineering and Machinery scores a respectable 562.5. Perhaps there's something to those stories of a manufacturing renaissance.

For all their bonus-fuelled controversy, banks remain essential components of the economic machine, and their sector is rather more glass-half-full than it was, up 10 points to 531. But don't tell the Occupy protestors at St Paul's that their efforts have been in vain.

Meanwhile, in Software and Computer Services, another great UK business has succumbed to the lure of foreign ownership. Autonomy, founded by the country's original dotcom billionaire, Mike Lynch, was bought by HP for $10bn in the summer and delisted from the LSE as a result in November. So its chance to win Most Admired - at least as a full UK-owned firm - has now passed.

A shame, because the country needs more Mike Lynches and Tony Pidgleys to see it through the rocky years to come.

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