Of the four parents which Hoskyns has had in seven years, Plessey is the one which stands out in the mind of its chairman, Geoff Unwin. By Chris Blackhurst.
Heaven knows what Oscar Wilde would make of Geoff Unwin, head of Hoskyns, the computer services group. Since Unwin took charge seven years ago, Hoskyns' parent has changed no less than four times. "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness," said Wilde. If he was right then Unwin, clearly, is not fit to be in business, let alone run the company.
The truth is that no one has ever lost out each time Hoskyns has changed hands: the seller has made a profit and Unwin and his colleagues have made a bit more money for themselves. Also, the company has prospered - since 1984, the value of Hoskyns has risen tenfold to more than £300 million.
From Durham University, where he read chemistry, Unwin joined Cadbury as a management trainee. After moving around the organisation he ended up doing the sort of job that a child would wish for but could not believe existed - running chocolate tasting panels. He used to eat two and a half pounds of chocolate a day. Remarkably slim, considering, he nevertheless confesses: "I'd be like Orson Welles if I ate even a quarter of a block now. There's no way I could burn off that sort of energy today."
In 1968 he joined Hoskyns, then 100% owned by John Hoskyns and his family. Seven years after Unwin arrived, the company was sold to Martin Marietta, the giant American defence contractor. In 1984 Unwin was appointed managing director.
Hoskyns was beset with problems. A relatively small player in the world of software and information technology (IT) consultancy, the company was struggling to hold on to its best people. Says Unwin: "The industry was very hot. In the year I became MD we lost 25% of our top management." And while Hoskyns was creating plenty of money for its American parent, not enough was being put back into the business.
So the new boss persuaded Martin Marietta to float 25% of the company, just enough for the stock market listing. Unwin gave three reasons: increased visibility - people would be more aware of Hoskyns; the company could use the shares to secure backing for acquisitions; and employees could own a stake in the business.
But no sooner had Hoskyns joined the stock market than the American conglomerate changed chief executive and Unwin had to find a new parent. He recalls: "The new guy decided that as IT was not one of the corporation's core businesses he would sell it. He explained his decision to me. I said 'You're making a mistake'; he said 'I'm still selling'; I said 'Okay, I'll find you a buyer'."
The new parent had to meet the following five criteria: supply industrial logic (explains Unwin: "If they were relevant to us they would pay more"); agree to Hoskyns keeping its listing; give it autonomy; allow Unwin to motivate his staff through the allocation of shares; and pay the right price.
Unwin approached Stephen Walls, Plessey's gung-ho new finance director. Says Unwin: "There were others sniffing around but Plessey was the only company we talked to seriously."
Plessey and Hoskyns made a perfect fit. The computer services group would provide a fifth leg for the electronics manufacturer alongside telecommunications, defence, microelectronics and aircraft engineering. It also gave access to a much faster growing market than slow-moving defence and telecommunications.
The deal that followed, in 1988, valued Hoskyns at £164 million. It was, says Unwin, the best. Uniquely, it allowed Hoskyns to keep its separate listing, despite being bought by another quoted company. Because Plessey was buying more than 2.9% of the company, under Stock Exchange rules, it had to bid for the whole lot, which it did. But, at the same time, Plessey undertook to sell off enough shares to enable Hoskyns to retain its listing.
Twenty per cent of the shares were refloated and another 5 per cent were put into a trust fund to benefit the top 100 senior employees. To lock them into the business, each year over the next three years they received a third of their allocation.
Then, six months after a deal was struck, everything changed again. Unwin was in a meeting with Plessey management when a call was taken from Arnold Weinstock, the GEC managing director: GEC and Siemens was bidding for Plessey. When GEC-Siemens won, they split Plessey's stake between them so Unwin now had two new parents, each holding 37.5% of his company.
It did not matter, since Hoskyns was soon on the move again. "GEC didn't want us," says Unwin, "we didn't sit with their culture. We're in a people-based, service-orientated company; they are manufacturers."
Unwin did the same as before. "I said 'Okay, let me find a buyer'." The same five criteria applied, as with Plessey. But this time Unwin added a sixth: stability. "We had begun to feel as though we were just a commodity to be bought and sold."
In July last year, seven months after being put on the market, GEC-Siemens' shares were bought by Cap Gemini Sogeti of France, Europe's largest computing services organisation, in a deal that valued Hoskyns at £264 million. In exactly two years the value of the company had risen by £100 million. Next year CGS has the right to buy the remaining shares. For now, though, Unwin still has his stock market listing.
"We've kept ourselves public and we've kept the same team intact." And, he adds, smiling broadly: "Plus, in our own modest way we've made some money for ourselves."
(Chris Blackhurst is City editor of the Sunday Express.)