One of the most interesting aspects of the Most Admired Companies survey is that it shows earlier than any other survey whose star is rising and whose is waning. Some retain their mystique among the general public when well past their best, while others are underestimated as they continue to surpass all expectations. Often it is only those operating in the same sector who know the real story.
Among the risers, Sema Group, the Anglo-French computer services giant, has made its gains on the back of a dramatic improvement across the board, and has emerged as a front runner to make a bid for the controversial privatisation of the Benefits Agency Medical Service (BAMS), which employs doctors to examine sick and disabled people to establish whether they are entitled to their invalidity benefits.
David Crossland founded and built Airtours from a UK-based tour operator into a diversified international leisure business with outlets in Europe and North America. Ocean Group, the international logistics, towing and environmental services company, also continues on a high-growth tack with half-year pre-tax profits of £32 million. The group is second only to Nippon Express of Japan in the world league of freight forwarding outfits.
Ocean used to be just a shipping company, but chief executive John Allan jettisoned the last of its fleet earlier this year and now has a cash pile of £300 million to spend.
Among the falls, NatWest's is spectacular and already well chronicled (see Management Today, October 1997), putting severe strain on the relationship between the chairman, Lord Alexander, and chief executive, Derek Wanless.
Many believe that one or other of the two, perhaps both, could be forced out within the next year, with the most likely candidate being Alexander.
Argos has started to slip. The company revealed a 12% fall in pre-tax profits in the six months to June despite signs of increased consumer spending elsewhere. Chief executive Mike Smith has a job on his hands in trying to convince investors that the company hasn't lost its way. One of the problems he faces is that the market has come to expect so much in recent years and is only now putting a realistic value on the company.
Macfarlane, the Glasgow-based packaging group, has been struggling after a terrible year in 1996 in which it suffered a big decline in orders from the whisky trade. Nevertheless, group pre-tax profits have been held back by the cost of acquisitons and investments in existing plant. The strength of sterling has also been a factor, making imported packaging products more competitive while hitting foreign sales of its clients' products.
SIX WHO WENT UP, SIX WHO WENT DOWN
RISERS '97 '96 FALLERS '97 '96
Dewhirst Group 9 123 EMI* 138 32
Sema Group 42 221 BTR 157 44
Airtours 60 172 De La Rue 170 42
United News & Media 61 206 Argos 175 28
Securicor 80 198 NatWest 196 93
Ocean Group 87 202 Macfarlane 228 107
*As Thorn-EMI in 1996.