UK: The Davidson Interview - Bill Castell.

UK: The Davidson Interview - Bill Castell. - The Nycomed Amersham boss positively fizzes with energy. At work, his exuberance is reined in by the board. At home, it's his wife who keeps his feet firmly on the ground, says Andrew Davidson, restraining him

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Nycomed Amersham boss positively fizzes with energy. At work, his exuberance is reined in by the board. At home, it's his wife who keeps his feet firmly on the ground, says Andrew Davidson, restraining him from dashing round buying estates in Scotland, pleasure boats and gin palaces.

Up in the stripped-wood, glass-walled, halogen-spotted modernity of Nycomed Amersham's second-floor, senior executive suite, Bill Castell is looking rather defensive. An ambitious, exuberant, loquacious man, Castell appears to have been brought up short by what I had thought was a rather innocuous question. Tell me about the Prince's Trust then?

Castell - who had previously lectured me eloquently on the complexity of the global, biotechnical health science markets, his experiences at two large pharmaceutical and health-care companies, Wellcome and Amersham, and the motivations engendered by what some might describe as a problematic childhood - suddenly looks stumped. The legs cross, the arms fold over, he hunches up in the corner of the sofa.

You look very defensive, I say. 'Oh, er, do I? Ha-ha-ha,' he laughs nervously, suddenly losing the gift of the gab.

This is very unlike Castell, I think, who isn't supposed to be stumped by anything. He is, by all accounts, a man as happy instructing government ministers on the pros and cons of monetary union (for the record, he's anti) as he is, wearing his Prince's Trust hat, counselling sink estate heroin addicts on ways of getting off benefit. All accounts except his own, that is. For as we speak, Castell, newly appointed chairman of the Prince's Trust, the body that oversees the vast and varied work of the Prince of Wales' youth charities, is suddenly hit by a bad case of discretion.

Extracting details from him is like pulling teeth. Instantly he reverts to bland generalisations: the Prince's Trust work is a 'lovely change', it breaks the routine, he 'really enjoys the job'.

Talk to others and a different picture emerges. Castell, who, at 51, already has rather a lot on his plate running Nycomed Amersham, the £1.3 billion-turnover health care giant created out of a hugely complex Anglo-Norwegian merger last year, has been a tireless part-time worker for the Prince's charities for eight years now.

Five of those years were spent with Business in the Community attempting to sort out the problems on a decrepit housing estate in south Wales, close to where Amersham has a base in Cardiff. There he organised business advice clinics, dragging other bosses in, forcing them to confront the endless cycle of neglect, unemployment and despair on the estate, and come up with time, money and jobs to remedy it.

Now, having served his apprenticeship, he has been given the task of following Lord Sheppard, former chairman of GrandMet, as the most visible head of the whole of the Prince's Trust. You can pour scorn on the idea of £500,000-a-year bosses dispensing business advice on council estates, or make jokes about him working hard for his knighthood - and I have to say here that even his friends whisper that Castell is rather looking forward to getting a gong - but it is hard not to be impressed. And the more you dig up about Castell, the more intriguing the story becomes.

Greying and hawkish, with a curved beak of a nose and a long, straight smile, Castell talks like he acts, always as a committed and high-energy manager, recounting his aims and influences with surprising frankness.

He says his ascent to the dizzy heights of running a FTSE-100 company has been achieved through chance, ambition, acumen and a good deal of sweat. After training as an accountant, he spent 20 years at Wellcome in two stints, learning everything about the pharmaceuticals business and moving through finance, marketing, research and senior management, before being rudely squeezed out by the company. His move in 1989 to Amersham, the health science specialist, then a medium-sized, former Thatcherite privatisation (it was once the government's Radiochemical Centre), suddenly propelled his career upwards again. Eight years later Castell is credited with completely rebuilding the operation, selling off whole divisions where the company couldn't reach global leadership, and concentrating resources on key areas which promised good future growth, such as the markets for diagnostic imaging agents and biotechnology supply. In the process he turned Amersham into one of the best performing shares of the 1990s - £3.55 when he joined, nearly £16 pre-merger last year.

He has been smart, and as he acknowledges himself, he has also been very lucky. The original deal which he proposed to the diagnostics giant, Nycomed, was an amicable takeover, under the terms of which the Norwegians would gobble up Amersham and he would leave after a year or so, once the company was fully absorbed. Then the Norwegians' results fell sharply and their market capitalisation slumped, turning the deal into a merger of equal partners. Guess what? Castell ended up top dog, with his opposite number at Nycomed leaving earlier this year to run a bank. Life is strange like that, he agrees. Doors open, doors shut. He never wanted to leave Wellcome all those years ago, he adds, in fact he cried for days after he resigned, but it turned out to be the best move he made in his career. Others at Amersham say that, in fact, his own board chucked out Castell's original Nycomed deal, as there was no way they would have invited the Norwegians in. The problem with Bill, they continue, is that he is so exuberant and fizzing with energy, that the board has to constantly rein him in.

Born and brought up in south London, Castell says he gets his energy from his father, who was a prominent businessman in his own right, and also chair of Liberal party funds. The relationship was never quite straightforward, however. His father walked out when he was five, leaving Castell and his sister, six years older, to look after their mother whose bouts of depression were so acute that she was frequently hospitalised. His father remarried, and kept in touch, but the split clearly created pressures. Castell was sent to St Dunstan's, the independent day-school that rivals Dulwich College in south London. There he ran the army cadet corps and captained the rugby team, but never performed well academically. His home life was a mess. Once his sister had married and left home, he was shunted round between relatives when his mother couldn't cope. 'I had a tedious number of homes when I was young,' he says, in a matter-of-fact way, 'because mum was always off in hospital. Usually I lived with my aunt or my sister.'

It all had a profound impact. He came out of school a driven, independent young man - he had controlled the family bank account since the age of 12 because of his mother's spendthrift nature - with rather right-wing views and a determination to prove himself in business without his father's help. His childhood also reinforced in him the desire to find a place within a stable network of relationships. He married the girl he had been going out with since he was 16, but only after she had qualified as a doctor. 'I concluded it would be better to marry someone who had their own career rather just being a source of entertainment when one got home,' he says, rather sternly. And he found a company that would give him that sense of security in a tight-knit group. 'I enjoyed the tribal atmosphere at Wellcome. Even though it was a such a hierarchical company, I enjoyed the respect in which an individual was held.'

Why Wellcome? The answer, when it comes, is reassuringly mundane. His prospective father-in-law was the company's personnel director and steered him in. Castell cites his wife's father as one of 'six or seven' people who have had a profound effect on his business life, starting with his own father. 'My father-in-law was a member of the Labour party, and he used to enjoy smoking huge Chilean cigars while I drove him around in his Jaguar,' he laughs. 'I had almost fascist views and he made me aware of the issues facing those less fortunate.'

In fact, listening to Castell tell the story of his early years, it is hard not to conclude that he was a pepped-up young man searching for direction.

No sooner had he served his Wellcome apprenticeship, which included a stint reading business studies at the City of London College, than he resigned and joined Spicer & Pegler to become an accountant. 'I knew I was fairly creative and imaginative and I thought it would be good to put a cloak around me of some discipline.' Then he decided to jump ships again, this time for a reason closer to home. His father had gone bust, set up a business again, and fallen ill. Castell asked for leave of absence and stepped into the breach to help.

And Spicer & Pegler let him go? 'They were very nice people,' he shrugs.

Eventually he went back and finished his training. But once he qualified as an accountant, he resigned again and returned to Wellcome, this time settling for 15 years. He ended up running its biotech arm and finally becoming commercial director, travelling worldwide and overseeing drug best-sellers like Zovirax and Retrovir. Those who worked with him then remember him as an extrovert talent who loved the challenge of blending science with commercial innovation. 'He was very bubbly, very lively, very ambitious,' says one, 'and great at marketing.' Few, however, saw him as top leadership quality. 'He was too highly strung, too all over the place,' says another, pointing out that he has really only grown and developed as a manager since leaving Wellcome.

That came about when go-go Castell's ambition hit the buffers of a new chief executive, John Robb, who had a different vision for the future of Wellcome. Castell won't be specific about what they fell out over, only 'vision and values'. Others suggest that the old establishment at Wellcome, which had partially floated in 1986, treated Castell very badly, making his position untenable. He had put forward a scheme to buy ICI, sell off the chemical side and keep the pharmaceutical business, which Wellcome dismissed. Others wanted him out. 'At the time it was like a divorce,' he says, 'I was so committed to the company I could not stop weeping.'

He got two job interviews after he resigned, one at American Home Products, which he also tried to interest in buying ICI, and another at the formerly government-owned Amersham, who were looking for a new chief executive. 'I was 42 years of age, I was offered the job of boss of a plc, I thought it would be silly to turn it down,' he says. The downside was that he knew very little about either their products or the marketplace. Sir Edwin Nixon, the former IBM UK boss who chaired Amersham, says that Castell's global contacts, especially his links in Japan, were key to the appointment.

The fact that Nixon was another accountant-turned-marketing man probably helped, too.

But heading Amersham was a tough job, something Castell sensed right from the first interview. The com-pany was in too many businesses, it wasn't global enough to compete, it didn't know where it was going, many of its managers still had an old-style, civil service mentality. Castell told his wife they didn't want a chief executive, they wanted a Messiah, and joked that he had better take out Monty Python's Life of Brian on video. At the same time Nixon was pushing him to think big. 'Eddie had this vision of £1 billion turnover and £100 million research budget and I used to think, what is he smoking?'

After three months he summoned all the senior managers together, and shocked them by taking his shoe off, hurling it across the room, and shouting, 'I am not your f***ing Messiah.' Those who had seen Life of Brian presumably got the joke. Being mistaken for a Messiah is very bad news. He also wrote a report for the board, telling them what he wanted. 'I wanted to have access to all the levers of capitalism, which meant we had to reduce our borrowing, get our share price up, get good communication with the City, find those markets in which we could be world leaders, and in terms of management I was looking for pragmatists and desert rats. Those who wished to remain as Royal observers could do, but they wouldn't stay on the payroll for long.'

It was, apparently, an impressive performance. 'What I lacked in knowledge of the marketplace I could make up for in terms of soundbites of motherhood,' says Castell wryly. 'We had five divisions and a McKinsey matrix, which meant I had to get the consent of 22 managers on any single decision.

I got rid of all that.' Two years later, 19 of the managers had gone - Castell has a reputation as an impatient task-master - and the clinical diagnostics arm, the company's biggest business, but a huge cash-burner, had been sold. In future, the company would build on life sciences and nuclear medicine. It was not, however, a one-man show. Nixon himself laid down the 'tri-polar' strategy of maintaining research, manufacturing and marketing in North America, Europe and Japan. And Richard Lapthorne, the BAe finance director who succeeded Nixon as chairman of Amersham, points out that Castell's exuberance was tempered by a heavyweight team of non-executives: former Toshiba boss Aki Takabatake, Mike Crumpton, ex-research director at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, Tom McKillop, now chief executive of Zeneca, Ron Cresswell, now Warner Lambert vice-president.

'Bill couldn't get away with superfluous argument or inconsistencies,' says Lapthorne, 'and all credit to him, if he knew his argument was not well put, he would withdraw it.'

Others contend too that, with these support systems in place, Castell's real strengths - of drive, communication and financial acumen - came to the fore. Castell also brought in his own adviser, Sir Dennis Stevenson, now chairman of Pearson, to help him on strategy. Stevenson, whom he first hired at Wellcome in 1987, has been retained as Castell's personal adviser ever since. He is, according to Castell, just one in a long line of mentor-advisers (Nixon is another) with whom he has remained close. And yes, he knows that amateur psychologists would say he is still looking for his father, but for him, the relationships work.

For his part, Stevenson says he rates Castell now as one of the best leader-managers he has met, a perfect meld of instinctive marketer and highly trained money-man, and that much of Amersham's profit improvement has come from cost savings. He combines all that, adds Stevenson, with great openness and honesty. 'Bill is far from flawless but at the heart of it he is terribly honest. He sees the world as it is, and has never been seduced by financial engineering. He always keeps his eye on the business he is building.' Others say that openness is crucial in the running of the company. Last year Castell pushed through not just one but two mergers in three weeks (on top of the Nycomed deal, he married Amersham Life Science to Pharmacia Biotech, producing a £424 million-turnover genetic research and biotech supply specialist), moves that would have been impossible without the board's complete faith in what he was doing.

There are problems ahead, however, not least in managing the Nycomed merger. Castell's handling of the deal, which gives the combined group a world-leading 30% share of the market for in vivo imaging agents (the chemicals which, when injected into the body, allow scanning techniques to identify cancer, heart problems and other disorders) has already upset some Norwegian managers, who find his drive hard to handle. And how does he find time, anyway, to be here, there, and a non-executive director of GEC and head the Prince's Trust?

'Oh, I do five days a week hard work to get the weekends free,' says Castell with a grin. He also, he admits, spends a lot of time kipping in the back of his chauffeur-driven grey Jag on the western curve of the M25. He lives in a large nine-bedroom house in Limpsfield, Surrey (he also has a mews-house in London's Victoria), and commutes 63 miles every day to Nycomed Amersham's Buckinghamshire base.

According to one source, the board encouraged Castell to increase his Prince's Trust workload in the hope that it would make him focus his energies more. The logic being that, as he has a tend-ency to try to do too much inside the company, with less time, he will have to concentrate on what is important.

But why the Prince's Trust? Certainly, Nixon pushed him into community work but that doesn't explain the motivation. One of his friends told me that Castell's charity work is driven by two things: he really does have a social conscience and wants to put something back, and at the same time he is one of those outsiders who wants to be accepted, and wants his achievements recognised, almost as if he cannot believe he has got so far himself. Yet why should he feel an outsider? That doesn't describe someone who captained the school rugby team and ran the army corps. Maybe some people are just born that way. And the scale of his achievements are now considerable. Another of his friends told me that he went down to the council estate in south Wales where Castell helped, and said it was hell on earth. 'I went once, but never again.' Yet Castell put in five hours a month for five years. At one stage, according to Nixon, Castell and his wife were even inviting parties of kids from the estate back to their home in Surrey. Julia Cleverdon, head of Business in the Community, describes Castell as one of the most remarkable businessmen she has met.

'There is no such word as "can't" for Bill. He is an exceptional character.'

Castell himself says he just wants to help make Britain a better place for his family to live in, and for he and his wife to retire in. She has worked as a GP for 27 years in the same practice in Bromley, and, according to some colleagues, performs the same function at home as the board at work: 'Bill's restraint'. Without the tolerant but firm Renice, laughs one, Bill would be dashing round buying estates in Scotland, houses round the world, pleasure boats and gin palaces. 'He would have moved into Castell Towers by now.' As it is, Castell is grounded in reality, with three grown-up children 'who don't take him seriously at all' and a stable family life that he describes as the key to his success.

And unlike some bosses when they mouth platitudes about their families (which in reality they never see), Castell is believable. But everything is bound up in that rush of exuberant enthusiasm. When I ask if he has any Sunday morning hobbies, he says, 'Yes, it used to be eastern Europe, now it's the effect of institutional investors on society, the worry that the Americans will soon pick off our institutional base, what we can do to avert it ...'

It's the start of a 10-minute monologue which concludes with him insisting that Management Today gets off its backside and does some investigative journalism on the issues. As I leave I can't help thinking that just knowing Bill Castell, let alone working for him, must be pretty demanding in itself.


1947: Born 10 April, south London

Educated St Dunstan's, Catford, and City of London College

1965: Trainee, Wellcome

1970: Trainee, Spicer & Pegler

1975: Financial controller, Wellcome

1981: Managing director, Wellcome Biotech

1987: Commercial director, Wellcome

1990: Chief executive, Amersham International

1997: Chief executive, Nycomed Amersham


'Bill is very direct in his style, but it's thought through. He also knows when not to be open and direct ... And his ability to understand the forces that are driving our markets, without being a doctor or a scientist, is really outstanding.' Johan Odfjell, chairman, Nycomed Amersham

'He listens. Yes, he will get up and stroll round the room in a meeting, shoot off at a tangent and you will have to drag him back to the subject, but that is one of the symptoms of his energy.'

Richard Lapthorne, deputy chairman, Nycomed Amersham and finance director, British Aerospace

'A traditionalist, some of his views are surprisingly right-wing, but a very genuine and nice man. Intelligent, rather than intellectual, and tough and ruthless when he wants to be.'

A friend

'A man who thinks about the role of business in society. Not one of those bosses who have been lured by the mating call of the Porsche.'

Julia Cleverdon, chief executive, Business in the Community

'He is not sympathetic to incompetence but people really like working for him. I remember our head of R&D saying that Bill had completely revitalised him.'

Sir Edwin Nixon, former chairman of Amersham.

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