UK: Profile - Bob Clarke the misunderstood chairman of United Biscuits.

UK: Profile - Bob Clarke the misunderstood chairman of United Biscuits. - 1929: Born 28 March 1929. Educated at Dulwich College and Pembroke College, Oxford (MA History).

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

1929: Born 28 March 1929. Educated at Dulwich College and Pembroke College, Oxford (MA History).

1952: Joined Cadbury Bros Ltd. Two years training in production and marketing.

1954: General manager of John Forrest Ltd, Cadbury-owned-chain of retail confectionery shops.

1957: Marketing director, Cadbury Confectionery.

1962: Managing Director, Cadbury Cakes Ltd. Managing director, McVities and Cadbury Cakes Ltd, 1971.

1974: Joined board of United Biscuits (UK) Ltd.

1977: Appointed managing director, UB Biscuits. Appointed chairman and managing director, United Biscuits (UK) Ltd and director of United Biscuits (Holdings) plc in 1984.

1986: Appointed group chief executive, United Biscuits (Holdings) plc.

1989: Deputy chairman, United Biscuits (Holdings) plc.

1990: Chairman, United Biscuits (Holdings) plc.

A look of sorrow descends upon Bob Clarke's face. "Any leader worth his salt has to be able to make difficult decisions, so unless someone can grasp the nettle they aren't going to make a good leader," says the chairman of United Biscuits. And the hardest nettle he ever grasped? "Closing our largest factory in Liverpool," he replies without a flicker of hesitation. "Knowing that quite a few people there would never work again."

It is a strangely soulful answer for a man running a biscuit company, and a big biscuit company at that. Skip the stuff about forging new markets, deadly takeover ploys, heroic marketing assaults and the rest. Looking back on his career, the moments that stick in Clarke's mind are the acts of executive cruelty. Which is, in a way, a clue to the man. Clarke springs from a peculiarly British tradition of food merchants, and he has carried the burden of a conscience around with him ever since. After reading history at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1952 he rooted around for a job in industry. He was interviewed by a range of companies but chose Cadbury. "It appealed to me because it was an ethical company," he recalls. "It was very much a Quaker company run by the Cadbury family which had strong views then on issues which now we all have strong views on."

On his first day he was told to arrive at 9.30 in the morning, a civilised hour for a young post-graduate. The second he was told to show up at the factory at 5am for the start of a six months working through the factory, learning the different jobs and environments experienced by the ordinary workers.

"I happened to start on the same day as Adrian Cadbury was going into the family business, and he was doing exactly the same," Clarke recalls. "My impression was that it was very noisy. And it was large, employing seven or eight thousand people." By this time Clarke was already married and settled in a house in the country - indicating a man willing to slip quickly into middle-age. He admits to some frustration in his early years at Cadbury, but claims never to have regretted his decision. Not, clearly, one of nature's rebels.

His first substantial job at Cadbury was managing a small chain of sweetshops - 12 in all - which the company then owned; it was kept more to discover how the shops viewed the products than to make any money. Still, it provided an early taste of running a business, and Clarke says he was disappointed when he was called back into the mainstream of the company. "I was running a business and I had complete freedom," he says.

Clarke returned to marketing and oversaw the company's first diversification. In the early '60s there was an idea knocking around that the confectionery market might slide as people turned to other forms of food. Hence the desire to attack another market; Clarke was the man chosen to lead the assault, which in this case was cakes. He became managing director of Cadbury Cakes in 1962, and so began an attempt to establish a business that was to dominate the next 10 years of his life. Pre-packed cakes were all the rage in those years; the market had been dominated by Lyons, but at the same time Cadbury moved in, United Biscuits also launched a cake brand, and RHM came up with the Mr Kipling brand. "So suddenly where there had been only one player there were now four", recalls Clarke. "And that was more than the market could stand."

The next 10 years were spent unravelling that situation. Cadbury Cakes was not particularly successful by itself; the company, Clarke now figures, had underestimated the cost of putting together a separate distribution system for delivering the cakes to the shops. The first step in reducing the number of players was pooling Cadbury's and United Biscuits' two operations into one, in 1971, with Clarke as the managing director. "We had had a long tussle, and although we were making profits it was clear that we weren't making a proper return on the investment. The joint venture didn't work out either. A convoy has to go at the same speed as its slowest member," Clarke says, "and it was clear after a time that we were making the safest decisions rather than the right decisions."

As a result UB took over the whole business, and Clarke, though he had the choice of which company to stay with, moved over to United Biscuits. Even so, it became clear that the cake business still wasn't working out. Eventually the cake business was dismantled, with parts passed on the Lyons and to RHM.

"Having spent 10 years of my life trying to build the cake business, it was a very big disappointment," he says. "To me personally, to Cadbury, and to United Biscuits, but basically the market wasn't big enough to support the players. And to the extent that I put in that hard endeavour without ultimately succeeding, I might have won some good brownie points for trying, but it perhaps set back my career by 10 years. I had a lot to show for it in how I handled the situation, but not a lot to show for it in the market."

But by now, Clarke had fallen under the spell of Sir (now Lord) Hector Laing, the mercurial leader of United Biscuits who had built the business up from the original McVities operation. "Hector is a charismatic leader," says Clarke. "You can't be in the room with him for more than 10 minutes without realising you are dealing with an elemental force. He is the sort of man that most people would die for 90% of the time, and the other 10% of the time they could kill him."

With the final demise of the cake business in 1974, Clarke switched to working his way up the ranks of United Biscuits; he became managing director of UB Biscuits in 1977, group chief executive of United Biscuits Holdings in 1986, deputy chairman in 1989, and finally chairman in 1990. With that appointment he finally donned the mantle of his former mentor, taking over as Laing moved aside to become president of the company.

To fill the shoes of so forceful a leader, however, is a punishing responsibility. Clarke is unaware, or at least claims to be, of any infighting along his path to the succession; that, he says, would have angered Laing. "It was not overt that these people were jockeying for power," he says. "He ran an organisation where people looking for their personal interest would not be tolerated. We subjected everything to the good of the whole." Clarke emerged as the chosen successor during the mid-'80s; his was a long training for the role.

"We had worked very closely together for the last eight years, so many of the things we had done, we had done together," he says. "But there is a difference. He is the son of the business, which he turned into a world food company. And I have come up the meritocracy route, and that's the main difference between us. But in our philosophies there isn't a great deal of difference. The things that attracted me to Cadbury, I found at United Biscuits - the ethical approach, the belief that people are important, that communities are important, those are things that we share absolutely." Clarke is a man who appears to have risen effortlessly to the top; he is also a man who seems to have left few traces. Apart from his decade in the cake trade, he is not identified with any particular product of campaign, an oddity for a man with a long career in the food industry.

"I've been following this stock for 10 years now, and I haven't the faintest idea what he has done," says one analyst. "I think that tells you something about him." In the City, attention is focused instead on Eric Nicoli, the chief executive of the business, and a man who made his reputation in the food industry by launching the Yorkie bar while he was working for Rowntree. In that environment, Clarke is regarded as a transitory figure of no great significance; Nicoli is the man they are looking to carry Laing's torch.

"Have you come across the word irrelevant," said one observer of the company on being told Management Today was researching a profile of the UB chairman. Unkind thoughts. But then it may be there are missing connections between Clarke and the financial community; their yardsticks of earnings per share and return on capital are important to him; but only so important. Unprompted, he returns again and again to the importance of the company having a morale centre; not exactly a sentiment that commands a great deal of sympathy in the City.

"Both Cadbury and the original bits of United Biscuits were paternalistic, family-owned businesses, where the owners believed that they had a greater responsibility to the people who worked for them than just to pay them at the end of the week," he explains.

"They believed they had a responsibility for their welfare. This may be unfashionable today. You can argue, and I would argue, that this is very good business as well, because if you have a happy and stable workforce they will stay with you and work their best." In those days, he suggests, concerned employers would look after their employees; these days a corporation has to take account of its responsibilities to the environment and to the rest of society.

He points out that Laing was the chairman of Business in the Community;and he stresses as well that the company was one of the first to donate 1% of its pre-tax profits to charitable works. "We are not alone in this, but we were one of the first to do that, and there are still many that don't pay much attention to this kind of thing."

He is aware, however, that his views are not widely shared; or at least not as widely shared as they should be. At the World Economic forum in Davos earlier this year he attended a talk by the Prince of Wales in which the latter challenged corporate leaders to face up to their wider responsibilities; that speech was later rubbished by the Financial Times as another example of the woolly thinking for which the Prince is famous. Clarke wrote defending the prince's views and stressing a role for business in attacking social problems. Significantly, he uses the word stakeholder rather than shareholder, to signify the view that more people have a say in corporate policy than those who temporarily hold its share certificates.

Clarke is a man with a feeling for permanence. His main pastime away from the office is restoring old buildings; another sign of a man for whom the past has a strong resonance and to whom tradition is only to be updated, not changed. It is a trait which has carried over into his running of the business in ways both large and small. He has moved the United Biscuits head office into an elegant stately home in West Drayton, a suburb to the west of London. The building was a council office until UB took it and restored it to its Victorian finery.

His respect for tradition comes through in his strategy also. After UB lost the battle for Imperial to Hanson, the company was widely viewed as having lost its direction. It has sharpened up since then. The focus has been narrowed to biscuits, snacks, and frozen food and it has deepened its presence in the US and Europe whilst also exploring markets in South American and Asia. The aim is to maintain UB as an independent player - foreign competitors are occasionally reported to be running a slide rule over its balance sheet - in a world food market increasingly dominated by a handful of global giants.

Yet at the same time he strives to maintain the traditions of the company. One example he cites is the company's recent acquisiton of Gyori Keksz, the largest biscuit company in Hungary, and a business it can use as a springboard into the emerging markets in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine. Inevitably, however, the plant is dated and overmanned, and many of the workers there will have to be made redundant to bring it up to Western levels of efficiency.

In response, the company has set up an enterprise fund, to held redundant workers set up their own business, and to prevent the town being devastated by unemployment. "Because of that, the local community feel much more relaxed, and the workers feel much more relaxed. It is another example of good business and responsible business going hand in hand."

To him, perhaps. To many others in the British business establishment, however, such a move would be seen only as a waste of shareholders' funds. Or at best, as a necessary but unimportant piece of PR expenditure. Which is why, perhaps, so many people outside the company have a hostile, even condescending view of the UB chairman. "It is very annoying", he says, another look of sorrow descending on his face, "that so many people can not comprehend what to me seems so plain and simple."

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