UK: PROFILE - PETER BONFIELD CHIEF OF ICL. - ICL's chief is described as a wysiwyg (what you see is what you get). Not quite right, thinks Shirley Skeel.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

ICL's chief is described as a wysiwyg (what you see is what you get). Not quite right, thinks Shirley Skeel.

Peter Bonfield is waiting for the question. For 20 minutes he has fidgeted in his chair, leaning forward, leaning back, tugging at the four-button cuffs of the Yves St Laurent jacket purchased (as all his clothes are) by his wife, straightening it at the back, pulling at the broad lapels winging the front. He is polite, seemingly casual, but from the moment he was first sighted - lurking uneasily in his office - until now, he still has not smiled.

At last, the question comes. The chairman's eyes are down and his body forward, as though poised for a scuffle, like one of the American footballers he so admires.

So how did Peter Bonfield, chairman and chief executive of ICL - the UK's only mainframe computer company - feel when he backed the sell-off of 80% of the company to our rivals the Japanese? How did he feel when so many of his fellow Englishmen gasped at the loss of the jewel of the computer industry to this alien giant Fujitsu?

As if a referee's whistle has blown, Bonfield sits up. His eyes, which have spent most of the interview addressing the wall, rise again to this blank script. His odd home counties accent, mutilated by a long stay in Texas, punches out the words, and his hands restart their charade.

'The reaction actually has been extremely positive, highly positive. From a business point of view we always thought the opportunities would be outstanding. Internally the reaction was good. From the customers there was an excellent reaction. They're not concerned because someone has yen to buy my shares. What difference does it make?'

But the rebukes in the Press?. The concern about losing control of the only British computer company with a hope of making a major international splash?

'Nothing you can do about it. That reaction was inaccurate. And of course we hope to float ICL within two to five years, so if people are really worried about the Japanese getting the cash flow, all they've got to do is buy my shares. I have no truck with folks saying this is a sell-out and that I've dumped the UK crown jewels down the pan because I genuinely believe this is one of my better things, actually.' He sits back, chin up. The hands rest their case.

It would be wrong ever to question the sincerity of Peter Bonfield. Associates judiciously describe him as 'very capable, determined, fair' but the word most frequently applied to him is 'straightforward'. Stories abound too about his toughness and stoic adherence to pure logic - stories which go far to explain how he could risk the fury of a nation with a step many others would have shied from. Like when he closed down ICL's Letchworth factory where his father, now dead, had worked for nearly 50 years, despite protestations from his mother. And the admission from the chief himself that though he often gathers people around him to thrash things out, 'If there's any doubt, we do it my way.' Touche. Bearded and high browed, Bonfield is, at 47, still young to be routinely named as one of the more powerful men in the computer business. A canny lad who, at an early age, transformed into a rigorous businessman, he has peddled himself, his views and his company on an international stage, nonplussed if he should ever rub a politician up the wrong way. 'He's actually made himself quite unpopular in some quarters,' a colleague reveals with clear admiration. Largely due to Bonfield's efforts, ICL is now the fourth biggest computer company in Europe. Its new parent Fujitsu, through the ICL link, has moved up to world number two next to IBM.

In terms of his reputation, Bonfield reeks of success but somehow, the description seeming most apt, and instinctively chosen by a close staff member, is that Peter Bonfield CBE - tuned in manager and advocate of the simple life - is a 'funny guy'.

Possibly it is the rogue accent and clumsy use of words in one so prominent. (He tied for top mention as worst public speaker in a recent computer magazine contest.) Or it could be the numbing effect of the box-like, '60s-style office over looking Putney Bridge, with its soft foam furniture, pine desk and large stick-up planner plotted with coloured plastic bits - mapping out every day of his life for a full year ahead.

One observer sums Bonfield up as a wysiwyg - computer speak for 'what you see is what you get'. But it is hard not to suspect that what you see is only the rough-cut surface in smooth-cut clothes. Pare this to the core and it wouldn't be surprising to get a sniff of something explosive. 'He never spares himself,' a friend says tellingly.

Certainly in the past 10 years of his stewardship of ICL there has been little room in Bonfield's life for indulgence. ICL originally started in 1968 as a conglomerate of small UK computer firms drawn together under the Government's hand. It flourished in the '70s, only to fall on its face with a thud in the 1981 recession. The Thatcher Government, concerned to maintain a British computer industry, mounted a £200 million loan rescue package and pulled in two new managers from the US based Texas Instruments: the flamboyant and difficult Robb Wilmot and, as second-in-command, Peter Bonfield.

In those days American-trained managers were regarded as the ferrets of industry - they played rough and they got results. Bonfield, only 37 at the time, was a perfect specimen of the new breed. Born in the small market town of Baldock, Hertfordshire, he studied engineering at Loughborough University because, 'My brother was an engineer, my dad was an engineer. You weren't anybody unless you were an engineer.' Easily confident even at age 22, he joined the high-powered Texas Instruments and was sent to the Dallas headquarters. 'I had a Mustang, a swimming pool, and my own project team in Texas. It made an indelible impression as to what you can do and the risks you have to take to succeed.'

Once in charge at ICL, Wilmot and Bonfield did not disappoint. They moved the company into 'open systems' (which allow unlike makes of computers to communicate), launched a new personal computer arm and sewed up a microchip technology agreement with Fujitsu.

When the UK telecommunications group, STC, appeared on the scene in 1984 with a hostile bid for ICL, Wilmot and Bonfield succumbed to the fashionable argument that computer/telecommunications joint ventures were the way ahead. STC easily won its bid, Wilmot wandered on to evangelise elsewhere and Bonfield - then seen by many as no more than Wilmot's bag carrier - was put in the managing director's chair.

But those who had doubts about their new chief were soon surprised.

'ICL by then was like a big engine requiring lots of attention, where you need to keep climbing over and tightening bolts. Bonfield was very good at that,' remarks Martin Campbell Kelly, author of ICL: A Business and Technical History. Bonfield's first shock was to discover that the STC he had hoped would provide ICL with a solid backbone, was itself wobbling at the knees. The company had overstretched itself and for the next seven years ICL had to bring home the cashflow.

'It became very hard to cope with all your profit being eaten up,' recalls ex-ICL director Alan Rousell. 'Peter exercised a tremendous amount of self restraint to see us through that. Most people would have gone.

Doggedly, Bonfield pursued success. He cut cash-gobbling divisions, pounded in quality, delegated responsibility and initiated new staff training programmes and across the-board, merit-related pay. As the group strengthened, he made numerous acquisitions in Europe and the US. By 1990 the superstitious were waiting for ICL to collapse again.

It had happened in 1961. It had happened in 1981. Why not 1991?

There was a recession after all, and on the Continent ICL's competitors, Siemens-Nixdorf and Bull, were both making losses, while Olivetti was just ticking over in the black.

But when Bonfield rolled out his 1990 results in May 1991, it was clear that he was nobody's bag-carrier no more. Pre-tax profits were down 26% to £110 million on a flat turnover of £1.6 billion - but, considering the climate, ICL was in robust form. Nor had it gone unnoticed. For the previous two years, Fujitsu had been negotiating behind the scenes with ICL's overstretched parent STC, and by July, the £748 million purchase of control of ICL was agreed. For Fujitsu the deal offered a long desired foothold in Europe. For ICL this was a critical step up into the world league of global players.

It was a juicy morsel for the xenophobics. But what was worse than the hooha at home was the reaction from the Continent. ICL's European rivals decided to shut this perceived Japanese 'Trojan horse' out of some of the JESSI pan-European research programmes and Bonfield was chucked unceremoniously off the European IT Industry Round Table.

Bonfield admits now only to being rather 'irritated' by this 'small issue'. 'That means he's bloody angry,' a former colleague laughs.

Barely restraining one expensively leathered foot from tapping, Bonfield returns to his thesis: 'Most customers think that a link with Fujitsu makes eminent business sense. It gives us a stable shareholder - the second largest IT company in the world.' It would seem he is right: customers are already voting with their feet. In September 1991 Bonfield trounced his arch rival Tony Cleaver, head of IBM, by winning a £200-million British Gas contract. In October, a £250-million deal was signed with the Ministry of Defence.

But despite the new Japanese presence, Bonfield claims little in his life has changed. So he says. And on the surface so it might be. But whereas at one time Bonfield was undoubtedly running his own ship, towing the unwieldy parent STC behind him, suddenly there are greater powers that be-from a far-off land even-who have their own wishes, their own targets, and a very taut rope on the wheel. If Bonfield fails, it could easily double as a noose.

Bonfield brusquely waves off such imagery as irrelevant, even nonsense, insisting his own goals neatly match those of Fujitsu. His problem is not one of diverging aims; it is simply the fulfilment of a common one: both want to see Continental Europe conquered.

And is this a challenge that daunts Bonfield? It is a mistake even to ask. His reply is confident, even a little cocky. 'Now that we've bought Nokia Data (a Finnish computer group), Europe is about 50% of our business. It's a£1 billion business, as big as the UK, and in the long term will be bigger.'

But consider it. ICL has only 4% of the European market and to achieve Bonfield's own named goal of being the number one European-based computer company worldwide, it would have to double its £2.3-billion turnover to beat the likes of Siemens-Nixdorf. 'Yeah,' he replies easily. 'It's quite a leap. But we don't set easy goals.'

And how will he do it? 'We want to take a lead in open systems, become a world-class supplier and bang that into specific purposes. Retail and financial will be the big ones and we're really large in travel and the public sector.'

Yes, but how will he do it? Numbering them off on his fingers, he outlines his priorities: consistency of purpose, quality, customer service, delegation of responsibility and encouragement of openness and aggressiveness within ICL. No wonder his colleagues claim their chief sets a mean pace. 'Peter likes winners,' one grunts confidently.

As to the future, Bonfield says he is committed to take the company through the float. 'But after that I'll probably want to try something...different.' He admits that the US, where he spent 15 years, is still his 'mental' home.

His first smile, in fact, breaks with the admission that he proposed to his wife at half-time at a Dallas football game. For a disciple of American thinking, Bonfield shows little regret that the windsurfer that might give him a more rounded lifestyle has been in the closet for two years. But the next minute he is talking about retiring.

Retiring? He is only 47. He snorts at what seems to be a private joke and turns the conversation back to ICL. 'I'm not a quitter. I want to see ICL get off.'

The chairman stirs restlessly, resisting a look at his watch. Customers are waiting to meet him for dinner. His driver downstairs leans on the door of the silver-blue Jaguar ready to spin him off. ('We wouldn't let him drive,' the chauffeur later grins. 'He drives this like a rally car on weekends.').

Bonfield is on his feet. He jokes a little, seeming glad to return to the familiar turf of customers and computers and madcap competition. But just one last question. His tie. Are those little Japanese houses on his tie? 'No. No Japanese ties here,' he responds stoutly. 'Those are birdcages, I think.' He offers a firm hand, almost smiling. And the public eye is quietly ushered out.

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