UK: Profile - Sipko Huismans of Courtaulds.

UK: Profile - Sipko Huismans of Courtaulds. - The chief executive of Courtaulds talks to Chris Blackhurst in the classless language of international business.

by Chris Blackhurst.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The chief executive of Courtaulds talks to Chris Blackhurst in the classless language of international business.

Ten minutes into lunch with Sipko Huismans, the Dutch-born chief executive of Courtaulds, the chemicals group, and I drop a clanger - one that he has heard many times before, but a clanger, nevertheless. And one, he says, that only an Englishman would make. We are talking about Maastricht, or rather I am listening to a broadside against John Major for not stating the case for the Treaty forcefully enough, when I put my foot in it.

Huismans, who is 51 and has just entered his second year in charge at Courtaulds, says how vital it is that the "Maastricht vision of communality" is enforced and how dangerous it is "to pander to cheap nationalism. We could end up with national socialism if we are not careful - there is a history of that sort of thing in Europe".

He pauses. Does he, I ask, feel so strongly about Maastricht because of his background? "What background?" he replies, bristling with indignation. "If you mean, because I was born in Holland, I lived there until I was 11. I speak Dutch infinitely less fluently than I speak English." He continues: "From 1951 to 1968 I lived in South Africa. Does that make me South African? I've lived here since 1968; my wife is British. I am primarily British; most of the influences on my life have been British."

He glowers. His public relations officer begins to look uncomfortable. "You would not believe," Huismans says, "how many offers of non-executive directorships I receive, from companies who say wouldn't it be great to have a guy on the board with a Continental European background. They all get turned down."

By now is he in full flow. "It is true, I am not married to one particular country. After all, I am on my third nationality. But if you really want to know what my background is, it is Courtaulds. I joined the company when I was 21 and I have worked for it all my working life."

Suddenly, he is wreathed in smiles; the irritation has subsided. For a few moments, though, there had been real annoyance in his voice. What irks him is the way we British automatically assume he is pro-Europe because he is a Continental European, that we allow our prejudices to override what for him is an inescapable truth: he supports a united Europe because he is head of a major European manufacturing company.

It makes no sense for him to operate to different standards and rules in each country. If he is going to compete with the Americans and Japanese he must have all the economies of scale of being a major producer, serving one huge market. He gives an example. Courtaulds used to have eight plants in eight different countries across Europe all making marine paint. Today, the dismantling of trade and competition barriers means Courtaulds has just one marine paint factory - in the UK, as it happens, although he stresses it could be anywhere - serving the whole Continent. If Europe returns to the bad old days and reimposes trade barriers, as an industrialist he says, he may be forced to take his business elsewhere. "I will take my ball and go and play somewhere like the Far East. If European companies are going to do well, they need strong competitive products. In order for that they need free movement of goods."

What is required, he says, is a "mission statement" from the prime minister, as president of the EC, backing the idea of a united Europe. "He can't go half-way," warns Huismans. "If he does that, I'd be better off in Nigeria."

What prompted this attack on Major - later, he describes the premier as "a man who looks like the boss, who knows what he is doing" - was a private meeting of business leaders the previous evening. At the meeting - he will not say what the occasion was - the subject of a single Europe arose. In typical British fashion, a decision whether to declare the corporate chiefs in favour or against was deferred. Huismans could not believe what he was witnessing. "I told them, 'You are all eminent industrialists, yet how can you call this leadership?'"

Quite what the audience made of this outburst is not known. With his moustache, spectacles and hair that is slightly too long for the average conservative British chief executive, Huismans has, to our eyes, a slightly eccentric appearance. His accent, a combination of Dutch softness with the odd harsh South African pronunciation compounds the off-beat effect.

He freely admits to looking strange - but only to the British. "I am frustrated by the wishy-washiness of this country," he says. "I have a problem going through life without saying anything, without having an opinion," he says. "That is why I look different. When I do speak out, you can hear them thinking, 'Poor bastard, he's foreign.'" But, he adds: "I don't look funny to my US employees."

The distinction is crucial. Courtaulds, despite its famous British name, now has more employees outside these lands than within. Of its 22,500-strong workforce, only 10,500 are based in this country.What was once an inward-looking, industrial dinosaur facing real danger of extinction, has become an aggressive, global player. Only a fifth of its annual £2 billion sales are in the UK. The rest come from North America, Continental Europe and increasingly, the Far East. Huismans, with his "background" is the perfect man for the job. He is unfettered by the petty nationalism that comes from growing up in one country; he talks the language of international business.

Two years ago, in a radical move, Sir Christopher Hogg, Courtaulds's celebrated chairman split the company in half. Textiles went one way, under Martin Taylor and chemicals went the other, under Huismans.

Hogg remained chairman but his two younger colleagues were encouraged to treat their companies as their own. Nothing marks the break with the old more precisely than the ascent of Huismans. Hogg took a degree in English; Huismans studied economics, business economics and industrial psychology. Hogg has a cottage in Wales, loves walking and reading; Huismans sails and watches motor racing.

And whereas Hogg's route to the top began from the rigid, disciplined base of an English public school education - "I was a boringly good schoolboy, I worked according to the system and did most of the things of which the system approved," Hogg once said - Huismans's early life was one of constant turmoil.

He was born three days after Christmas in 1940, in German-occupied Holland. Later, he watched as the sky filled with parachutes and the Allies launched their famous attack on Arnhem in the real-life version of A Bridge Too Far. His recollection of the battle, seen from a near-by rooftop, stood him in good stead. "It always impressed Hogg because he was a paratrooper," says Huismans. "It is not easy to impress Hogg."

With the end of the war, life settled down. He was the eldest of five children, went to the local primary school and his father was a journalist. All that abruptly changed, however, in 1952, when his father gave up his job to become a teacher in South Africa.

It was a decision that left a lasting impression on his eldest son, so much so that even today when he is asked if he had a happy childhood, Huismans replies: "Oh dear, that is a difficult one. There was a lot of change - going to South Africa caused tremendous disruption to my life."

The family settled in Standerton, a farming and textiles town, 100 miles south-east of Johannesburg. Huismans went to three schools in his new country, so that by the time he left at 18, he had been to six in total.

Not surprisingly, he cannot take seriously the British obsession with somebody's school or the idea that one school on its own is very important. "People here are always asking which school did you go to? It is a fancy British upper class way of saying what class are you? I say, what do you mean? I went to school. It's as simple as that - you have to, it's compulsive, part of the law."

He went to work for the South African Iron and Steel Corporation as a research chemist. Then in 1961, he joined Courtaulds as a shift chemist at The Usutu Pulp Company in Swaziland. He was promoted to quality controller but soon discovered that if he was going to rise any further he would need a university degree.

In 1964, he resigned and went to Stellenbosch University. When he graduated - Courtaulds had sponsored him through the course - he returned to the company, but in Britain, not South Africa.

He abhorred apartheid and all the underlying tensions it brought. But that is not to say he does not love the country. His family is still there, he has a beach house at Durban and goes there every Christmas. "If there is a country I regard as home it is South Africa," he says. He would like nothing more than to see Courtaulds investing there. "There is a chance things will work out," he says. "If they do, there will be business opportunities."

In Britain, he rose steadily through the ranks, until, in 1974, he got his big break. Lord Kearton, Courtaulds's legendary chairman and renowned talent-spotter chose him to oversee all Courtaulds's trade with the Communist bloc, including China.

Huismans became one of Kearton's chosen few. Reporting directly to him, he toured the world, selling Courtaulds. Outside, he learned how to establish joint ventures and barter deals. Inside, he was one of the few people in the firm able to cut across traditional divisional boundaries. Throughout, Kearton was his mentor. "Kearton could be obstinate, cussed and a totally wrong bugger on occasion," he says. "But he left more of a mark on British industry than anyone else in recent times. If I achieve a fraction of his influence, I will depart this world a happy man."

By the time Kearton left in 1980 and Hogg took charge, Huismans's stature within the group was assured. He became head of the fibres division in 1982 and joined the board in 1984. When Hogg decided to demerge in 1990, Huismans was ready and willing to leap in - provided, as a chemist, he got chemicals. "Chris Hogg was the last of a generation of people who felt comfortable running textiles and chemicals together. If anyone had asked me to be chairman of textiles, I'd have run a thousand miles."

In reality, textiles and chemicals had been run as two separate companies for years with different priorities, project lead times, markets and managements. Nevertheless, it was, he says, a brave move - sadly, too brave for many other companies.

"For self-important directors of very large companies to become directors of less important companies is like asking a battleship commander to run a frigate. A frigate is faster and more exciting than a battleship but its commander does not rank as high as a battleship commander." He adds, "There is an element of ego-fulfilment in every high-profile or public person. Fellows like to be successful and to be seen to be successful. For that reason they persuade themselves of the existence of all sorts of spurious synergies which would be lost if they demerged. They think of 101 reasons for not doing it."

Now the dust has settled, what excites him is China - "Two billion people, it makes Europe's 250 million look small" - and Tencel, the group's new, environmentally-friendly, man-made fibre."Spinners and weavers can't wait to buy it," he says. "It is easily dyed, retains moisture and allows stripes to have greater clarity."

Although he claims it is too soon to talk about figures - "I don't want to run away with myself" - he cannot stop. "Assume that 20,000 tonnes equates to £40 million, and we will have three plants producing 50,000 tonnes a year each ... we are talking about very material revenue gain."

It is appropriate for such a blurr of energy - he talks 19 to the dozen - that one of his passions is watching Formula One motor racing. An image consultant could not have got it better if he had tried: like him and the new-look Courtaulds, the sport is fast and international. Courtaulds carbon fibre is used in the cars and the company sponsors the Marlboro McLaren team.

"Winning at motor racing is all about doing things very right all the time, in a disciplined, organised, way. That is also how I see Courtaulds."

The conversation turns to the drivers. Why does the British public still have a soft spot for the flamboyant Graham Hill compared with the relentless Nigel Mansell? "They don't prefer Graham Hill in Brazil, the US and Japan," he says. "Remember, 80% of our customers and 50% of our employees are not here."

He has no time for the British love of the underdog. "If somebody is looking for the gifted amateur, I'm not it."

His PR officer grins - it is a good answer.

1940 Born Holland, eldest of five children; father took family to South Africa in 1952. Huismans had attended six schools by the age of 18, Started work as research chemist at South African Iron and Steel Company

1961 Joined Courtaulds as shift chemist at The Usutu Pulp Company, Swaziland

1965 Sponsored by Courtaulds at Stellenbosch University. Took degree in business economics. Courtaulds moved him to Britain on graduation - "I am not married to one particular country. After all, I am on my third nationality"

1968 Sales manager, later general manager, Springwood Cellulose Co

1974 Chosen by chairman - the late Lord Kearton - to oversee all Courtaulds trade with Communist bloc

1980 Became director, later MD, of Courtaulds Fibres

1987 Chairman, International Paints plc

1990 MD, Courtaulds plc, following demerger of textiles into separate company

1991 CE, Courtaulds plc

For reprints of this article, contact Anne Oakley (071) 413 4336.

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