A bit of a dark horse, a hater of personality cults, Guinness's chairman brings a low-key style to the company with a colourful past.
It's odd how - in management as in other spheres - every decade develops a style of its own. The 1980s were extravagant, colourful, buccaneering, scandalous. The 1990s, by contrast, show every sign of being rather earnest and sensible. Guinness plc stands as a symbol and exemplar of both periods. The extraordinary events that shook the company in the '80s (and sent its flamboyant chairman/chief executive Ernest Saunders to prison for fraud) belong to the history books. Having been restored to equilibrium under Sir Anthony Tennant, Britain's biggest drinks group now looks for leadership to the eminently capable but low-key Tony Greener.
Greener is a '90s manager: sensible, cost-conscious, clear-headed, practical. He's serious, even-tempered, a hater of personality cults, and modest about his achievements in business as elsewhere. He's a former Admiral's Cup sailor, for example, and remains a keen sportsman. While with Guinness's spirits division he had a gym installed in its Hammersmith building. He still works out regularly at the group's head office in Portman Square, and enjoys off-piste skiing in the Alps or in Canada.
After 53 years, there's little sign of a middle-aged spread.
Greener arrived at Guinness in 1986 as a non-executive director, following a medium-sized scandal (compared to what came later) about broken promises. Saunders had gone back on an undertaking to make Sir Thomas Risk chairman of the group after the acquisition of Distillers Company, and was forced to appoint independent directors to appease the institutions. Two months later the real storm broke when the DTI mounted its dawn raid on Portman Square. Then Saunders was deposed.
Suddenly the five non-executives were left running the show. 'It was very intense,' Greener recalls. 'The most positive aspect was that we all saw the issues in exactly the same way. There was never any dispute. We just worked through a process with the help of the brokers and lawyers.' In those days Greener was still managing director of Dunhill, the luxury goods business, but 50% of his time ('and 90% of my thinking') was devoted to keeping Guinness going.
With this unusual experience behind him, Greener was ideally placed for an executive role when Tennant arrived to take charge, from Grand Metropolitan's drinks division IDV. Greener had spent 14 years with Dunhill (the last 10 as managing director) and was looking for a change. Guinness was perfect. The job on offer was that of managing director at what had become United Distillers, owner of hugely valuable household names like Johnny Walker and Gordon's - but also of little known labels selling perhaps a couple of dozen cases into some obscure corner of Europe.
Running Distillers was - and is - all about building brands. 'Distillers and Guinness have these wonderful trade marks that depend entirely on awareness.' The first step was to rationalise the portfolio, killing off lesser brands that were too insignificant to justify spending money on. Next came distribution. A programme of acquisitions and joint venture agreements put Distillers firmly back in control of the distributive process, the better able to carry out the main part of the grand plan - building up the brands.
Guided by this strategy Guinness delivered some marvellous results in the late '80s and early '90s. After the traumas of the Saunders debacle the company became once again, under Tennant, a true wonder stock. Although quite different personalities, Tennant and Greener shared a commitment to marketing, and a vision of Guinness as a two-legged creature - carried along on spirits and beers. When Tennant announced that he would retire as group managing director in 1992, and as chairman a year later, Greener was a 'natural choice' as his successor. Even so the decision surprised many in the City. Greener was less well known than Brian Baldock, former head of Guinness Brewing Worldwide and currently deputy chairman of the group. But Greener was the younger, and the spirits division accounted for the lion's share of the business.
Since moving into the chair Greener has been raising his profile in the City. Yet analysts still regard him as a bit of a dark horse. 'The difficulty he's facing is the difference between being a managing director and being chairman of Guinness,' suggests Michelle Proud, drinks analyst with James Capel. 'It's a different role and one where he doesn't have much experience.' Indeed the ambassadorial function may not come naturally to Greener. He's a hands-on manager who likes to get on with the job. Colleagues admire his acumen and capacity for work, but they describe him as a very private person, never a great socialiser. Some say he lacks humour. Sir Ian MacLaurin, chairman of Tesco and a Guinness director since 1986, disagrees: 'He has a dry sense of humour. But he's very quiet, you've got to get to know him.' MacLaurin admits that 'it took me six or nine months,' but adds, 'I admire him greatly, he's very good with people.' Certainly, an ability to get on with people is central to the Greener management creed. 'The chap at the top is entirely dependent on the people around him,' he insists. 'Things haven't been done by Tony Greener but by hundreds of people working here. The most important aspect of management is getting together groups of people who can achieve results. The personification of things is very dangerous...' Despite a privileged childhood Greener began learning about management the hard way, starting pretty close to the bottom. There was a family firm but he never actually joined it (no doubt wisely - it was in the cotton industry). On leaving Marlborough, with a single A level, he did a work study course at Thames Board Mills and stayed on as a management trainee in what later became one of Unilever's major subsidiaries. Trainees were required to work shifts, which proved to be an eye-opener. 'The first thing you learn is that life isn't as narrow as the view you get in public school. I appreciate the education I got, but in those days, certainly, it was very narrow.' He doesn't regret missing out on university, observing - conventionally - that the 'university of life' is a 'pretty good school'. Does that mean academic qualifications are unnecessary? Greener reflects for a moment. 'Philosophically the answer is yes,' he replies. 'But in practical terms there's a great premium put upon them. What is important is to demonstrate that you can learn how to learn. It doesn't matter whether it's university or anything else - I did an accountancy qualification in my spare time while I was at the factory.' But a 'cloistered academic upbringing' is also, he considers, 'a dangerous thing'.
Having qualified as a cost accountant, then switched to marketing as he climbed the management ladder, Greener describes himself as 'the classic jack-of-all-trades'. There was a wholly new trade to learn when, after 13 years with Thames Board, he landed the job of retail controller at Dunhill - at the time a small, family-run affair. Both the joint managing directors were preparing to retire, and looking for a bright young manager to groom for the top job. Within three years, aged 34, Greener was managing director. Over the next 10 years he transformed Dunhill from a rather fusty purveyor of cigarettes, pipes and lighters (90% of the business was smoking-related), with a market capitalisation of £15 million, into an international luxury goods group worth £350 million, and 90% non-smoking related.
What drew him to Dunhill - and was later to lure him to Distillers - was the potential of under-exploited brands. 'Dunhill had an outstanding reputation that was much bigger than the scale of the business itself. You had a brand name that was very British, very masculine. There was an obvious opportunity for developing more female brands and luxury goods.' A series of acquisitions included French perfume (Chloe), a leading fashion label (Lagerfeld) and writing materials (Mont Blanc pens). Greener also helped imprint the Dunhill name upon the quality-conscious Japanese market, an achievement he was able to repeat with Johnny Walker.
It's bad luck on Greener that, after all he contributed to Guinness's performance in the Tennant era, he should find himself at the head of the company just as the results turned down. This year, too, is expected to be flat as the world recession impedes growth. Right across the western world alcohol consumption has been falling off. Yet Greener is confident that the present downturn is no more than a blip.
One trick that the drinks company can perform is to woo consumers towards ever more up-market brands. This was a policy which Guinness followed with some success in the late '80s, and from which it still expects a good return. 'There are some fallacies around what we've done,' Greener believes. 'The main one is that we've done all the development, we've traded people up - so there's nothing left to do. The reality is that we've only just begun. I don't think you can ever stop refreshing and building a brand.' Anyway exports are strong and likely to remain so. The next big targets are the emerging markets of Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. More than 40% of the world's population inhabit these regions, which account for only 10% of Guinness's sales. Johnny Walker Black Label - among other expensive tipples - already flows freely in China, in the hotel bars and nightspots where the country's new rich go to play.
There's more than a little irony in the fact that Greener is a fitness fanatic yet has spent the greater part of his working life in booze and fags. He's tight-lipped about the latter, sticking to a firm 'no comment' on the question of whether it's right that cigarette advertising should be banned. On the ethics of alcohol, however, he takes a positive line, that it's often beneficial to health. 'The issue is about how people use alcohol. The industry could do more to promote responsible consumption. We've more to lose in terms of abuse than anyone else. Excessive consumption is not in our interests.'
Moderate consumption is, though, and will continue to be. There's certainly no question of any Dunhill-style diversification at Guinness. Greener is determined to keep the company focused on beer and spirits, and any future acquisitions will reflect this strategy. There are two kinds of opportunity available, he explains: 'portfolio enhancement' (ie, buying other brands) and 'distribution enhancement' (to increase the company's clout in major markets). 'Sharpness of focus and clarity of purpose are of enormous importance,' he emphasises. 'Anything that distracts is - almost by definition - a negative thing.'