“The three things that I think stand out for me in my career are:
first of all the fact that basically around the year 2000 when I became CEO of ICL I did save the company. If it weren’t for that the company would have been put into liquidation.
The second thing is that I have spent a lot of my life negotiating difficult situations, into commercial contracts, out of commercial contracts and succeeding in turning around some very difficult commercial situations particularly the contract the ICL had with Post Office counters known as Pathway or Horizon.
And I think the third thing is that I started as an in-house council, as a solicitor and I ended up as a global President for a Japanese company and I think that’s a fairly unique journey for one’s career.”
Richard Christou’s career in IT covered working for a telecommunications equipment supplier (STC), saving ICL in 2000, repositioning ICL as part a 100% owned subsidiary of Fujitsu, and running the global computer services arm of Fujitsu. He started as an in-house lawyer and ended as a Corporate Senior Executive Vice President. He saved ICL by focusing it on its core of IT services, particularly outsourcing; and bringing in a new business model which focused on customers, abandoning the old matrix structure. Today he spent time with Richard Sharpe talking about his life and career.
Richard Christou was born in Preston in 1944. His mother had been evacuated there from London while his father, who had emigrated from Cyprus to London, remained in London working in an armaments factory and a member of the Home Guard. His mother returned to London as soon as she could, and both Richard and his brother spent their childhood there. His father owned and managed restaurants and his mother was a housewife
Richard went to the local primary school before winning a county scholarship to attend Eltham College, in those days a direct grant school. He gained ten O levels, and four A levels in Latin, Greek, Ancient History and Comparative Religion. Richard was one of the twenty-five students in his sixth form year who went to either Oxford or Cambridge.
Richard went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study Classics, but after the first term, he switched courses to read Law. He gained a double first , becoming a Senior Trinity Scholar and Prizeman. He was invited to stay on and study further, but, as he explains: “I guess in retrospect it wouldn’t have been difficult to stop in Cambridge all my life … but I wanted to get involved in all sorts of significant business transactions, and to see the world, preferably at somebody else’s expense rather than my own”. After his degree, he went to the College of Law in London, from 1966 to 1967, to study for his solicitor’s final exam.
Richard went on to do his Solicitors Articles between 1967-69 with Stephenson Harwood and Tatham, whose offices were in in Saddlers’ Hall, Cheapside, in the City of London. He became an assistant solicitor with the firm in 1969.
He chose not to go to the Bar, instead specialising in commercial and contract law. He explains: “In those days to go to the Bar, unless you had seriously good connections, was too much of a struggle. If you look at most of the barristers then, either their fathers were barristers or their uncles were solicitors, that sort of thing. … So, I made a commercial decision that you were more likely to move up quicker and make a living as a solicitor rather than a barrister. They used to say: “Unless you can live off your own means ‘til you’re thirty, don’t be a barrister.”
Cyprus and a career change
In 1970, Richard and his wife decided to return to her home country of Cyprus. Unable to continue his legal career because he did not have Cypriot nationality, Richard decided to go into business and was offered a role in the Coca Cola franchise operation owned by Nicos Lanitis who had also been to Trinity College. Richard says: “We were both at the same college and he hired me, to some extent, on the strength of that I think. We got on well together and he taught me a huge amount about business.”
Richard acted as an in-house legal adviser and gained additional experience in each of the company’s departments, learning the business as a whole. He ended up as General Manager. He adds: “That’s the sort of experience which most lawyers don’t get, and it was one of the experiences, I think, which enabled me to make the transition from law to general management. A lot of lawyers try it and, at least in this country, a lot of them fall flat on their faces because it is very, very difficult to make the change if you’ve never worked in a business environment.”
He learned management skills while in Cyprus, not least how to negotiate. . “I used to buy loads of lemons from the farmers – they would pitch up with their lorries at the factory gates and I had to bargain with them. There was no fixed price. That’s when I started to learn how to negotiate.”
In 1974, the family left Cyprus for Athens due to the Turkish invasion. He says: “To be honest I didn’t want to come back, I’m not a great fan of the English climate and England was grim in the seventies, absolutely grim”
Standard Telephones and Cables (STC)
Finally, in 1975, the family decided to return long-term to London, and Richard accepted a role as an in-house legal adviser with Standard Telephones and Cables, at their Head office in London located in the Strand opposite St Clement Danes Church; he says: “I thought it was more interesting and it was by far the offer with the highest salary: seven thousand pounds. It sounds ludicrous now, but that was enough to set us up and get a mortgage on a large house in North London, where we lived for the next thirty years while the children grew up. It was a very good move. I was very happy at STC.”
STC was part of the ITT conglomerate (originally known as International Telephone and Telegraph) then run by Harold Geneen, which had been spun out from Western Electric (the main supplier to AT&T) by the United States Government. ITT’s core business was telecommunications: operating telecommunications networks in certain countries (particularly South America), research and development in the field of telecommunications, and the supply of telecommunications equipment. One of its main research centres was located in the UK, at Harlow, and was operated by STC. Geneen expanded ITT well beyond its core business. In his tenure ITT became involved in many different businesses: including hotels, car rentals, insurance, food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Richard was part of a team of around half a dozen legal advisors, working alongside the intellectual property department and the company secretarial department, all ultimately reporting to the STC Legal Director. Richard himself reported to the Company Secretary, John Valley, whom he describes as an excellent lawyer and a very nice person.
The department was involved with acquisitions and disposals, drafting contracts, resolving various disputes and Richard became the expert on employment law and pensions. He says: “When I started, I knew nothing, but the idea was that I would bring myself up to speed. This is when the Employment Protection Act 1975 came in, and we had the first legislation dealing with unfair dismissal. I did a lot of HR work in that area, including representing the company at tribunals, which I really enjoyed. To be a success as a lawyer, in the corporate world, is to understand that lawyers are always either regarded as a hindrance or a help. Always, in my career as a lawyer, the first thing I did was to get to know the managers of the company, to go and see them at their location; not ask them to come to my office. That was really the secret of my success as a lawyer. I understood the businesses I advised and I was interested in them.”
In 1982, STC became a UK listed company, independent of ITT, when Geneen’s successors began unbundling the ITT conglomerate, gradually selling off its operations. STC then set up STC Telecommunications Ltd to hold and operate the whole of its UK telecommunications supply business. The intention was to run the company somewhat separately from the rest of the businesses still held by STC. Richard says: “Since telecommunications was the business that I had always dealt with, it was natural that I take on the role of company secretary and legal adviser to STC Telecommunications.”
The company became semi-independent and Richard remained close to the management; he says: “ I always felt that you must get close to management otherwise you can’t do a proper job as a legal adviser. I spent much of my time at their headquarters in New Southgate, North London. I had an office there to keep close to what was going on. It did create a certain amount of tension because I had a dual reporting line, direct to the managing director of the company and functional to the legal director back in the Strand, and the two of them never saw eye to eye. Of course that put me in a fairly difficult position in the middle, particularly as my instincts were always to go with the business rather than the functional reporting line.”
Richard stayed with STC until it bought ICL in 1984 at which point the STC and ICL legal departments were merged and Richard was upset not to be offered the role of legal director of the combined departments. He left in 1984.
Richard was headhunted to join Solar Glass, a South African company as legal director and company secretary of their UK operations. He says: “I knew South Africa well because I’d done a lot of work out there for STC’s telecommunications operations with their then managing director John Cottrell., particularly on a joint venture to manufacture optical fibre cables. This was well before apartheid, the late seventies, early eighties. I knew the country, I knew the people and I liked them both.” Richard would spend three years with Solar Glass. .
Returning to STC
Richard was telephoned by the then HR director of STC and invited to return as legal director. Richard says: “I couldn’t resist, but actually it was not that easy a choice. I remember walking up and down the High Street in Pimlico for a couple of hours, I really don’t know why I was there, thinking shall I or shan’t I. In the end I decided to and it was a very good thing that I did. I mean, this was what really made my career, so it’s the one decision that sometimes does change your life.” Richard returned to STC on the first of April 1987. Richard’s remit also covered ICL now owned by STC, so he returned to take up the position that he had not been offered in 1984.
Richard says: “When I came back in 1987, ICL was the main profit engine for STC. I spent a lot of time at ICL. It was the first time, for a long time, that I was actually dealing with a company which made money. STC had been in crisis mode, really since 1980. By 1987 STC itself was in a serious state of decline.“
As one its attempts to solve its financial problems, in 1989 STC arranged for Northern Telecom, a Canadian telecom supplier and subsidiary of Bell Canada, to take a minority interest.
Richard says: “In 1989 when Northern Telecom were a minority shareholder, they didn’t believe in computers, they did not believe in ICL. They wanted to acquire STC because they saw it as a route to doing business with British Telecom . But they weren’t prepared to do it as long as we owned ICL.” Eighty per cent of ICL was sold to Fujitsu in 1990. The transaction was negotiated, arranged and consummated by Kenneth Gardener (STC Director of Mergers and Acquisitions) and Richard.
In 1991, Northern Telecom bought out what was left of the ITT shareholding in STC . They subsequently broke up STC and sold of most of its operations. The remaining telecoms business (never really successful) became a Northern Telecom subsidiary. STC ceased to exist as a going concern.
At the end of 1990, once ICL became a Fujitsu subsidiary, Richard realised he had three career choices: remain with STC, move to ICL or take on a partnership in the US Law Firm Mayer Brown. The partnership had been offered to him by the lead partner of the Mayer Brown London office, Jeff Gordon, who had been a legal adviser for the disposal of ICL and was a close friend of Richard’s. Richard says: “He had offered me a partnership in their firm, but it was a partnership in their UK branch; if it had been in Chicago I would have gone.”
In the end, Richard opted to move with ICL. He says: “I liked working in ICL. I’d built up a lot of relationships with the lawyers and the managers there, so I chose that.” Richard joined ICL on Christmas Eve 1989 as Director Commercial and Legal Affairs with a focus on computers, including both software and hardware.
Richard says that the UK Government were not concerned that ICL had been sold to a Japanese company. He explains: “The only issue was the defence business and this wasn’t so much the concern of the UK government. Fujitsu were concerned about getting involved in our defence business because it was not just defence: we were concerned with battlefield systems. They felt this might be unconstitutional in Japan, so I worked out a way to spin out the defence business into a company held by independent shareholders but still working with ICL. I had quite a lot of discussions with the MoD over that, but it worked and, after a number of years, we rolled it back in again to ICL Nobody cared and it’s still there … the defence business is still an important part of ICL (now Fujitsu Services) to this day.”
During the ten years Richard spent at ICL, he was responsible amongst other things for for mergers and acquisitions. With ICL experiencing some difficulty, as well as buying companies, Richard was also selling off things to, as he describes it, “prop up the P and L”. He explains: “We got rid of quite a few bits and pieces, some of them what I would describe as skunk works: some odd software programmes or businesses that didn’t really fit … one person once described me as Stalin’s lieutenant, he said, ‘you’re selling off our family silver and our birth right’ but I replied, “I am just obeying orders.”
ICL continued to have problems and was eventually broken up into a number of small businesses each of which had P and L responsibility and which were held together by a complicated matrix organisation. Richard says: “They were run by people who’d never run a P and L in their lives.” It was promised that ICL would refloat on the stock market in 1995, however this never took place, partly, Richard believes, due to the reorganisation, which resulted in the breakup of ICL’s biggest and most profitable division – ICL UK.
Richard says: “So, you’ve got ICL all broken down into all sorts of little businesses that are not working properly. You’ve lost the profit engine, ICL UK. We’re still selling, I’m still selling, things to try and keep the ship afloat, and then the CEO Keith Tod latches onto e-business. E-business is going to save us. E-business … they had a lot of visionaries in ICL but again, they were about twenty years ahead of their time. Some of the stuff that you see now, they were envisaging then, but the technology was not up to it.”
E-business didn’t work. Richard adds: “Again, I made fantastic amounts of money selling loss-making e-business companies.”
In 1999, ICL’s continuing operations turned over at 3.3 billion pounds, and continuing operations lost 149.9 million pounds. Richard became acting Chief Executive in August 2000, a role he says he didn’t hesitate to take on, explaining: “I’d got fed up with seeing the way things were being run and frankly I thought I could do better. So, I took it over. I said, ‘I’m going to act as if I’m chief executive from day one’. I didn’t actually wait for consensus or anything else. So I fired most of the people that I thought were responsible for the mess and I dismantled the matrix organisation … and I put people in charge of countries, people in charge of much larger divisions and told them, ‘Your job is to make money’.”
Richard also had to do a certain amount of rationalisation, he adds: “I was determined to do the rationalisation that was necessary and a large slug of that, 143 million, was write-offs that I took, either redundancies or getting rid of stuff like software held on the balance sheet that was surplus to requirements and so on and so forth. It had to be dealt with. I would have done more if I could, but I did as much as I could.”
Alongside these measures, Richard also looked for opportunities saying: “I think the most important decision I made, because it’s still the plank of the business, is to go into outsourcing. So, I sit there, about 2000, and I’m saying ‘What do we do?’ Alright, we’ve got rid of this, that and the other and it’s all slimmed down but how do you grow? What do you do? We had a company, and this is one of the few acquisitions that I’m quite proud of, that was called CFM. They came out of local government originally; they did facilities management and outsourcing. They were a core of people who, actually understood how to do it and when I looked round I thought this was the sort of one bright spot in ICL, and I built on that business,. This is where we started to take over outsourcing contracts. It was the big outsourcing contracts that, despite all their problems, actually were, and still are, the profit drivers in ICL.”
Richard transitioned from being Acting CEO to permanent CEO at the end of 2000, having won the support of many within Fujitsu and is credited with being the man who saved ICL.
By year end of 31 March 2001, the company is smaller; 2.7 billion rather than 3.3 billion, there are continuing operations losses of 869 million, but an actual profit on ordinary activities before interest of 113.6 million rather than a loss of 86.7 million for the previous period. During this time, ICL also changed its name to Fujitsu Services and some business was spun off to other parts of Fujitsu. Of the name change, Richard says: “I was absolutely in favour of it. You have to realise that, if you’re going to compete as a Japanese company, then you actually need the strength of the brand. One thing I don’t think people realise is just how strong the Fujitsu brand is in Japan.”
After acting as Executive chairman of ICL (by then renamed as Fujitsu Services) from 2004 to 2007, Richard became Corporate Senior Vice President Fujitsu Limited and Head of Fujitsu EMEA Regional Operations.
In 2008 he was promoted to Corporate First Senior Vice President and President of Fujitsu’s Global Business Group which consisted of all of Fujitsu’s IT operations outside of Japan ($12bn turnover and 75,000 employees).
In 2009 while continuing his role as President of the Global Business Group he was appointed as one of the three Corporate Senior Executive Vice Presidents reporting directly to the President of Fujitsu. This team of four was responsible for the totality of Fujitsu’s business both in Japan and the rest of the world.
Richard retired in 2012 but continues to act a Corporate Adviser to Fujitsu..
Challenges and proudest achievements
Richard says the biggest issue, when you get up to the sort of levels that he reached is how to pick the people who run the businesses you are responsible for. He says: “People say if you get one in three right in these sorts of things you’re not doing badly.”
Richard is most proud of his involvement in the Pathway project which saw the automation of Post Office counters and the role that he negotiated for ICL at that time. He says: “I did that, nobody else did, and it was not a legal issue, this was negotiation. They still have the contract, twenty-five years later, and it’s been their most profitable.”
Richard’s first computer was a Honeywell in the seventies, it was used partly for commercial roles, payroll and bookkeeping and accounting. His personal acquaintance with computers began with the Sinclair ZX81 where he learned the basics of BASIC.
Interviewed by: Richard Sharpe on the 8th March 2019 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by : Donna Coulon
Abstracted by: Lynda Feeley