“I suppose like most people of my generation back in the mid-sixties I got involved with computing, or data processing as we called it by accident and rather reluctantly. I was with a company and they said “we are setting up this new computer department and we’d like you to go into it” and I’d gone there as a Management Trainee and I nearly quit. I thought I was being shunted off into some little backwater.”
George Cox was born in Hackney in 1940. His father was a hall porter, and his mother was a waitress. It was the war years, and at first when looking back were quite an exciting time; playing on the bomb sites immediately after the war. The family lived in Marble Arch, and his sisters were born in Upper Berkeley Street, and in Portman Square, where, the Portman Hotel is. He remembers it as a great place to, to grow up, being right in the centre of London
George’s parents always assumed their children would go to university. Which looking back he feels was quite incredible. No one in the family had ever been to university but his parents always took it for granted he would. He passed the Eleven Plus and went to Quintin Grammar School. Both his sisters passed the Eleven Plus and one went to university, later working for IBM. George did an aeronautical engineering degree at Queen Mary College, the University of London and has since been given an Honorary Fellowship. He rowed for both the college and the university and in later years went into coaching and was a selector for the GB team at the World Championship
Having studied aeronautical engineering at university George looked for an aircraft company to go and work for and picked Vickers-Armstrong. He joined them, and worked at their test field at Wisley, and they were testing the early VC10s and 1-11s and the last of the Vanguards. He found it was good fun, because, it was small unit in a big company, but he was working alongside Trubshaw and, other famous test pilots, which, for a graduate straight out of university was amazing. After a year or two George realised the job wasn’t leading anywhere and that’s the point at which he decided he had to rethink his career.
George saw an advert for, graduate engineers, with a couple of years’ experience, to train for management. He applied to what turned out to be Molins Machine Company who were seeking to recruit six graduates to train for management for a couple of years and then be given a department to run. He thought that was pretty exciting and took the job. Initially he moved around departments, seeing how different parts of the company worked. After about eighteen months he was asked to do a programming aptitude test because, they wanted to move him into their new computer department. George didn’t like the sound of that, thinking “you’re just shunting me into some backwater here.” Molins had manufacturing processes that were highly complex, and controlling them was proving to be at the limits of what could be done clerically. They were very forward thinking and brought in two people from IBM in the USA, one at board level, one immediately below, for executive roles on a two-year secondment. The computer department mushroomed from the initial six, of which George was one, to 100 people in about eighteen months. After a couple of years of being a project leader on some of the biggest projects, George decided he’d “done this computer stuff.” He moved on to be Requirements Planning Manager. And then within a few months of that, he moved up again and became Manufacturing Administration Manager
Having been advised to get some consulting experience George joined Urwick Orr the biggest of the consulting groups around and the only one with a specialist computer consulting arm, Urwick Diebold. He, like everyone else, had three months’ excellent training before he even saw a client. He worked on a number of projects. Inevitably he got put on things which related to manufacturing. His very first was in Spennymoor at the Black & Decker factory where he found the company there didn’t want them at all, they were wished on them by Head Office. He also looked at the whole IT strategy, for the Royal Ordnance Factories, which made explosives and tanks and shells and guns at the time all around the country. He found that often the biggest problem was the people who had commissioned the work didn’t know what they wanted. He learnt a lot when working on a book on how to manage computer projects. He used to lecture on project management for Urwick’s, and came up with a definition of estimates. “Estimates are the highest figure you can come up with, and the project will still proceed.”
George was recruited by David Butler, who had in turn been recruited by John Diebold who had split with Urwick’s, and, set up his own company. He had enjoyed working with David when they had done projects together at Urwick and so, went to Diebold. George found John Diebold to be impressive, and incredibly difficult to work with. David recruited George to run the UK when he moved to run Frankfurt. George worked on a large project for Plessey and did a strategic study for the board. In the course of working on that, he suddenly saw, that what they thought was computing, was just the start of it. That this was far bigger than was ever really appreciated. This was going to invade the office and transform telecommunications. He could see it was going to herald a massive change. George presented his thoughts on how business was going to change and how Diebold should take advantage to John but he rejected his ideas. George returned from presenting to John feeling really depressed because he had been so excited about this opportunity. He spoke to David about it, and David said ‘George, if he won’t do it, why don’t we do it for ourselves?”
George & David started Butler Cox with five other people at the outset, all of whom they had worked with in different companies. They had no money so they launched the company with consulting first, because it’s an immediate profitable income and quickly got some good projects.
After a few months they launched the Butler Cox Foundation, holding an invitation only seminar for FTSE 100 and big government department heads of computing in London. They had a series of lectures, all on developments in computing. About the impact of word processors and telecommunications in the office. The fact that these people were going to be responsible for computer systems in their company. Things that they hadn’t thought about. At the very end of the day they explained they were setting up a programme which would independently research these areas, bring in world experts, hold private conferences and seminars on it and keep members in the picture with what’s happening, and what it means. They followed up with phone calls but it was difficult to convince people until Rank Hovis McDougall became the first member and from there it started to grow. Once they got the nucleus going, and delivered what they said they would it went well. Initially they said they would have 25 members and by the time the company floated there were around five hundred. The foundation proved to be a very good financial model. Butler Cox was soon cash-positive, and remained so for its whole existence.
After about six years they took in external shareholders selling off 20% of the company to six big investors. They did it for two reason, neither of which was that they needed the money. One was, they thought reporting to external shareholders would be a good discipline to introduce. And secondly it enabled the seven original people to raise some capital, cash in a bit, and still run as a company. Since it was going to be another five years before they floated, the idea of bringing in substantial investors who would call them to account, and, enabling people to take a little bit of money out, seemed a good move. The investors were happy as they wanted a five year exit on the investment. They always intended to float, rather than to have a trade sale. Partly that was ego as “You can sell an unsuccessful company, people do all the time, but you can’t float an unsuccessful company.” They floated very successfully on the full market of the Stock Exchange in 1990.
In 1990, the market turned bad, and partway through that, Computer Sciences came to them wanting to buy the business. They had had offers before, but, CSC seemed a good mix and culturally they seemed a good fit with Butler Cox. CSC approached them with an offer and because, they were a public company, they were obliged to consider it. George gave them a guide price for the shares and they went away to think about it. When they came back they said, ‘Here’s an offer. It’s in the middle of your range. And we’re going to send a team over from California to review the company, and do due diligence. As a result of that we’ll either buy the company at that price or walk away. You won’t get a penny more and we won’t offer you a penny less. So there’s no more negotiating. We’re going to have to, you’re going to have to prove to us that it’s worth that, as a financial proposition.’ CSC came over and did what they had said they would do and the company was sold.
It was a strategic buy from CSC’s point of view. They bought the company and chose to integrate it totally in the business, and get rid of the name. George stayed on for about three months, helping the transition. They were very generous on the terms, and wanted him to stay on longer but he didn’t see a role.
After Butler Cox
P-E International: George moved to P-E International, a software services company, in 1992 and found the skills he had developed at Butler were still applicable. Because Butler Cox had done quite well financially, shareholders quite liked his appointment which is important for a plc. He found that the company had quite severe financial problems, in terms of borrowings being quite high, et cetera. However, he turned it round sufficiently so as to be able to sell it. His view was that it would have taken too long to make it very successful and that if you think, you can get a good price for it now you’ve got to sell it.
Unisys: Unisys was trying to change from being a hardware manufacturer into a services-led company and in 1995 recruited George to run the UK company. During his first year he realised this was a difficult transition for Unisys to make. The company was very impressive in many ways. Their technology was good. Their attitude to customers was excellent. What they didn’t understand was, the whole dynamics of a service business is different so they were losing a lot of money, across the whole group. After a year they decided to split into three divisions and asked George to run the services business for Europe. He agreed as long as he could pick the team to head it up. In the third quarter of that year his division found they had lost 60 million dollars. They realised that previously all the services losses had been concealed by the hardware profit. They picked three major things to tackle; they stopped taking on unprofitable work, they cut costs which meant firing hundreds of people across Europe and thirdly they ended thirteen red projects on which they were losing a fortune. Over the next eight quarters, things improved every quarter, so that after that they were back on a pre-tax profit, which had a huge impact on the group. George left Unisys in 1999.
Institute of Directors: George heard that the Institute of Directors was looking for a new Director General and it was a position that interested him. He met with them and a couple of days later they offered him the role. George did five years at the IOD and significantly raised the profile while he was there. He knew how to run an organisation but the representation to Government, and the media stuff, the Today programme, was entirely new to him. He found that being head of the IoD, meant the media treated him like an MP and that they were not benign interviews. He found this aspect in particular very stimulating and challenging. One of the things that he did was depoliticise the place because it was quite right wing and its history was right-wing. George’s view was, “we’re a non-political body”. He worked quite hard to get a relationship with the Government of the day, which was the Blair Government, and that worked well.
George feels he had two major achievements. One was the Unisys turn-round. The other was starting a company. He says “to start a company from scratch without a penny, and build it up to where it’s got a good reputation, an enduring reputation, and you can float it on the full market of the Stock Exchange, I must admit, that, that’s very gratifying.”
Butler Cox badly wanted to establish a base in North America. They got the opportunity, with, a lady called Randy Goldfield who had been the first woman partner in Booz Allen, and had become the leading light on office systems. She had a small consulting company in America, that she was selling it and they bought it. They thought it a tremendous move but didn’t realise that Randy couldn’t run a company. They were so disciplined; it didn’t occur to them. As the year progressed they got worried about their projections. By the time they realised they were not going to hit their targets, it was too late in the year. At that point they put a team in and uncovered huge liabilities. Plus, all the predictions of income weren’t there and they were going to lose a fortune on the year. George put a supporting team in and they started working to turn things around. A few months later, the external Directors of Butler Cox said that they needed to close the American company down. George wanted to keep working to turn it around but had put the whole of Butler Cox into limbo while trying to sort out his mistake. They made him see reason which he thinks “was one of the best examples of non-executive intervention I’ve ever come across in any field” and that “in those ten, fifteen minutes they earned their fee for the year”.
George thinks you pick bits and pieces from people. For example, there was someone he worked for when he first went to the factory with Molins was very focused. He taught him how to cut through issues that didn’t matter and see what’s really important, which is very effective and has a huge impact on output.
But it was his colleague David Butler who had probably the biggest impact. Because David was so imaginative and also, David reinforced with him early on that you could speak to anybody, show people respect but never ever be overawed.
George feels that looking back on Butler Cox, it had far more potential than they ever realised. That there were a lot of areas of research, they could have gone into, and done it better than other people because they were more thorough and they analysed it better. Butler Cox had far more potential of business than they realised at the time but they were pushing out from the things which really excited them.
Having seen fundamental change throughout his career George would want to get across that you shouldn’t have a fixed view of the world you go into. “I’m saying, therefore, that you can’t plan, or think five years of strategy, but you’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to understand, offshoots will come up quickly and so on. And I think, one of the great skills you can develop in life is to step back and see a situation in its perspective. The ability to stand back and view something the way you will from ten years hence, is a tremendous skill to, to acquire. It really is. And, you need to work at that. To step back and think, right, take the emotion out of it…”
interviewed by: Alan Cane on the 28th September 2016 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Annabel Davies