Post man not afraid of tough decisions

Nigel Stapleton looks slightly too large for his modest office in a civil service building behind Waterloo station.

The government-issue chairs are hardly commodious, the walls are a little thin and his salary is distinctly public sector at {GBP}76,500 a year for his three-day a week job as chairman of the Postal Services Commission.

It cannot be what he is used to after a career in the more lavish corporate world. But he is excited by his new job, which he began in January, and talks enthusiastically about the intellectual challenge of regulating the postal industry, the chance to use the economics he learnt at Cambridge and his desire to be of service to customers.

The UK's postal service, he says, is "one of the arteries of the economy [that has] somewhat furred up after 350 years". Being involved in reviving it will be "more challenging than most things I could envisage over a business career".

As far as the money goes, it helps that he has some other non-executive jobs – he receives rather more as chairman of Uniq, the convenience food group – and also that he is a member of a fortunate generation, he says, which has enjoyed "no wars and defined benefit pensions".

Like Allan Leighton, the chairman of Royal Mail who is now one of his adversaries, Mr Stapleton seems to enjoy the "plural" lifestyle. Although 57, he looks youthful, with few grey hairs, and he seems to relish juggling several jobs.

He will need plenty of energy at Postcomm. The postal service is gradually opening to competition with, for example, last month's granting of a licence to Deutsche Post and this month's access agreement between Royal Mail and TPG Post, the UK subsidiary of the Dutch mail company.

By the end of Mr Stapleton's initial three-year term in 2007, the postal service will be on the verge of full competition.

There are likely to be further clashes between Postcomm and Royal Mail about issues such as pricing, regulation and service quality. Graham Corbett, Mr Stapleton's predecessor at Postcomm, had several public disputes with Mr Leighton.

But Mr Stapleton is used to being in difficult situations. Bill Ronald, who is chief executive of Uniq, and who also knows Mr Leighton well since they worked together at Mars, says he told them both that "they deserve one another". Both, he says, are energetic and focused, but they have different management styles.

He says he spoke to each of them after their first meeting. The two men, he thinks, "very quickly got the measure of each other. Both realised: 'I won't get anything past this man'".

Mr Stapleton is well aware that Mr Leighton is more highly regarded by the media than he is. "However good the quality of the argument," Mr Stapleton says, "he will get a better hearing in the press than me. I will be more persuasive by quiet argument than public trumpets. You don't get any plaudits for doing a regulator's job. The only winner we want to see is the consumer of postal services."

But he believes that Royal Mail can prosper too. "All of us," he says, "would like to see competition making the biggest player more efficient and innovative rather than making the biggest player wither – [that] would be a tragedy."

Mr Stapleton knows he must steer a course between angering the industry and upsetting consumers, while reporting to parliament too. It is a job that could open him to public condemnation, but, fortunately, he says, "I've got quite a tough skin".

It has hardened as he has faced criticism of his performance at Reed Elsevier, the Anglo-Dutch publisher, and as a non-executive of Marconi when the telecom-munications equipment-maker fell into losses. At Reed he says, he spent "probably the most testing couple of years of my career" when he became one of the merged group's four-member executive committee in 1996.

This management structure, with two members from each side of the business, proved unwieldy.

Although his 18 years at Unilever, another Anglo-Dutch company, and his Dutch wife gave him some insight into dealing with the Elsevier people, Mr Stapleton was frustrated.

The internet was developing rapidly and he was keen to invest heavily in electronic publishing. He was prepared to sacrifice short-term profits to that end. Profits did fall and Mr Stapleton was criticised.

"That was how it was characterised in the press. These people who had taken Reed Elsevier off 15 years of consistent 15 per cent earnings per share growth had done a bloody awful job. As far as I was concerned, if you think what you've done is right, that is more important than what you read in the press and I did think what we'd done was right. And I think history has, to a degree, confirmed that."

He has been accused of conveniently forgetting his time at Marconi. As he runs through his career he jumps from his work at Uniq to Postcomm. Has he not missed something? "You mean my non-executive directorship at Allied Domecq," he teases, before launching into his view of the Marconi episode. "It was an extremely challenging time." Outsiders, he asserts, have an exaggerated belief about "how much non-executives can influence the way a company is going".

Further, he says, as a non-executive director, "however direct the questions you ask, it is extraordinarily difficult to get the full picture. Non-executives were not given the full picture in Marconi".

As chairman of Marconi's audit committee, he says: "I clashed with John Mayo [the finance director and then-deputy chief executive] more than anybody clashed with John Mayo. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that I'd clashed even more."

He opposed Mr Mayo's decision to pay higher interest rates on the group's debt in return for having no covenants, a move that many believe eventually saved the company from receivership as the banks could not pull the plug without covenants.

But, again, Mr Stapleton, is convinced he was right. As a finance director himself, he says, "I always tried to negotiate the least onerous bank covenants".

But at Marconi he felt covenants would give "a degree of financial prudence, [which] is a very good constraint on a business".

Mr Stapleton's performance at Uniq has met greater approval, although there, too, his actions were controversial. Having arrived as non-executive chairman he quickly discovered that the company needed a radical overhaul and took over as chief executive until a new one could be found.

Some people who worked there at the time found him bullying but Mr Ronald disagrees. "He's challenging and a tough taskmaster. [But] I've never seen him have a temper tantrum or throw his weight around. He is very considered, non-emotional. Some people find him intimidating."

Mr Ronald concludes: "Nigel would never shy away from tough decisions. He is tremendously resilient."

So as Mr Stapleton settles into his regulator's office, he is looking forward to the challenges ahead. And, after three months in the job, he says he has already realised "I'm going to enjoy it even more than I expected".

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