Business lunch: Robert McClements

Business lunch: Robert McClements

Robert McClements has had a career covering all sorts of sectors in Yorkshire and elsewhere. And, he tells Peter Baber, he considers himself very lucky as a result.

Y13 business lunch INSETYou are bound to bump into Robert McClements sooner or later if you go to enough Yorkshire business functions.

He has connections with a great many of the great and the good within our business region.

And that is not surprising really, which when you hear about the tenacity with which he went about getting his first job in an advertising agency in Leeds while he was still a student.

The manager thought he had only invited him in for a chat, and quickly told him there were no jobs going.

“‘But you don’t know how much I want,’ I said,” says Robert. “He looked at me puzzled. I said: ‘I am a student, so I have a grant, and three mornings of lectures, but I can come to work for you Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday afternoons, and all day Thursday and Friday, for ten pounds and petrol money. Is that okay?’ And that was how I got my first job.”

The kind of jobs he has had since then, he admits, are ones where he has had to think on his feet.

“They seem to be jobs where they want you to come and do something,” he says, “but what you do with the job makes it interesting.”

But if there is one word that can probably sum up all the kind of jobs that he has done over the past couple of decades, then that word is “mentoring” – on a big and small scale.

That mentoring has extended from being business development director at the Bradford School of Management and to being chief executive of Print Yorkshire, a trade body representing Yorkshire printers which he set up with the backing of Yorkshire Forward.

It has carried on in these post-YF days thanks to the support of the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF). His mentoring extends to the small scale too. There’s his active championship of the Prince’s Trust.

“I have done nearly every job there is to do in the Prince’s Trust,” he says, “and currently chair its West Yorkshire committee. I still get more of a kick out of that kind of work than going to go a big job for the likes of the BBC, as I have done.”

There is also the mentoring he has been doing under his own initiative, most recently over the past three years with Haworth-based army uniform supplier Wyedean Weaving.

“Through a strategic review we identified that the Ministry of Defence, one of their core customers, was looking at having a one-stopshop for clothing across all three forces, and the pilot study they were running to trial this arrangement was being run by a Canadian company that might threaten us.

"We put a plan together and today there is an organisation called Forces Locker, which is a partnership of five international companies with a total turnover of over €400m, who, as a result of the leadership of this little SME in Haworth, are now able to offer an Amazontype solution to the MOD that will drive costs out of the supply chain and provide a single point of contact.

"The Canadians are still there, but we are now waiting for the MOD to bring out the official invitation to tender.”

The amazing thing is, however, that he could so easily have joined the family motoring firm in York when he first set out.

Why didn’t he? “I looked at it, and it seemed to me that in such a job the difference between the beginning and the end of the week was having a bit more cash. I wanted to do something that was a bit more challenging.”

That might be partly the benefit of hindsight, however, as listening to his life story you get the feeling he really got the mentoring bug after coming under the guidance of one Mike Chapman, then managing director of a sign business called Oldham Signs that through quirks of business history had become part of what was then Allied Breweries.

Chapman offered him a job when the advertising agency wasn’t able to provide a full-time job at the end of his studies.

“He gave me headroom – he gave me all the encouragement I needed,” says Robert. The first job Chapman had him do was to carry out a strategic review of the business, and in his review Robert concluded that the company was missing out on not being able to provide medium-sized signs for point of sale material.

The company then bought a small screen print business called Colourscreen, and Robert, who by then was more interested in aiming for Chartered Institute of Marketing qualifications, thought that was that.

But the new business failed to thrive, and one Friday afternoon he got a call from Chapman.

“What do you think we should do about Colourscreen?’ he said. ‘Do another strategic review,’ I said easily. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you only get one chance to do that, and we have done it. This new business, which was your idea, is not working, so here is what we are doing. As of Monday morning you are ColourScreen’s new managing director. You will leave your job as my marketing assistant, and actually do something.”

It was a shot across the bows, but Robert says it was also “the making of me – at 28”.

“I was the managing director of the smallest possible subdivision of a subsidiary of Allied Breweries. Its turnover was only £60,000, and half of that was sub-contracted through the main business. Three years later its turnover was £1m and we were making £100,000 in pre-tax profit. We had also grown our staff from 6 to 38.”

He achieved this turnaround, he says, by going around all the company’s existing customers “and asking them what else they wanted”.

As a result of his success Robert was given a seat on the board. At around this time much of the UK brewing industry came under pressure from an acquisitive Australian company called Elders IXL.

Robert was brought in to work on the bid defence team, an experience he found fascinating, but when as a result of this, and fresh from learning about strategic divestment on his MBA at Bradford, he suggested to the main board that perhaps a sign business wasn’t the most core asset a brewery should own, the board saw things differently, and he had a career decision to make.

“I thought either I hang on in here and become chief executive of a division of Allied Breweries, or I start a consultancy. I decided to do the latter.” Given what has happened since to the brewing industry in Leeds, it seems a wise choice.

Many of these subsequent consultancy jobs involved him making what he says was the “nice mistake” of going in to work full-time.

This includes the post that he eventually came to get at the Bradford School of Management itself.

“I thought I was going to be offered a lectureship,” he says, “But the then dean told me they had loads of people willing to talk about it, they wanted someone who would actually come and do things.”

His proudest achievement while he was there was setting up the school’s MBA programme in Israel. Once again, the story behind this is elaborate.

“I had agreed to go on a trade mission to Israel as part of a branding exercise,” he says. “But when I got there I found that there was only one MBA programme in the whole country, producing only 20 students a year. There was massive unmet demand.”

It turned out that the reason why there was only one programme was because it was run by Ministry of Education, and all the other universities were too scared to compete.

But at a cocktail party at the British Embassy someone told him that Haim Kaiminitz, who ran something called the Israel Management Centre, might be able to help.

“I went to see this Haim Kaiminitz, but he was busy packing, and it seemed a complete waste of time. Only I started talking to his receptionist afterwards while I was waiting for a taxi, saying I was sorry we had not been able to do business but at least my wife was coming out that evening and we were going for a week to Eilat. She said: “That’s also where Mr Kaiminitz is going tomorrow.” So I gave her my business card and told her where I was staying, and later that week over dinner at the Princess Hotel in Taba Mr Kaiminitz said he would do business. He didn’t give a damn about the Ministry of Education.”

The Israel MBA subsequently fell foul of the political situation, but by the time that happened Robert had also helped to set up a Bradford MBA programme in Dubai under the auspices of Emirates airlines.

That has now become the biggest MBA programme in the Middle East. Robert only left the school because he says at his 25th wedding anniversary party, held on campus, he realised he didn’t want to reach retirement and still be there.

His next venture, Print Yorkshire, also came about through building on opportunities – and the relentless McClements capacity to pester.

At the time Yorkshire Forward was developing its economic theory based around clusters, and had invited Michael Porter, the originator of the idea, over from America to discuss it in detail.

Robert went to hear him speak, and initially wasn’t impressed, but coming away he realised immediately how much it applied to Bradford.

“In its heyday Bradford paid the highest wages in the empire,” he says. “The Bradford Club was the secondary location outside London for every architecture practice in the UK. What were they doing? Building mills. Who supplied those mills? The workers in Batley. Who supplied the workers in Batley? The farmers in the hills around the city. That may be stating the obvious, but stating the obvious is a very useful thing to do from time to time.”

In any case, when Yorkshire Forward came to put together its own cluster theory, he didn’t think the organisation had seen the obvious strengths of the print industry in the region.

So he went to have a meeting with one Jim Farmery, who was then part of the cluster team at the RDA.

“I asked him how many printing companies he thought there were in the region. When I told him there were 1,300, he sounded interested. When I told him there were 25,000 employees, he sat up a bit more. When I told him they contributed £1.5bn to the local economy, he started taking notes.”

The result was Print Yorkshire, an organisation which Robert claims got more Yorkshire Forward funding than any other similar body in the region, and was also “almost unique” in getting a second tranche of funding from Europe.

“That was because we had done all the things we needed to do,” he says.

“We had assisted business, created jobs, helped with environmental processes, and encouraged lean manufacturing.” One of its biggest successes, he says, was setting up the Showcase exhibition in 2006, an event that he says turned the traditional print trade show on its head.

“Shows used to be dominated by print machine manufacturers, with printers who came to see them,” he says.

“Instead, we got all the printers in the region together in one room and got the print buyers to come to them. We had 60-odd exhibitors, 700 visitors, and many international speakers.”

Nor has the organisation slimmed down under its new funding format. It has just put in a bid for £3.6m in funding under the Regional Growth Fund. In fact, woe betide you if you suggest that printing is something of a declining industry thanks to the growth of new media.

“When people say that I say: ‘Where have you been for the past ten years?’” he says.

“Smart printers no longer see themselves as just putting ink on paper. They are communications specialists, which includes putting ink on paper, but also includes websites and QR codes. The best example of that is Communisis, right here in Leeds. They grew out of Waddingtons, and now do print management, but also have their own advertising agency, and have thoroughly embraced integrated media.”

Yes, it seems at 58 there is no sign of the McClements spirit dying down. But that may in part be due to his innate sense of luck – a sense he feel he has inherited from his father, who survived 38 runs in a Halifax bomber during the Second World War, and is still alive today.

A couple of years ago, when Robert decided to fulfil a lifelong ambition by competing with an American driver in the Beijing to Paris car rally, an event that dates back to 1906, his father finally gave him as a lucky mascot the scarf he had worn on all those missions.

Taking it out of his pocket to show me at the end of this interview, the tears well up in his eyes.

“My life has been opportunities and a variety of soft and hard landings,” he says. “But I am a lucky man.”