Scottish Power's chief executive must be a sharp political operator to have persuaded politicians and the regulator to let the utility snap up Manweb and Southern Water. Andrew Davidson takes a look behind his bluff and jovial exterior
Ian Robinson, chief executive of Scottish Power, the Glasgow-based multi-utility, is a man on whom authority sits easily. Big, burly, with a warm handshake and the scraped-back white hair of an old Russian Politburo chief, he exudes jovial acumen and bluff good humour. Trained as a chemical plant engineer and project manager, he is a well-liked team-leader, good at setting out strategy, bringing young executives on and backing them to the hilt, and smart enough to present a concerned, thoughtful face to the watching world. Don't be fooled, say some who have worked for him, Robinson is a tough nut. Watch his dark, wary eyes, flashing occasionally behind steel-rimmed bifocal glasses, and you will get a hint of the very sharp political operator that lurks underneath.
So, not a pussycat. But even Scottish Power's critics and in the hypersensitive world of utility politics there are a few - acknowledge that Robinson, alongside his chairman, Murray Stuart, has played a canny hand of cards in the three years since he joined the company. As the driving force behind Scottish Power's expansion into a [pounds]3 billion-turnover utility juggernaut with interests in electricity, gas, water and telecommunications, he clearly lacks neither ambition nor stamina. As the deft diplomat who has persuaded politicians and regulators to let Scottish Power grow, snapping up Manweb and Southern Water in the process, and in the manner in which he has kept the company out of the carping headlines that have dogged other privatised utilities, he has also proved himself pretty adept at presentation. Some rivals feel the company has been too adept: it has, they allege, snuggled too close to the current Labour administration and its trade union backers for comfort, but it is not a criticism which is likely to keep Robinson awake at night. For at 55, he sits atop an admired company perched halfway up the FTSE-100, with its shares also listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and with a lot of interested parties waiting to see what Scottish Power's next big move is going to be. Not a bad position to be in, surely?
Robinson beams warmly from his cherubically round face. He is sitting in shirtsleeves in the boardroom of Scottish Power's London office, a converted townhouse tucked away down a side street west of Portland Place. It is a curious place for a London base: not so convenient for investors in the City, but perfectly positioned for entertaining politicians and regulators - an indication, perhaps, of where the real priorities lie in utility management these days. Robinson, after 30 years working around the world in building plant for the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, is clearly proficient at pacing the corridors of power. How else, ask his rivals, can Scottish Power have persuaded the last government to let it become the only generator to own an English regional electricity company as well? Why else, after Scottish Power's rather muted protests against the windfall tax, was Robinson appointed head of the Welfare to Work campaign in Scotland? A man for all persuasions, clearly, who takes a very pragmatic approach.
'I was really irate about the windfall tax,' protests Robinson. He speaks with a hint of Geordie inflection, a nod to his roots in County Durham. 'It was a key shareholder issue, but there was nothing we could do about it. Once it was established, you just have to get on with life.' So Scottish Power, no doubt with a tight smile, will pay around [pounds]317 million extra to the Government this year, a chunk of cash which is expected to halve its pretax profits for 1998. Then it will get on with managing its steady earnings growth. Most City analysts predict that, while there may be doubts over strategy, the company will continue to outperform its rivals. …