Magazine article Management Today

How Oster Gained an Alpha

Magazine article Management Today

How Oster Gained an Alpha

Article excerpt

There is something endearing about Richard Oster, the 56-year old new chief executive of Cookson, the industrial materials group. A chubby, larger-than-life American, his appearance and heart-on-sleeve way of talking are terribly un-British. His conversation is punctuated with sayings that would make the average British chief executive squirm, such as, 'I'm honoured that the Cookson baton of culture and integrity has passed to me.' But anyone who dismisses his homely style as that of a folksy American lightweight is making a big mistake. Oster is the man who did a deal with Sir Owen Green, the man who masterminded the rise of BTR, and won.

In the early '80s, his family's metal business having been acquired by Cookson, Oster was working in Providence, Rhode Island, as president of Cookson America. His brief was to expand it into fast-growing areas like electronics materials. A company called Alpha Metals suited. Based in New Jersey, it was a leading manufacturer of soldering metals, wires, coatings and chemicals for electronic chips and and circuit boards. But, in 1982, Alpha was bought by Thomas Tilling. Then, in 1983, after a ferocious battle, Tilling was bought by BTR. Oster determined to prise Alpha away from BTR. 'Owen Green announced BTR had bought Tilling and none of its businesses would be sold. It was a nice challenge.'

He set out to persuade Green to sell. BTR had an office in the same building in Providence as Cookson America. Shortly after the takeover, Oster met John Cahill, BTR's US chief. Oster proposed 'a joint venture' between Alpha and Fry's, a Cookson company. 'It was not what I had in mind but it opened up the conversation.' Oster knew that Stuart Carlton, the head of Alpha, and Cahill did not get on, so he invited the two of them to dinner at his house. 'They hated each other. But to make sure, I sat them opposite each other. I asked Carlton a question which I knew Cahill would not like the answer to, and vice versa.'

Oster seized his chance. First, he persuaded Carlton (who was to resign soon afterwards) and Cahill that Alpha was not a high-tech business. Then, he made Carlton believe that unless Alpha had a joint venture its business would not grow. Finally, he convinced Cahill that the shareholders of BTR would not be best served by hanging on to it. …

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