Network thirst

Stewart McColl has had his ups and downs, but is a master at approaching people, says Richard Williams

When Bill Goodenough, my fellow managing director, and I set up Design Bridge back in 1986, our very first day of existence was dominated by Stewart McColl. We received a breakfast invitation to the McColl headquarters in London’s Wigmore Street and were ordered to be there at 8am sharp.

We were both flattered and scared. Stewart McColl was a legend. He was tough, a great salesman and about as important as you could get in the world of design bigwigs. Most of all, he was very rich indeed.

We were plied with croissants and coffee while receiving regular traffic updates from the great man on his mobile telephone, something of a rarity in those days. He was late leaving home after a big function the night before, then he was stuck in his Bentley at some beastly roadworks near his Regent’s Park home. We were hugely impressed without even having seen him.

He turned out to be a real gentleman, giving us plenty of advice and showing us around his huge building. We left hoping that one day, perhaps by the end of the year, he might try to buy us for a million or two.

Ten years on I called him to arrange this interview and he suggested we meet at Claridges at, you’ve guessed it, 8am. On the surface little seems to have changed in the world of Stewart McColl, but deep down much has.

He no longer has any connection with the business which sprang from his front room in Golders Green. He sold it to WPP in 1988, with its 340 staff and offices all over England and Europe. It is now known as BDG/McColl, after merging with the WPP-owned Business Design Group.

I liked McColl instantly at our first meeting, and ten years have not changed that. He is an impressive man with a thick thatch of red hair, a beard and a very distinct Scottish accent punctuated by a marvellously infectious chuckle. He is immaculately turned out, even with the trademark pocket handkerchief perfectly positioned.

I ask McColl how he got into design and architecture. “This is the time for truth isn’t it?” he says, grinning. He saw the careers advisor at school to discuss a career as an airline pilot, but got distracted at the mention of architecture.

He attended Strathclyde School of Architecture. This led to a job at a Glasgow shopfitters, where he “did shopfronts for 10 each and a full store layout for 15”. He moved down to London and took a job at the Conran Design Group. “Terence Conran was the man I admired most, until I actually met him!” says McColl, only partly in jest.

By1974 McColl’s bulging portfolio of freelance clients became too big a burden. He moved to a small office in Fitzroy Street at the same time he was reported for turning his domestic residence into a business.

“Just six months after we moved to Fitzroy Street the work dried up. It was frightening but it made me learn to sell and network to bring the work in.” One senses that this was a very valuable lesson learned early in his career, one that has shaped his whole approach to business.

“He is a great salesman and a brilliant networker,” says Stefan Zachary, who worked alongside McColl for 16 years. I see clear evidence of this when he has to take a telephone call in the middle of our breakfast. He politely leaves the table and heads for the phone, spotting someone he knows and having a chat en route. The old-fashioned way still works a treat.

But it would be unfair to see McColl purely as a sales animal. Zachary says he was “the first to put together a true multidisciplinary consultancy, looking at every part of a concept”, adding: “I think he is a very talented man.”

Like so many of the retail and interiors businesses of the Eighties, McColl functioned on the 80/20 principle. One client provided 80 per cent of the business, the rest was made up of one-off clients. “We worked for every division of Burton’s apart from Top Shop,” says McColl. Clearly business was good because he geared up for a stock market flotation around 1986 and was constantly approached by big companies who wanted to buy the business.

“Martin Sorrell had breakfast with me two days before he launched his 240m bid for J Walter Thompson and presented me with a “deal sheet” which offered me a deposit of half money and half shares in WPP and a good earn out over five years,” remembers McColl. While he was considering, Black Monday arrived and the concept of a flotation went out of the window. Sorrell stood by his offer: “We had been gearing up for something so we let WPP buy us.”

Rapid growth and the establishment of offices all over the UK and Spain followed, but many were closed down often only 18 months after opening. The business still had a good turnover, but its fixed costs in rental on empty buildings made it tough-going.

McColl avoids discussing the WPP purchase issue. But it is common knowledge that Sorrell’s back was against the wall and he put the business into liquidation.

Zachary recalls lorries turning up on the night of 14 September 1992 and men in overalls clearing the business in Wigmore Street. “Norman Foster cut his staff by half. A lot of design businesses should have done the same, but we just didn’t have that mentality,” he says.

McColl stayed out his contract with WPP. It must have been difficult, but he is a proud man who, according to Zachary, bears his burdens privately. He does concede that he had a bitter taste in his mouth at the end of the WPP saga.

Life is obviously good now for McColl. He’s chairman of architecture and design firm Broadway Malyan Europe, which has offices in Portugal and South Africa. And he still has a Bentley and a large home in Chelsea Harbour.

Home life and business are intertwined, he lunches and dines with his clients and entertains them at weekends and this seems to suit him well. He’s back doing what he’s good at – marketing a business he believes in.

Looking into the future, McColl feels retail design groups, or “boutique businesses,” as he calls them, need to be run by professional managers or they risk being swamped by US practices. He cites Canary Wharf as an example of this.

McColl never stops networking. On my way home from the interview his secretary called to invite me to drinks next week. Did I accept?

You bet I did..

McColl CV

1973 Stewart McColl founds Stewart McColl Associates

1987 WPP Group buys retail and leisure specialist Stewart McColl Associates in a multimillion pound deal

1990 Stewart McColl votes 1m in WPP shares to the McColl Arts Foundation, set up to encourage young artists. The foundation’s first venture is The Glasgow Girls exhibition

1992 The ailing McColl Group merges with WPP stablemate Business Design Group. McColl remains chairman of WPP Group within the new conglomerate

1993 Six months after the BDG/McColl merger, McColl quits the group. Some three months later he forms design consultancy Broadway Malyan Europe with established architect Broadway Malyan

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