Profile: Iain Johnston

Entrepreneur Iain Johnston has taken up the reins at Loewy Group as it undergoes a period of consolidation. He tells Lynda Relph-Knight about looking after business while the creatives get on with exercising their talents

He couldn’t be more different than Charlie Hoult. There’s none of the flamboyance associated with his predecessor, but Loewy Group chief executive Iain Johnston shares Hoult’s energy and passion for the independent supergroup he has inherited.

Johnston took on the full-time role at Loewy last year. By then the visionary Hoult had completed the task of amassing big name groups Seymour Powell, The Team and Williams Murray Hamm, among others, under the Loewy banner. But Hoult’s expertise as a rainmaker isn’t necessarily commensurate with running a big business and the group then had a headcount of some 400.

Which brings us to Johnston. Hoult had brought him into Loewy as non-executive director in 2007, so Johnston was already involved in the business. His previous success with fast-growing companies made him a clear choice for the likes of Richards Seymour, Williams and Murray, and Dick Powell, the creative heavyweights in the marketing services group.

But this was no boardroom coup, we’re told. Hoult and Johnston had collaborated years before and the respect is mutual. So while Hoult happily took to the rotavator last year, taking quite literally the concept of garden leave, Johnston took up residence in the group’s Pimlico headquarters in London.

While Hoult is remembered for his high-profile acquisitions, Johnston has so far overseen a period of consolidation in the group. Elements of the Loewy branding have been redistributed, with Loewy Brand Communications going to The Team and Loewy Brands & Packaging to Seymour Powell. Meanwhile, Powell has become group creative director to spread his magic across its consultancies, shifting across the group as a roving principal.

Johnston is in his element at Loewy. Though not a designer, he perceives a great opportunity in creative businesses and a match for the passion he feels for building successful businesses.

He describes his background as purely business. ‘I had a very traditional start as a graduate trainee at United Biscuits,’ he says, having completed a business administration degree at Bath. But it’s the Bath experience that set him on the right path to what he now sees as his role as a mentor, as the four-year course included psychology and law as well as standard business studies.

He left UB to be a strategic consultant in London, which he found exhilarating. ‘It was the late 1980s and the City was going crazy. It was very glamorous and well-paid,’ he says. But it threw up questions for him. His consultancy was throwing out advice, but was it being heeded by clients? And did they succeed or fail?

A stint in change-management reassured him that businesses can be transformed if you handle the problems as they occur.

Johnston’s first entrepreneurial bid was in 1990, when he joined a new technology marketing company, GB Information Management, as managing director. ‘I was employee number one,’ he quips. It floated in 1998 and Johnston left two years later.

‘It started as a desk under the stairs [within another company’s office] and, like a cuckoo, eventually we kicked them out,’ he says.

Concurrently, he was non-executive chairman of another technology business, Alterian, which he’d set up in 1996. That floated in 2000 and he remains on its board.

Johnston has since advised a number of companies on growth, including design group Paper White, which became Core Create before it was divided three ways, one part going to Loewy. He is also a non-executive director for Event Marketing Solutions.

‘I’d been learning a hell of a lot,’ says Johnston. ‘The key thing is, you don’t make the same mistake twice.’

By 2007 he’d reacquainted with Hoult and met Loewy finance director Bryan Wilsher. ‘They wanted to pick my brains about getting money,’ he says. Late that year he joined Loewy as non-executive director as Hoult’s high-profile acquisitions were at their height. We know the rest. Johnson says Loewy was ‘a collection of businesses’ when he joined, run by people who weren’t businessmen. ‘Most were making it up as they went along,’ he says. ‘Their success was due to the brilliance of great products and people.’

His aim from the outset was to bring leadership and to integrate the business. His starting point was to visit each business, asking, ‘If you had a blank sheet what would you do next, and what questions would you want answering?’.

‘I have strong views, but they are irrelevant with 400 brilliant people on board,’ says Johnston, describing himself as a mentor and sounding board, who doesn’t always lead from the front. ‘It had to be their plan,’ he says. ‘It’s about having an openness to the people you’re working with, their ambitions and desires.’

To that end, he plans to maintain the powerful brands in Loewy, while taking the business load from principals whose talents and passions are best applied to other things.

Johnston describes his approach as ‘virtually identical to what Charlie was doing’, but on a bigger scale. ‘We’re making good progress, but we’ve just started on the journey,’ he says.

Charlie Hoult, Iain Johnston and Loewy Group

1993 – Charlie Hoult sets up brand communications group Wilson Harvey. One of its clients is Iain Johnston’s company GB Information Management
2001 – Johnston leaves GB Information Management to be an advisor to fast-growing businesses
2004 – Hoult and Bryan Wilsher form Loewy Group through a merger between Raymond Loewy International, Wilson Harvey, Prescient, Loewy3 and RiteAngl
2006 – Johnston and Mark Adams of Text 100 become non-executive directors of Loewy Group. Loewy acquires The Team and Williams Murray Hamm
2007 – Loewy makes Mark Adams non-exec chairman and buys Epoch Design and Seymour Powell
2008 – Johnston becomes head of brand communications, and then chief executive, at Loewy Group. Chief executive Hoult becomes vice-president, development. Dick Powell becomes group creative director of Loewy Group
2009 – Loewy Brand Communications is subsumed into The Team and Loewy Brands & Packaging into Seymour Powell

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