On the road in northern England

Asda Group

I'm in the city of Leeds in northern England and had no idea over 1.2 million people live in the metropolitan area. Matter of fact, Leeds lays claim to being the second largest financial center in England after London.

A five minute walk from city enter (or a one minute bike ride) brings you to the river Aire and a historic 100-year old canal running through town. Thanks to Asda leading the way in 1989, many of the rundown factories and mills lining the narrow river's banks have been renovated and transformed into office complexes.

It's here in a good-looking, 3-story, 170,000 square foot waterfront complex I find the head office of Asda, England's fourth largest supermarket chain. Revenues in 1995 were 5.3 billion pounds, profit 178 million pounds.

Checking in with the two friendly receptionists (Sue and Margaret) I notice something very unusual beaming at me from a mounted stand behind them: 5x7 pictures and their names underneath of the 10 security guards working here. A sign tells visitors and employees to contact the guards if any problems arise. It's a great way to give these guardians some notice plus it personalizes them.

I note the plaque on the wall informing visitors this brick and glass building was opened in 1989 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Magazines on a coffee table include Grocer and Super Marketing.

When greeted by Jeni Cropper, public relations manager-consumer, I notice she's wearing a nametag. Everyone, from the CEO on down wears one.

Hey, this is the first company I've come across in Europe that has a designated casual dress day. It's every Friday and called George Day. All of the company's stores are superstores meaning besides selling groceries, they sell clothes and other non-food items. George is the name of their casual menswear line named after a fellow who's first name is/was-you guessed it-George. This George guy left the company and now operates competing menswear stores.

About 1,500 employees work in the building and the open office concept is in use here. This means no one gets an office (even CEO Archie Norman). A novel idea in use is the "red cap policy". If you're working on something and don't want to be disturbed: you put on a red cap. This tells fellow workers to leave you alone for at least an hour.

Conference rooms are named after fruits such as the banana or tomato rooms. My favorite meeting room though is their Big Table room. All that's in the room is a five-foot tall circular table. The idea being meetings won't last long because the room is void of chairs.

The good-looking employee cafeteria overlooking the river goes by the name Riverside restaurant. Walking through the second floor we pass Jonathan Rose's spiffy-looking complete kitchen set-up. Rose is Asda's Development Chef who concocts recipes supplied in company advertisements. Employees with desks nearby get the enviable task of being human guinea pigs to Rose's experimental dishes.

Bradford & Bingley Building Society

We call them savings and loan associations in America but over here they're known as building societies. Twelve miles northwest of Leeds puts me in small-townish Bingley (population 13,000), home to Bradford & Bingley Building Society the fifth largest in the UK (assets 15 billion pounds). Riding through Bingley's main street I come across a big fat building with Bradford & Bingley's name on it. I enter the place only to find out it was the head office until 1990. Headquarters lies a further two miles down the road.

This is strange, the sharp-looking, four-story light brown brick with green trim headquarters sits hidden away, a block from the main road. Jeez, you'd think in a small town like this they'd have a higher profile location especially when you consider over 600 employees work here.

The company's logo shows the silhouette of two men dressed in suits wearing bowler hats. I mention this because enclosed in a glass case in the lobby lies an autographed bowler hat worn by Stan Laurel. He's the skinny one in the Laurel & Hardy comedy duo of yesteryear.

Craig Lumsden, communications manager, answers my questions about this 151-year old company. Bradford is the name of a neighboring city so I've deduced the origin of Bradford & Bingley.

CEO Geoffrey Lister's middle office overlooks the cricket field (cricket pitch is the correct terminology) next door.

Halifax Building Society

Riding twenty miles southwest of Leeds puts me in Halifax, home to Halifax Building Society. With over 96 billion pounds in assets it's the king kong of UK building societies.

Headquarters is a company-owned four-story, diamond-shaped edifice built in 1973 and located right smack in the middle of town. Connected to the main building is a seven-story addition built in 1991. Over 1,000 employees work in the 235,000 square foot complex.

The place doesn't blend in at all with the rest of downtown, which consists mostly of historic buildings built in the late 1800's or early 1900's. Dotting the hillsides you can see the remains of old factories which made this at one time one of the busiest mill towns in England. I ask 10 different people and no one (including the fella at the information center) knows the population of Halifax. I'll guess it's around 50,000.

Well, who says bigger is better? On August 1, 1995 Halifax merged with Leeds Permanent Building Society (formerly one of the Big 5) to become an even bigger Goliath. Methinks they've become too big because the receptionist can't find anyone who's familiar with the advance material I sent to CEO Mike Blackburn.

Jo Elsworth, information officer, comes down to the reception area and tries to answers my questions. She's only been here several months after transferring from Leeds Permanent Building Society headquarters in Leeds after the merger. We sit on uncomfortable backless brown leather cushions that don't exactly blend in with the yellow carpet.

I never get past the lobby. The two receptionists, wearing company outfits, are amicable but the security guard seems to have a permanent mean-look sewn on his face.

On the road in Manchester

Co-operative Wholesale Society

Manchester bills itself as being England's second largest city. It has a reputation for being a working-class city and it's true. Nothing flashy about the skyline or people.

Originally I was to visit Co-operative Wholesale Society, Co-operative Bank (over 3.3 billion pounds in assets) and Co-operative Insurance Society (11 billion pounds of assets under management and premium income of 1.4 billion pounds) but find out the later two are wholly-owned by Cooperative Wholesale Society.

CWS is BIG. Revenues last year were 3.1 billion pounds. With over 35,000 employees it operates eight distribution centers, 675 food stores, 64 non-food stores, 226 travel agencies, 340 funeral services, 18 garages, 12 dairies and farms over 50,000 acres. CWS, with its 50,000 acres, is Britain's biggest commercial farmer. It's funeral services division (the biggest in the country) conducted over 65,000 funerals last year. It's 18 garages sold over 12,000 new and used vehicles last year.

CWS was established here in 1863 and stills carries a lot of weight in Manchester. Headquarters for CWS, Cooperative Insurance Society and Co-operative Bank are practically next door to each other-covering 12 acres in city center and a 6,000 strong workforce.

Headquarters for CWS is a 13-story downtown high-rise built in 1963 and definitely looking its age. Walking in I notice two signs. One reads "All visitors must report to commisionaires" and the other "In this building employees are forbidden to smoke, visitors are therefore requested not to smoke". Three older gentlemen wearing uniforms dotted with medals attached seem to be directing visitors and deduce they must be commisionaires. I ask one, "what's a commisionaire?" They're sort of a combination security guard/ greeter and are normally retired military/police officers (usually over 65 years of age). In one corner of the large lobby I spot a four-foot long sword encased in a glass display. It's from Wilkinson (the shaving company) and a small plaque reads "150 years of doing business together".

Michelle Vernon, public relations officer, answers questions and walks me around. Over 1,000 people work here. Employees eat in the cafeteria, more formally called The Reflections restaurant. The English don't like calling a spade a spade. To me, a restaurant is where you sit and you're waited on. A cafeteria is where you walk through an area and pick out your own food.

They aren't superstitious here as we go up to the 13th floor to check out the boardroom and its two horseshoe-shaped tables. The view's great from the boardroom but the ugly green carpet has to go. A small glass display in a corner contains old coins found on the site in 1886. The executives are ensconced on the 12th floor but I can't see CEO David Skinner's office because "he's busy". CWS was founded in 1863.

Facts on Co-ops. Did you know there are more than 700 million Co-operative members in over 100 countries? One in every three citizens of the United States is a member of a Co-operative. After Britain, the largest consumer Co-ops in the world are in Japan. CWS used to be in the Guinness Book of Records for being the organization owning the most Rolls-Royces--they were used as hearses!

T&N PLC

Riding five miles north of downtown Manchester brings me to the 4-story red brick headquarters of T&N, an automotive components and engineering company with 1994 revenues of 1.9 billion, profit 11 million.

It's an old industrial area with the building looking to have been built in the 1950's. I can see a big plant in the rear.

Though receptionist Mavis McNulty is initially friendly and helpful, she becomes closed-mouthed after being told to tell me "no one's available to meet with you". Later in the day I pick up a newspaper and learn why they're not too eager to meet with me, or for that matter probably anyone else. Yesterday, T&N lost a court ruling in an asbestos-related case and it's going to cost the company big money. Years ago T&N was BIG in the asbestos business (it was the biggest producer outside the USA) and its been coming back to haunt the company. Matter of fact, T&N has set aside 140 million pounds to take care of asbestos-related costs.

Norweb plc

What a difference a mile makes. That's how far I am from T&N's headquarters. Norweb, a regional electricity concern with 1994 revenues of 1.5 billion pounds, profit 154 million pound, gives me a warm, upbeat welcome. This is even more surprising when you consider many of the 250 employees in the three-story head office might be losing their jobs next month. Why? North West Water Group, a water utility, won a bidding war for Norweb beating out several other utilities. Next month the deal becomes final and many here are expected to lose jobs in the ensuing trimming of staffs.

Catherine Cairncross, corporate public relations manager, and Paul Henly, media relations executive, answer my questions. I ask the two if their jobs are secure and neither seems to know. Boy, that not knowing has got to be tough on employee morale.

It's a good-looking, company-owned building built in 1988. I can't see the boardroom because it's in use and CEO Kenneth Harvey's top floor office is off-limits due to the pending merger.

Before leaving, my picture is taken out front next to a large Norweb sign for a story in the company's employee newsletter. The photographer says it may someday become a collector's item because after next month the name Norweb may cease to exist.

British Vita PLC

Riding seven miles southeast of Manchester brings to the 2-story unglamorous headquarters of British Vita, a manufacturer of polymers. Revenues in 1994 were 768 million pounds, profit 50 million pounds.

The place has a World War 11 look to it and I'm close as Alison Ochiltree, corporate public relations manager, says they've been on the company-owned site since 1949. A good-sized factory butts up to the no-frills head office.

About 400 work on the site (includes head office and plant). Vita is Latin for life. Nothing unusual to report here except for the bronze bust of Norman Grinshaw, who founded the company. Spartan is the best word to describe CEO Rod Seller's office. I note his lack of computer.

On the road in Liverpool

The Littlewoods Organization PLC

This isn't the best time to be visiting The Littlewoods Organization, Britain's largest privately-held company with 2.7 billion pounds in revenues. In March of last year former CEO Barry Dale was sacked and just last week he made an unsolicited 1.2 billion pound bid for the company. Besides being the second largest home shopping company (mail order catalogues) in the UK with eight million customers, Littlewoods operates betting pools and a chain of 128 retail outlets (many of them department stores).

Headquarters is an ugly-looking 290,000 square foot, 14-story structure in downtown Liverpool built in 1965. The entrance and reception areas were renovated last year and looks up-to-date but, the exterior is still ugly.

Rosemary Cooper, group corporate communications manager, says the building is being renovated in stages and will eventually have a whole new look. Over 2,000 employees work here and in an adjoining building.

Cooper says I picked a bad day because many of the Moores clan are here to meet about the bid. The late Sir John Moores founded The Littlewoods Organization in 1923 and its 32 shareholders are all members of the Moores family. The company name is made-up.

Though I don't get past the lobby I do get one small consolation: Cooper is the former mayor of Liverpool and so I get to ask her questions about city. How many people live here? Over 500,000. Besides being the birthplace of the Beatles (yes there's a large touristy Beatles museum on the renovated waterfront docks) what's the city's claim to fame? The spectacular Liverpool Cathedral is the largest Cathedral in Britain and fifth largest in the world.

Pilkington PLC

A dozen miles east of Liverpool and a mile from downtown St. Helens (population 75,000) lies the headquarters complex of Pilkington, one of the world's largest makers of glass. Revenues in 1995 were 2.7 billion pounds, profit 68 million pounds.

Pilkington is the world's largest supplier of laminated and toughened safety glass for cars. The company also can boast of being the world's largest producer of float glass, which is used in buildings and transport. The fact the company invented float glass might explain its dominance.

Meeting with Philip Webb, internal communications manager, I learn the company was founded here in St. Helens in 1826 and yes there was a Mr. Pilkington.

I'm somewhat disappointed in their 13-story headquarters. I was expecting maybe a futuristic-looking glass structure. Nope. Built in 1961, it's your basic homely 1960-ish looking high-rise that looks out of place amongst the surrounding residential area. As in most buildings in Europe they count the entry floor as the ground floor while in the USA it would be known as the first floor. So, Webb calls it a 12-story building and I 13-stories.

Over 450 employees work on-site which includes a plant and research center. Roughly 140 of the employees work in the headquarters building. A security guard mans the reception area and there's a 15 foot tall by 40 foot long stain glass window above the inside entryway.

Except for the windows, I don't find any kind of glassware in the wood paneled boardroom on the 12th floor. The table is U-shaped. I can't see CEO Roger Leverton's 11th floor office because "he's in a meeting".

British Nuclear Fuel PLC

It's turns out to be a waste of time riding 12 miles further out from St. Helens to visit British Nuclear Fuel. Headquarters, a company-owned, five-story, tan brick with brown trim building, occupies a spot in a science research park several miles from downtown Warrington.

Built in 1985, over 250 employees work here. That's about the extent of what I learn. Robert Jarvis, government relations manager, says they never received my advance material. But then again, it all makes sense after I'm told British Nuclear Fuels is owned by the government. I'm sure my letter is probably somewhere in the building, lost, misplaced or misdirected by government bureaucracy.

Jarvis shows no interest in answering or finding answers for my questions and the lobby is as far as I get. Revenues in 1995 were 1.3 billion pounds, profit 86 million pounds.

On the road in Birmingham

Severn Trent PLC

It's typical big city rivalry at work here in Birmingham as quite a few people tell me Birmingham is England's second largest city. That's strange because everyone in Manchester was telling me Manchester was England's second largest city.

I have to ride seven miles from downtown Birmingham to find the head office for Severn Trent, a water utility company with 1994 revenues of 1.1 billion pounds, profit 238 million pounds. Built in 1972, the 8-story structure fronts a busy street and is surrounded by various mom & pop stores.

The lobby is small and I like the placard on a coffee table in the waiting area. It reads "If you have been waiting for more than 5 minutes please let our receptionist know". Jeez, I wish I had a dollar for every time I've had to wait over an hour.

Gerald Noone, director of marketing, gives me a warm welcome and a quick tour of the place. I ask him about the letters M.B.E. after his name. They stand for: Member British Empire. It's another one of those titles the queen hands out. This one goes to citizens making a contribution to the country. In Noone's case it was for coming up with water conservation solutions.

Severn and Trent are the names of two rivers in the area with the Severn being the longest river in the UK.

Down the street a block and on the other side there's a four-story building built in 1989 which Noone says is also considered part of corporate headquarters. About 650 employees work in the two buildings.

Water companies in the UK were privatized in 1989. Here's an interesting fact: Severn Trent is the fourth largest water utility in the USA with operations in the northeast and Houston. But, if you want to talk trivia, here it is: CEO Victor Cocker is the older brother of rock crooner Joe Crocker. So? Well, Joe has a ranch in Montana and several of his neighbors got together and formed a water company. Joe is the CEO and a total of eight people live in the water district. Brother Vickor is also CEO of a water company except he has several MILLION in his district.

Glynwed International PLC

Boy, I wonder if the management at Glynwed International, a processor of metals and plastics, knows the negative image their snooty receptionist is projecting.

Headquarters lies about five miles from downtown Birmingham in what looks to be a six-story building. Built in 1976 (there's a plaque outside), it's neighbors with a gas station which has a Dunkin Donuts outlet inside.

Instead of a normal greeting I'm given one of those "whatdoyawant" looks from the receptionist. When I say, "good morning how are you?" I don't get a reply. The receptionist says she can't call up CEO Gareth Davies's secretary to "concern her with something like this". Jeez, all I'm asking is for her to call up Davies's secretary to find out who ended up with my advance material. We go back and forth and I finally say I'll come back later in the day.

Unfortunately I don't make it back but if I had, you can be sure I'd tell 'em they have the worst receptionist I've encountered in Europe.

Revenues in 1994 were 1 billion pounds, pre-tax profit 67 million pounds.

Lucas Industries PLC

Forrest Gump was right, life IS like a box a chocolates. I just left Glynwed International and its unhelpful receptionist. I'm now at the headquarters of Lucas Industries, whose receptionist, Mandy Buckley, spends 20 minutes and untold phone calls trying to find someone to meet with me. Unfortunately, I've showed up on a day when everyone is either out of town or in meetings.

Buckley's persistence pays off as she corrals Mike Woodward, engineering manager-overseas operations, into meeting with me. However, there's nothing to report from the three-story headquarters of this auto parts and aerospace firm. I'm in a campus-type setting about eight miles from downtown Birmingham and there's about a half-dozen company buildings on the site. Built in 1990, about 230 employees work in the headquarters building.

Besides being one of the world's largest manufacturers of braking systems for cars, the company makes lights for bicycles.

Joseph Lucas founded the company 130 years ago. Revenues year ending 7/95 were 2.7 billion pounds, loss 30 million pounds.

Tarmac PLC

Ten miles northwest of Birmingham lies Wolverhampton, a good-sized city in its own right with a population of 250,000. Historically, when one thinks of the industrial steel-making regions of America-Pittsburgh's name immediately pops up. In England it would be Birmingham. More specifically though, Wolverhampton. The smell of steel is still very much in the air entering the city. Though several big mills still operate, skeleton remains of furnaces scattered about the area reminds one of its former glory.

I'm here to visit Tarmac and the address is simply "Hilton Hall" which I assumed would be a distinctive building in downtown. Wrong. I learn it's a half-dozen miles from town. Tarmac, with 1994 revenues of 2.5 billion pounds and a pre-tax profit of 107 million pounds, is the UK's largest supplier of quarry products, builds homes and is one of the UK's largest construction companies.

Heading out to Tarmac's headquarters I'm given directions that it'll be near the intersection of two freeways. Seems a sure bet to find an office park development built by the company.

Boy, am I wrong. Going along this tree-lined two-lane country road I just happen to stop in front of a huge gated entrance to what looks to be someone's estate. I'm stopping because I think the two guys who gave me directions several miles back have led me on a wild goose case. Standing by the road trying to decipher their homemade map, I turn around to admire the impressive entryway to the estate and I'll be darn if I don't see a small plaque reading "Tarmac".

Wow, this is quite the spread as I enter the grounds and follow the road past thick woodlands, fruit orchards, high-walled hedges, horse stables and eventually to a clearing where, before my eyes, stands a beautiful three-story Georgian mansion surrounded by a moat!

Entering, I'm given a warm welcome by the two receptionists who say they've been on the lookout for my arrival. Trevor Bate, group public relations executive and a real nice guy, gives me an extensive tour of the house and grounds.

The history of Hilton Hall can be traced back to 986 when Lady Wulfruna founded a monastery nearby at Hampton-hence the name Wolverhampton---Hilton was one of the townships she gave to the monks. From 1547 until the 1950's the property belonged to the Vernon family. In 1958 it was sold to an order of nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Bordeaux, who for 25 years ran it as a guest house for elderly people. It was finally purchased by Tarmac as its head office in 1985. Since then it's seen a massive program of restoration. The house itself dates back from the 1800's.

Surprisingly there's an elevator and Bates figures the nuns had it installed. As I mentioned earlier the nuns ran a guesthouse for the elderly. The inside of the elevator is long and very narrow--just about the right size for a coffin.

The first floor wood paneled boardroom is a beaut. Originally a billiard room when it was added on to the house in 1896, it became a chapel when the nuns were here. That explains the wine cooler built into a wall near the gas fireplace.

Using the grand staircase, we make our way to CEO Neville Simms's second floor middle office. A 5-foot tall x 4-foot long framed oil painting of a cement plant greets you upon entering. I count three real plants, spot the computer, note the television/VCR, the hefty Times atlas, family pictures, the gas fireplace and the picture of him meeting Queen Elizabeth.

The well-kept grounds are drop-dead gorgeous and it's one of those tucked away places where nary the sound of cars or trucks is heard-only the sounds of birds chirping. Eighty employees work here and have use of a nice gym and two outdoor tennis courts.

Considering the age, it's not surprising to find the buildings on the grounds listed. That's means they're designated historical landmarks and any changes to the interiors or exteriors are strictly controlled. I mention this because Bates walks me to his office in the stables. Now, over the years I've visited quite a few companies located on old estates and have seen many where former horse stables have been renovated or converted into additional working areas. Here though, the individual stalls still exist and it's inside one of these is where Bates has his office! Now layered with several thick coats of light yellow paint, you can still see chip marks where horses chewed the wood. Oh, and you know the feed troughs for the horses, they weren't allowed to be removed. You can see where a board was placed over them and it's now used as a shelf. My hat goes off to the clever architect who made the changes without losing the stall's original identity. Bates, who's been with the company 18 years, says they weren't going to allow the concrete floor in the stalls be covered up. Employees, who were livid about the prospects of working out here in the dead of winter on cold concrete floors, won a concession and carpeting was put in. Since being in England I'm learning the language. Here a car hood is called a bonnet. Buildings or houses aren't for rent they're for let. Soccer is called football and tarmac in England means asphalt in the USA.

Before leaving, the receptionists are called outside and we're having a picture taken for the company newsletter. They're trying to give me an umbrella as a memento and I keep refusing. Why? It's one of the monster four-foot long umbrellas and I've nowhere to strap it on my bike. Besides, for nine months now I've had a two-foot long umbrella strapped to one of my panniers. It's the one given to me by Finnair in Helsinki, Finland.

There's no problem landing the company's helicopter on the 12-acre site.

The Boots Company PLC

Well, another myth bites the dust. Here I thought Nottingham would be this quaint little village set amid a large forest (Sherwood Forest to be exact) with sheep peacefully grazing. Instead I find a thriving city of 400,000 complete with the same belching (i.e. heavily polluting) double deck buses endured in all the other big cities in England.

It's raining hard as I leave downtown and ride the five miles to The Boots Company's headquarters. Arriving at the guarded entry gate I find the guards have no notice of my pending arrival so it means huddling under the guard kiosk as calls are made. After several minutes the guards are having no luck. Practically out of the blue, Richard Tusidder, one of the security supervisors, pulls up in his car, gets out and says, "you must be Paul Wolsfeld". He had just driven over from the other entrance to the complex where he left word to be on the lookout for a bicycle rider from California showing up.

This place is huuuge. How big is it? Big enough to have it's own fire department. Over 5,000 people work here which includes four factories on the 300-acre site. The Boots Company, with 1995 revenues of 4.3 billion pounds, profit 517 million pounds, operates over 1,100 pharmacies (Boots The Chemist), a chain of 266 opticians (Boots Opticians), 200 car parts stores (Halfords), 48 Childrens Worlds stores, 387 home decorating stores called FADS and is one of the three largest contract manufactures in Europe.

Because the campus-type complex is so big, Tusidder drives ahead as I follow him on my bike to the one-story, white head office building recently built in 1993. Before I'm even off my bike Angie Shipston, assistant corporate affairs manager, is outside greeting me. This is kind of embarrassing because I'm in my heavy-duty winter rain gear and have to do my stripping act in front of her.

Almost 100 people work in this building and lunch means getting to choose between the two cafeterias in the complex though executives eat in the executive dining room. Nearby is an employee park that contains four tennis courts, a cricket pitch and two squash courts among its amenities.

I don't get to see the boardroom or CEO Sir James Blyth's office because "they're both in use". Shipston says the top four executives have interior offices in the center of the building with no windows. Boy, think of it-these guys probably make a million bucks a year and don't know if it's sunny or snowing outside.

Jesse Boot took over the family business, a small herbalist's shop in Goosegate, Nottingham back in 1877 and started the company on a roll. From 1920 to 1933, Rexall, an America company, owned Boots.