The BOC Group PLC

I'm about 30 miles from London and eight miles from Heathrow Airport on a winding peaceful two-lane country road taking me through beautiful rolling countrysides and small villages looking for The BOC Group's head office. Finding it I feel as though I've come across some kind of space station. It's a hexagon-shaped building with an enclosed dome and above ground walkways leading to several other buildings. Entering the building I don't know what to make of what I see: dozens of elongated tables are set up in the large lobby and there must be several hundred people sitting at the tables eating what looks to be a festive Christmas meal. I'm standing at the unmanned reception desk and nobody seems to give me a second glance. I take that back, a few feet away there's a bar set-up and the bartender asks if I'd like something to drink. I pass. Finally someone sitting at a table takes notice and asks if I need assistance. Turns out I picked a lousy time to show up because it's the company's annual employee Christmas luncheon. Never the less, Barbara Shorter, group manager-communications, takes me up to her office and answers questions. I speed through the questions in order to take up as little of her time as possible especially after she's been gracious enough to forgo the festivities.

Built 10 years ago, the two-story company-owned head office sits on a 50-acre

site with a bit a history. A convent occupied the land previously and there's still a graveyard on the property.

One of the aboveground enclosed walkways leads to the building housing the cafeteria where the 200 employees eat. It's now where near as big as the reception lobby area which is why the Christmas luncheon is taking place there.

When one goes upstairs an escalator is used which is something you don't see anymore in newer buildings. Checking out CEO Alexander Dyer's upstairs office I note his computer, the picture of his grand daughter, the one plant, the view of the lake on the grounds, a toy truck, black desk, a tapestry on a wall and the two deep peach colored sofas.

Shorter describes the company's art collection as being modern with international artists. I spot six prints by David Hockney.

BOC, the world's second largest industrial gas supplier, also makes four out of ten anesthesia machines and systems used today plus, is the world's leader in dry vacuum pumps for the semiconductor industry.

Gallaher Limited

Making my way farther from London and Heathrow Airport I'm in Surrey, to be more precise--the town of Weybridge and, the countryside just gets more beautiful. Gallahar Ltd., the UK's #1 tobacco company, owns ands occupies a 5-story building built in 1982 which is home to 200 employees.

My meeting with Jeff Jeffery, corporate affairs manager, starts off well as he retraces the company’s roots. Tom Gallaher founded the company in 1857. He then shocks me by saying Gallahar is owned by American Brands, a Greenwich, Connecticut-based conglomerate, which I visited while traversing the USA. Ah jeez, I didn't know Gallahar was only a subsidiary and especially of a company I already visited. I then tell Jeffery, "nothing personal but I don't want to visit your company if you're only a subsidiary".

Before leaving Jeffery says I should note the marquetry panels lining the reception area walls. Specially commissioned by Gallahar during the 1950's, they show the early history of tobacco growing. These pictures in wood are made from 70 kinds of veneers. The Gallahar panels are among the largest ever created, with the biggest being 20 feet in length. There're over 20,000 separately cut out pieces of wood, each about 1/16th of an inch thick.

*** Three tidbits I recall from my visit to American Brands beautiful head office. The company has a variety of businesses including tobacco, distilled spirits, insurance, office products and golf balls. The person showing me around tried to give me a cloth bag the size of a grocery bag filled with company products including three or four bottles of liquor. I graciously explained I had absolutely no room on my bicycle for such goodies and suggested they mail it to my La Jolla, California address. Later, I did receive the mailed package however it was sans liquor. I also recall being walked down the executive floor and seeing waiters pushing carts down the hall serving coffee or tea to various executives. So? The waiters were wearing white formal dress similar to a tuxedo and were wearing white gloves. I also recall one of the secretaries telling me the executives had special elevators to whisk them down to the underground parking garage and the secretaries were prohibited from using the same elevators to get to the same parking garage.

Lloyds Abbey Life PLC

Several blocks up the road from Gallahar I find Lloyds Abbey Life's head office and have one of my most bizarre encounters. The two-story, red brick building occupies space in a new office park complex. Things are looking good as I lock my bike outside the entrance. It even looks better when a man comes outside and says, "are you Paul Wolsfeld?" Of course I answer with a "yes" and he then says, "I've been told not to let you in the building". "Excuse me?" I ask thinking I didn't hear right. "I was told under no circumstances were you to be let in the building'". "Why?" I ask. "That's just what I've been told to do", he replies. "Can I have your name?" I ask. "Ray Botham, facilities manager", he answer.

Riding off, I try to figure what that was all about. Is Lloyds Abbey Life part of Lloyds Bank? If so, that doesn't make sense since they give me a nice reception. Is Lloyds Abbey Life part of Abbey Bank? If so, that doesn't makes since I was well received there also. Oh well, it just additional fodder to my stories I tell insurance companies about my visits to other insurance companies.

RMC Group

I'm still in the Surrey area, which lies about 35 miles from London and the scenery just keeps getting more beautiful. I'm looking for the head office of RMC Group, the world's largest ready mix concrete supplier, and the address I have is: RMC House, Coldharbour Lane, Thorpe, Egham, Surrey. Jeez, is the name of the town Egham or is it Thorpe? Ah, I finally find Coldharbour Lane, a winding road, which takes me past small farms and quaint homes seemingly unchanged for several hundred years.

Wow, this looks like a cool place! Why do I make such a statement? Well, it isn't everyday you walk into a building and find an indoor swimming pool only a few feet from the lobby/reception desk. I explain to the receptionist who I am and what I'm doing but, after checking around it seems no one received my advance material. Luckily Jan Chapman, marketing services administrator, is intrigued by my unusual odyssey and agrees to answer questions and show me around the place.

"Do people really swim in the pool?" I ask. "Yes", she answers and says its environment isolated and controlled within an invisible air curtain. "Yeah, but do employees really swim here with visitors coming in all the time?" She says the swimming hours are restricted and that means no swimming during normal work hours.

Riding up I first noticed a two-story Georgian house inside a walled-in area and figure that's the extent of the place--boy, am I wrong. I'm on a 520-acre company-owned site, which includes a variety of structures including a new complex of buildings constructed in four wings with three garden courtyards. Covering the roofs of the 45,000 square feet of new building is the largest roof garden in Europe. Chapman walks me through the roof garden and the landscaping is impressive. Paths, gazebos and seating areas let you admire the well-kept lawns and substantial shrub borders.

Besides the Georgian mansion (a listed building), there's a Victorian stable, another restored home (three-stories), and other buildings including a company training center with 26"study bedrooms" for employees here for training. I guess "study bedrooms" sounds better than 26 dormitory rooms or 26 hotel rooms.

The 200 employees working here (normal hours are from 8:45am to 5pm) get lots of perks such as free lunch, plenty of parking and use of recreational facilities such as the swimming pool, two tennis courts, snooker room, bar, two squash courts, sauna, and weight rooms.

Standing atop the roof garden I admire the surrounding property. Looking one way I see a forest of trees in the distance, looking another way I see a winding stream and small farms, looking still another way I see carnival-like rides. What! Carnival rides? "What's that over there?" I ask Chapman pointing in the not too distance. "Oh, that's Thorpe Park", she answers, "it's an amusement park we own. We get over a million visitors a year". Unbelievable! Here I spent the whole day riding through gorgeous backroads to get out here thinking I was in isolated undeveloped farm country and it turns out there's a freeway (the M-25) two miles away regularly bringing hordes of visitors out here every day. I guess that's the best solution on what to do with an old quarry site.

Siebe PLC

Hmm, I guess you could do a lot worse for a neighbor. Two blocks away from Siebe's three-story red brick office lies Windsor Castle, the gigantic castle used by Queen Elizabeth on the weekends. The town of Windsor lies about 25 miles from London and sits right on the approach path for planes landing at Heathrow. Imagine that, with all the clout a queen's suppose to have how come she hasn't been able to change something simple like a planes flight path?

Initially Barry Francis, group public relations director, tries to put me off by saying he hasn't time for me but relents and ends up giving me a good reception.

Siebe, founded 175 years ago by A. Siebe, is the world's largest manufacturer of temperature and appliance controls. For doing so gets a marble bust in the small reception area. The company has been located in the Windsor area for 30 years, seven at its current site yet, only leases space.

I'm not able to see CEO Allen Yurko's office or the boardroom because "they're being used". Nothing special about the rest of the building so I imagine I'm not missing much. Francis says the CEO has no view due to a building across the street blocking his line of sight.

BPB Industries PLC

I'm a few miles from Windsor Castle, 25 miles from London and riding up this treelined driveway which seems to go on forever. Yesterday when visiting RMC Group I used the word "cool" to describe their head office complex, well, I'm using that word again to describe BPB Industries headquarters in Slough. Imagine 250 years ago and you were part of England's aristocracy. You had a castle and all the works about 50 miles from London. When visiting London back then, it was a two-day trip with horses, so one needed a place to stop and spend the night. That's basically what you have here: BPB's neat (as in cool) four-story head office is a former hunting lodge/overnight pad built back in 1756 and situated on a scenic 30-acre site complete with corn and wheat fields.

BPB Industries (British Plaster Board), one of the world's largest gypsum producers and largest in Europe, moved into the Grade 2 building back in 1984 and holds a 99-year lease. One makes sort of a grand entrance into the building via the bronze Florentine doors depicting the birth of Venus. It's then past the marbled fireplace and the green and white marbled mantelpiece to the receptionist.

I get a warm reception and great tour of the facilities thanks to Bill Underwood, Services Manager. One of the downsides the 60 employees enjoy here; having to hoof it up and down stairs because this old structure is sans elevator. I also notice how entry door handles throughout are low to the ground and Underwood says I have to remember back in 1756 people were much shorter. Working hours are 9:45am to 4:45 PM. Getting to walk around the property can be called a perk especially when you regularly catch glimpses of the foxes and geese which inhabit the grounds. There's also an artificial lake and dozens and dozens of mature oak, sequoias and cedar trees.

The boardroom, situated in the former drawing room on the first floor, definitely falls on the side of grandiose especially with its three chandeliers. Paintings of past chairmen line the walls.

CEO Jean-Pierre Cuny's corner office on the first floor has a definite modern look to it. A large plant covers the fireplace, nothing hangs on the walls and he sits at a triangular-shaped table with overhead lighting similar to what's seen in an art gallery. I guess the bareness of the room is especially noticeable due to the 18-foot high ceiling. His computer gets duly noted in my notes.

Underwood walks me across the grounds to red brick, two-story structure built in 1759. Atop the building there's a clock tower, which I note flashes err, signals the correct time. This was where the workers stayed. Now, part of it houses the company's computer room and directly next to this high-tech computer room are the remains of a former brewery complete with old machinery and exposed wood beams.

Tesco PLC

It's cold and pouring rain as I make my way 15 miles north of London to suburban Cheshunt to visit Tesco, one of the United Kingdom's biggest supermarket operators. If I'd had known what a lackluster reception Andrew Coker, corporate communications manager, would give me I wouldn't have made the trip in such foul weather.

Head office consists of two ugly four-story buildings, one built in the 1950's and the other in the 1960's. Back in those days this area was nothing but farmland for miles around. Pictures of company stores hang on lobby walls and, there’s a bronze bust of founder Sir Jack Cohen. Magazines on the lobby coffee table include trade publications The Grocer and Super Marketing. The lobby is as far as I get because my request to have a look around is answered by Coker "we just don't do that". Boy, what a complete turnabout from my extensive and fun visit to competitor Asda in northern England. Revenues for 1995 were 10 billion pounds.

W H Smith Group PLC

It seems like their stores are on every street corner so I'm surprised to find W H Smith Group's head office tucked away on a side street in a mostly residential area in London's West End. Smith operates over 2,000 W H Smith news stores, The Wall-a chain of 170 music stores, Virgin- a chain of entertainment stores and the Waterstone's bookstore chain. Revenues in 1995 were 2.7 billion pounds.

Founded in 1792 by W H Smith I'm perplexed to see a marble bust of his son in the lobby and not one of him. Actually, the security guard, receptionist nor three employees passing by could identify the nameless bust. Christopher Rule, company secretary and my contact person, saves the day by correctly identifying the former head honcho.

W H Smith has leased the five-story building for the last 10 years and 50 employees work here. CEO Sir Malcolm Field occupies a third floor middle office and has a computer. The company cafeteria gets top billing on the fifth floor but the view isn't much.

Johnson Matthey PLC and Hunting PLC

Here's where I visit two companies in the same building but with different results. Built in 1927, it's a grand and beautiful eight-story structure on Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square. How did Cockspur Street get its name? During the 16th and 17th centuries cockfights were held in this area with several stores on this street selling the spurs worn by the cocks.

The marbled lobby is impressive as I step up to the reception area. Two receptionists screen visitors for the various tenants. I notice one of the tenants is the Department of National Heritage, which has the say whether a building or structure becomes "listed"--similar to being designated a historic structure in the USA. One of the receptionists says this is a listed building.

The first company I visit Johnson Matthey, manufactures pollution control systems, specialty chemicals and the refining and marketing of precious metals such as gold. Revenues in 1994 were 2.2 billion pounds. Ian Godwin, group public relations manager, comes down to the lobby and answers my questions sitting in the waiting area. He's not very happy about answering my questions and comments about Johnson Matthey being a low profile company. The company was founded in 1817. Johnson Matthey has occupied the fifth and sixth floors since 1990 with the 50 employees enjoying free lunch in the cafeteria. I'm not taken up to the floors because "it's too much trouble taking you up to the fifth floor reception".

After Godwin makes quick work of me I head back to the lobby reception area and have them call up Hunting, an industrial holding company with interests in aviation, defense and oil contracting. Revenues in 1994 were 1.1 billion pounds. Christopher Simmonds, head of public relations, gives me a warm greeting and invites up to the seventh floor offices where 24 employees work.

Founded in 1874, the boardroom contains an oil painting of the company's first steamship in 1877, the SS Joseph Ferens". There's also another painting of an 1867 sailing ship. I don't get to see CEO Ken Miller's corner office but do see the chairman's office who's last name is Hunting and who's family still owns 30% of the company. He has a great view of Trafalgar Square, three real plants and a computer.

Reckitt & Colman PLC

Ha! riding up to Reckitt & Colman's six-story headquarters I think I've already figured out why the company is located about 12 miles from downtown London. Heathrow airport, one of the world's busiest, lies about 30 miles from London and if one makes his way through the heavy city congestion and onto the M-4 freeway--it's a straight 20 mile shot to Heathrow. So where is Reckitt & Colman's location? About 100 yards from the M-4 onramp.

As I'm locking my bike outside the entrance to the building a man walks out and introduces himself to me as V????? note**(can't remember his first name)Sankey. Says he has to rush off to a meeting but heard I was outside and just wanted to say "hi" and have a quick look at my bike. I then go inside and meet with Diana Scase, public relations manager, who says the fellow I was talking with outside is the company CEO.

The lobby contains four large glass display cases chock full of the company's impressive array of well-known consumer products. Heard of Lysol, Black Flag, Easy Off, Mop & Glo and Airwick? Those are just a sampling of products manufactured and marketed by this household, pharmaceutical, toiletry and food products concern, which was founded in 1814 and had 1994 revenues of 2 billion pounds.

Well, I'm partly right with my theory as to why the company is located here. For 50 years this was the site of a Reckitt and Colman factory, which produced shoe polish. In 1985 the company built the current complex which has several buildings housing other tenants.

I don't get to see CEO Sankey's fourth floor middle office due to his being in a meeting and I'm a little disappointed. Smoking is allowed in the building and he's a smoker so I'm curious as to whether he keeps a can of Lysol or Airwicks (air fresheners) by his desk. The boardroom contains several displays of the company's products, two real plants, a grandfather clock (age unknown) and a 1904 bottle of Lysol.

The 100 employees get use of a squash court on the premises.