British Airways PLC
As expected I find British Airways offices located at Heathrow Airport. Unexpectedly, I find no one has a clue as to who I am or what I'm doing as I ride up at the gated guarded entrance to Speedbird House, the formal name of the terribly ugly five-story, 121,000 square foot reflective glass head office built in the 1960's.
After spending 30 minutes with the three security guards I'm rescued by Nicola Mather, community relations manager. Mather says she has no clue as to what I'm doing but says "you've come half way around the world to see us so I figure the least we could do is meet with you and see if we can answer your questions". Boy, I'm impressed, Mather could have easily told me to come back another time or shooed me away.
About 700 employees work in the building, which is leased from the airport. In the immediate vicinity of the airport British Airways has a slew of buildings and employees so when I ask Mather if they have a cafeteria she answers six.
It's a real dull building inside and out with the decor and furnishings definitely on the spartan side. Originally Mather says I can't see CEO Robert Ayling's top floor office because "we had no advance warning of your visit". However, she takes me up to the top floor and introduces me to Anthony Cocklin, head of communications, who walks me by Ayling's very small and plain office. Cocklin would have taken me in but the boss is meeting with several people.
British Airways was privatized by the British government in 1987.
This and that on run-arounds and getting the boot
Lex Service PLC
Though I received a great reception at The Rank Organization I only have to walk across the street to Lex Service's headquarters to find out what a lousy reception is like. Lex Service with 1994 revenues of 1.4 billion pounds operates auto dealerships and is an auto distributor. Headquarters are in a seven-story brick and glass structure with the name "Lex House" on the side. David Leibling, head of corporate communications, bluntly says "you can't pop in without an appointment" and "I'm not interested in meeting with you". Well, at least I know where I stand with him.
The Burton Group PLC
With 1995 revenues of 1.9 billion pounds The Burton Group operates department stores and several chains of retail clothing stores. Sounds like finding their head office will be easy when you consider the address I have 214 Oxford Street lies right in the heart of London's main shopping street. I imagine it'll be above one of their flagship stores. Wrong. The address is a seemingly empty turn-of-the-century building. I say seemingly empty because though the four security guards manning the entrance say it's empty then why do they have four security guards? That answer is the least of my problems. My first hurdle is finding the head office. Every time I ask the guards where the head office is located I get "no comment" as a reply. After 10 minutes of going back and forth with them refusing to answer any question other than with a "no comment", they call up their supervisor. The supervisor walks in and I explain what I'm doing. After five minutes of haggling with him he takes one of my postcards (which is what I sent to the CEO) and goes off to the head office to see if they received my advance material and who's my contact person. He leaves the building in a way so that I can't see where he's going. Several minutes later he returns. "Did they receive my letter?" I inquire. "Yes", he answers. "And?" I ask. "No comment", is his reply. "What do you mean "no comment"? Who did you speak to? Will someone meet with me? Do they not want to meet with me?" I ask half mad half incredulous. "No comment" is his answer again. Are these guards jerks, or are they under orders not to say anything to anybody?
I find a phone booth and call up the head office via the number in the phone book. The woman answers the phone with "registered office", not with "Burton Group". I ask to speak to CEO John Hoerner's secretary. I'm transferred to a woman who refuses to identify herself other than to say she's a secretary. I tell her who I am, what I'm doing and want happened to me earlier with the security guards. She asks where I can be contacted and assures me she'll look into it and find out what happened to my letter. Gee, guess what? No one ever gets back to me.
Virgin Management Ltd.
Visiting billionaire Richard Branson's company ought to be fun considering the wild and crazy guy image he loves to project. Offices are near Kensingston Palace (where Princess Diana resides) in a two-story red brick building which seems to be part of a seven-story apartment complex in a residential area. Could this originally have been the apartment complex's recreational center? Instead of the usual name on the outside of the building Virgin uses what real estate people use to show a house for sale: the company's name is on a sign which is stuck in the ground via a stake. Makes one get the feeling these arenít permanent offices.
I have to talk into a speaker box to be let in the place and then I'm surprised at the dumpiness of the place. There's a three-foot long scale model of a Virgin speed boat, a dozen plaques on walls of records which went platinum and eight seats on a sofa which has stain marks all over it. It's a real chaotic, casual-looking place.
Sasha Baker, assistant to managing director Trevor Abbott, refers me to corporate affairs and then I'm given a number to call for the company's press office, which is an outside firm. I call and receive a bunch of gobble-gook where I'm told it's a busy time for the company and no one's available.
Visiting Unigate, the largest processor and distributor of fresh milk in the United Kingdom, seems to bring on the snow. The first venture out to their headquarters/plant facility five miles from London has me riding in the snow (it's December of 1995) and it's all for naught as I'm told by the receptionist no one's available. A week later I return and I'll be darned if it doesn't start snowing again.
The three-story head office building, painted white with red trim, looks to have been built in the 1930's. Getting there requires cycling past a security guard manning a gate, then, weaving a route through a large milk processing/distribution plant alive with tractor trucks coming and going all over the place.
The lobby area has an array of milk paraphernalia displayed and scattered about including 12 antique milk churners, seven ceramic cow creamers and seven model milk trucks.
After a half-hour wait I'm again told by the receptionist no one is available to meet with me. Unigate also operates 104 company-owned Black-Eyed Pea casual dining restaurants primarily in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia and, franchises 40 in eight states. Unigate owns and operates 111 Taco Bueno fast-food Mexican restaurants in Texas and Oklahoma.
I drop by the Mayfair office of Bunzl four times over a two-week period and never find someone available to meet with me. Bunzl distributes fine papers, manufactures plastic protective caps and plugs plus, is one of the world's largest producers of cigarette filters. The company occupies several floors in a five-story red brick townhouse. Revenues in 1994 were $1.5 billion, loss $34 million. BNZL-LN.
I pick a lousy time to visit Forte, the hotel operator. Granada has just announced a takeover bid for the company. Headquarters is an ugly-looking multi-story structure, which looks to have been built in the 1960's as a hotel. The lobby looks just like a hotel lobby and I make note of the fake tree. I'm told to contact Rebecca Sheperd. corporate public relations manager who, as expected says this is a bad time to visit.
Booker, in the food distribution and food processing business, occupies top floors in a 27-story building. I drop buy several times and never seem to connect with Maggie van Reener in corporate affairs. Revenues 3.7 billion, profit 46 million. BOK-LN.
Granada Group plc
Of course Granada Group doesn't want anything to do with me because they've just announced their plan to takeover Forte. Granada operates in a variety of businesses including textile rentals and computer services, hotels, restaurants and is also a television operator-which explains the two televisions in their lobby. It's a rainy day when I show up and it's all for naught as Susie Wanbunton, secretary to CEO Gerry Robinson says they aren't interested. 1994 revenues 2.1 billion, profit 192 million. GAA-LN
Drop by utility company PowerGen on four separate occasions over a two-week period and have no luck visiting with someone in their offices in The City. Revenues in 1995 were 2.9 billion, profit 545 million before taxes.
The British Land Company PLC
Revenues aren't much at The British Land Company (year ending 3/95, 228 million in revenues) but, one of the largest property investment companies in Britain. Head office overlooks Regent's Park (home of the London Zoo). The walls in the lobby area are cluttered with more than 20 colorful etchings, aquatint paintings and screenprints by Victor Pasmore. According to what the receptionist finds out, no one has time for me.
The St. James Square location might be impressive but the people at MEPC aren't. The company owns, develops and manages commercial property. Nicky Westcomb, secretary to CEO James Tuckey, tells me face to face in an abrupt manner they "haven't time". I mention I'll be in the London area for the next SEVEN weeks. Doesn't make a bit of difference to the unfriendly Westcomb. MEPC share space in the three-story building with Dillon, Read & Company. Revenues were 348 million, profit 81 million. MERC-LN.
Several months earlier I stopped by record company Polygram's headquarters in The Netherlands only to be told head offices were in London. Over a six week period I wheel by their St. James Square offices on TEN occasions trying to meet with Amanda Whitwell, public relations manager, with no success. I get the definite feel of a run-around here. Leaving after one of my visits I had to contend with a bomb scare literally right across the street in the small park in St. James Square-someone had left a suspicious briefcase. Boy, did I haul out of there on my bike!
New head offices are on the fourth and fifth floor of an eight-story building right across the street from Buckingham Palace and methinks it's gone to Lonrho's head. Rita MacIntosh, secretary to CEO Dieter Bock, swiftly dismisses me over the phone with "we haven't time for you" as if she was vanquishing a mere peasant. LRHO-LN
Bank of England
In the USA, we call our central bank the Federal Reserve Bank. In England it's called the Bank of England. I thought it would be fun to visit England's central bank, but the powers that be don't feel the same way. I receive a letter from Mrs. Sam Davies, public enquiries group, telling me it isn't possible. Nevertheless, I stop by their fortress-like seven-story edifice smack dab in the middle of The City. Built in 1734 and expanded on and up over the years, it's an impressive structure-especially the massive outer walls.
England (as we all know) is very tradition oriented. Entering the building I encounter two men wearing top hats and pink tails. Called Gatekeepers, they've been greeting visitors to the bank since 1697. Once past them, I have three security guards in business suits to deal with. I'm directed over to the information desk where calls are made and the answer is still the same: no. Since I now have no reason to be here the security people shoo me out the building and suggest I go around the corner and visit the Bank of England museum.
Hey, the museum gets two thumbs up in my book. Lots of neat old bank paraphernalia on display including iron chests, printing presses, bars of real gold (each weighing the standard 28 pounds) and Bank of England notes. The bank possesses an extensive collection of silver, many dating from 1694, the year of the Bank's foundation. Also displayed there's a typical modern dealing desk used by the Bank-complete with a Bloomberg terminal.
Sedgwick Group PLC
Occupying their own glass building in The City, I stop by Sedgwick Group five separate times without success. My contact person, Julie Fish in public relations, never seems to be around in order to set up an appointment to visit this insurance and reinsurance brokerage company. SDWK-LN
Carlton Communications PLC
I don't like to generalize, but Carlton Communications is typical of most media companies visited in that they're very uncommunicative. I stop by four times and get the same run-around. I leave additional material for June de Moller, Managing Director, and it still gets me nowhere at their Hanover Square townhouse offices. The company operates a major television channel in England. CCM-LN
Storehouse PLC and Kingfisher PLC
Headquarters for Storehouse and Kingfisher are door to each other. Kingfisher, which operates Woolworths, SuperDrug, B&Q Home Improvement and Comet (electrical product) stores, occupies space in a six-story red brick structure with other tenants. Storehouse's eight-story building with a 1930's-look is undergoing renovation and I can see a 1950's structure connected to the back part of the building. I visit both three times and no one ever seems to be in or available.
Have a nasty run in with a very unfriendly receptionist at Dalgety who acts as if she's doing you a favor by helping you. Blah-looking 1960's office building near Mayfair.
John Lewis Partnership PLC
In lobby of retailer John Lewis Partnership there's a large wall map of Great Britain made out of wood which shows the locations of various John Lewis department stores. Stop by four times, the last two trying to meet with the general editor of the employee newsletter, who's suppose to be my contact person.
Alliance & Leicester Building Society
I sure get dismissed quickly at Alliance & Leicester Building Society, the UK's fourth largest building society with over 22 billion pounds in assets. The company or its top executives occupy four floors of a six-story building on prestigious and super expensive Park Lane in the Mayfair area. Offices are literally a spit away from the tony Dorchester Hotel. It's a very low-key affair with no signs or plaques identifying the place. Paula Smith from corporate affairs comes down to the main building lobby and says matter of factly they haven't time for me. For some strange reason I get the feeling they don't want me to write about their executives plush offices.
The Brent Walker Group PLC
I'm on Brooks Mews an alley in Mayfair and several doors down is the rear of the Clarridge Hotel. The Brent Walker Group, which operates betting shops, betting services and pubs, occupies space in a three-story brick building. A tiny sign in a window identifies the place. Sharon Pike, secretary to CEO J. Leach, says they aren't interested in meeting with me. If I were a betting man I bet it has something to due with them losing 139 million pounds last year.
J. Bibby & Sons PLC
Drop by the Mayfair area offices of manufacturer J. Bibby & Sons on six different occasions and never seem to find anyone available. The three-story Georgian townehouse is on a dead end street. A block up is Oxford Street and prime shopping area. The company manufactures and distributes laboratory, optical and scientific equipment; papermaking and converting; and the distribution & servicing of materials handling equipment and earthmoving equipment.
Transportation, logistics and moving company NFC (which owns Allied Van Lines) occupies floors 11 and 12 in a 1970's-looking 12-story glass tower with purple trim. Janice Terry, secretary to CEO Gerry Murphy, says "nothing happened to it" when I inquire as to whom Murphy referred the letter. Terry says it means they aren't interested in talking to me. No problem, I just make myself a mental note never to hire Allied Van Lines if I ever need anything moved.
Stop by the offices of Rolls Royce on a half dozen occasions and never seem to connect with the head of communications, who I met briefly during my second visit. In lobby are bronze busts of the two founders The Honorable C. S. Rolls (1877-1910) and Sir Henry Royce (1863-1933). Rolls-Royce building is directly behind offices of BAT.
Offices are at 65 Buckingham Gate, which is a few blocks from Queen Elizabeth's digs at Buckingham Palace.
David S. Smith Holdings PLC
Stop by the four-story brick building offices of David S. Smith Holdings on four occasions and always get the run-around. The company produces paper, packaging and distributes office products.
The Great Universal Stores PLC
Visited the ugly 1971's head office of The Great Universal Stores in an industrial area several miles from Manchester in northern England only to be told the executives were in London. There was a "thank you for not smoking" sign in lobby and then noted the cigarette vending machine around the corner. Chairman Rt; Honorable Lord Wolfson of Marleybone works out office above flagship Burberry store in Trafalger Square. Dropped by and was told no one was available.
Hillsdown Holdings PLC
Twelve miles from London's city center I'm in downtown Hampstead, a hilly, yuppie area with old homes. In front of me there's four-story red brick building with retail shops on first floor including a Gap Kid's store. Food company Hillsdown Holdings occupies the upstairs. A tiny lobby on the first floor is manned by a security guard/receptionist who sends me upstairs to talk to Ann Andress, office manager. Andress says I'll have to come back another time to meet with someone in corporate communications. She was all set to answer my questions then backed out even after I told her I wouldn't be able to make it back out this way.
On the road in western England
Nationwide Building Society
I thought for sure Nationwide Building Society, the United Kingdom's second largest building society with over 35 billion pounds in assets, would have a giant headquarters complex anchoring downtown Swindon. With a population of 180,000, Swindon isn't exactly a financial center.
Turns out I have ride two miles out of town and the several people who gave directions said there would be no way of missing it. Jeez, they're right it's massive, futuristic-looking and white. It's a four-story building with the entrance on the second floor, which means walking up a long flight of steps. Wanting to leave the bike outside the entrance door but not wanting to lug it up, my bike and I hop on the hydraulic lift installed for wheelchairs.
Entering, one first encounters a branch office and two not very friendly security/receptionists. Calls are made by the receptionist to various people and no one recalls having seen my advance material sent over a month ago. I take a seat on one of the six black leather sofas and wait. Almost an hour later Brian Riley, press office, comes out and says he'll try to answer my questions. Riley, probably in his early 20's, has been with the company less than a month and knows absolutely nothing about the head office. Riley ends up getting most of the answers from a nearby security guard.
Built in 1992 and situated on a 28-acre site, over 2,000 employees work here. Riley wasn't able to come up with the square footage of the place but I'd guesstimate it's at least 750,000 square feet. The nearest freeway (M-4) is 250 yards away and the nearest airport, Bristol Airport, lies 40 miles away.
On the grounds there's an artificial lake stocked with over 400 fish. Across the road there's a company recreational complex which includes soccer, rugby and cricket fields.
Of course with Riley having no clout or experience, seeing CEO Dr. Brian Davis's top floor office or the boardroom isn't possible.
Burmah Castrol PLC
Halfway between downtown Swindon and Nationwide's headquarters sits Burmah Castrol's four-story, 350,000 square foot head office. Built in 1973 it sits on a 63-acre site.
When entering the building one pass two ferocious-looking six-foot tall white chintehes guarding the doors. What are chintehes? David Edelsten, public affairs executive, explains they're mythical lions from Burma. While waiting for Edelsten I sat in one of the 26 blue velour chairs in the expansive lobby and had plenty of reading material from the coffee tables including three issues of The Economist, five of The Spectator, and nine issues of Country Life.
Edelsten, a super nice guy, gives me an extensive tour of the place, which is home to 750 employees. There's plenty of free parking for employees, normal hours of work are 9am to 5pm and there's a full-size gymnasium. Meeting rooms are named after regions of the world and the two executive dining rooms: Wakefield room and Cargill room are named after Charles Cheers Wakefield, who founded the company and Sir John Cargill, Chairman from 1904-1943.
When this place was built in 1972 there was nothing around but farmland and Burmah. Now the surrounding area is a hodge podge of office buildings and light industrial plants.
CEO Johnathan Fry's middle office contains two real plants, one family picture, no computer, a painted picture of a sailing ship and because the building sits on a small ridge; a great view of the undeveloped countryside in the distance. The boardroom table is oval-shaped and seats 18.
If one were to fly in and visit the world's largest specialized lubricant company, Heathrow Airport lies 65 miles away and Bristol Airport 40 miles.
Allied Dunbar Assurance PLC
Occupying three buildings in heart of downtown Swindon, insurer Allied Dunbar has almost 2,500 employees in the Swindon area. The eight-story buildings, built in 1971 are nothing special. I meet with Liz Burdekin, press officer-corporate affairs, who informs me (much to my dismay) B.A.T. Industries is the parent company (purchasing Allied Dunbar in 1985). Geez, I visited B.A.T. in London (received a warm welcome) and I can't believe I missed seeing the info in the company's annual report which was given to me.
There's not much to say about Allied's blah headquarters anyway, which has been here since 1971. Allied Dunbar has funds totaling over 14 billion pounds under management.
Vodafone Group PLC
Newbury, a community of 30,000 people, lies 40 miles from Heathrow Airport , 70 miles from London and is home to Vodafone Group, an international provider of mobile telecommunications.
I meet with Mike Caldwell, manager-corporate communications, in the company's three-story head office, a former 16th century inn located smack in the middle of downtown. This was the largest inn in town and was where coaches stopped overnight on their way to London. About 200 employees work here but there's a total of 2,500 in the Newbury area. I tell Caldwell how I've seen literally dozens of buildings around town with Vodafone's familiar orangish-red name on the sides. Caldwell says the slew of buildings around town are intentional and it's not because they keep adding due to business growth but, it's part of their company philosophy in that smaller groups work better in their own environment. What does this mean to Newbury? Vodafone is by far the town's biggest renter of space including its head office.
The company's name comes from VO (voice) and DA (data). Nothing fancy about CEO Sir Gerald Whent's second floor corner office as I count four real plants, no family pictures, a TV/VCR, no computer and a heavy-looking old (antique?) mobile phone. His view? Gets to look out onto a small courtyard.