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No flights of fancy for IT, airports and hotels tycoon Sir Peter Rigby

June 12, 2014 1:01 am

No flights of fancy for IT, airports and hotels tycoon Sir Peter Rigby

By Hazel Davis

Sir Peter Rigby is an unassuming man, in an impeccable black suit, white shirt – buttons not cufflinks – and tiny-checked tie. His voice is quiet and polite. He listens carefully and assumes nothing (“GE. That’s General Electric”), all the while carefully folding his napkin into a square. He could be any pleasant middle manager.

We meet in the decidedly unswanky private jet area at Coventry Airport, which is owned by his multibillion-dollar turnover company, Birmingham-based Rigby Group. The only tell-tale sign of this is the lunch he has had drafted in from one of his nearby hotels, the Mallory Court in Leamington Spa. It is a Michelin-starred buffet, including parsley jelly and a particularly delicious smoked salmon quiche. I want to go hell for leather on the cheeseboard but Sir Peter does not strike me as a man of excess.

He does not boast. Instead, he quietly tacks an achievement on to the end of a sentence – “I got the first half-dozen IBM dealerships in the UK” – lets it sit in the air for a bit and continues.

Sir Peter was not born into money – far from it. His father was a cotton-then-railway worker who went blind when the grammar school-educated Peter was a teenager. Peter had won an Air Force scholarship (his life-long dream) and was set to go to RAF Cranwell near Sleaford, Lincolnshire.

But he decided it was “inappropriate” and stayed at home: “I didn’t have a family member who could give me more sensible commentary. I was taken in by circumstance.”

Chance took him on a graduate scheme with NCR (National Cash Register), where he learnt to program: “I was very lucky to become associated with the very early days of IT,” he says.

Even then, Sir Peter (you get the feeling he is slightly uncomfortable with the title but that formality dictates) had spotted the business opportunities of the fast-growing industry. He wanted to sell computers. So he went to work at Honeywell Information Systems. Within five years he was the top – and the UK’s youngest – branch manager.

But he knew he wasn’t going to achieve his goals by working for a US corporation: “The American approach to business is in many ways more adventurous, but they had a system, at least back in the 1960s, of cycling the top management of the British subsidiary by putting Americans at the helm. Their next job out of New York would be country manager in the UK. For the first year they’d blame their predecessors for the state of the business, in the second year they’d go berserk and in the third they’d behave themselves so they could get the next job. I found the fact I could never get to a top job frustrating.”

Career Clips

What job would you have done otherwise?

I would have been an RAF fighter pilot.

What is your biggest regret?

Not being an RAF fighter pilot. But I have actually probably spent more time flying than if I had been.

What is the best lesson you ever learned?

If you want something, you have to work for it.

Are you worth your wage packet?

I actually haven’t drawn a salary in five years. I have never been motivated by money. All the most successful people aren’t motivated by money.

What is your greatest achievement?

My two sons.

What have been your biggest mistakes?

I have created about 65 start-ups and done as many acquisitions. I have done great ones and terrible ones, usually lossmaking businesses I thought we could turn around.

So he took matters into his own hands by setting up an IT recruitment company, using £2,000 of his savings. The business became well-established but it still wasn’t enough,” he says, “Recruiting people is very lucrative but not very stimulating. It didn’t satisfy my desire to build a more substantial business.”

By the 1980s, the PC had arrived on the scene. “The breakthrough was the IBM PC,” Sir Peter says, “They had 90 per cent market dominance and I wanted to sell them.”

So he did, via his company Specialist Computer Centres. In addition to securing the first six UK IBM dealerships, he also obtained the first UK Compaq dealership. “At the time the PC was perceived as an independent device. My background in IT helped me think of it as connective,” he comments.

SCC grew big, acquiring stable mates along the way. The Rigby Group now has annual turnover of about £1.8bn and employs more than 6,000 staff worldwide, having branched out into airports – it owns four – and a fleet of helicopters.

Unlike many entrepreneurs, Sir Peter is happy to admit that his success is partly down to being in the right place at the right time.

But he will at least offer: “Clearly I have entrepreneurial skills and I’m a natural salesman” – though you might not think it from his soft-spoken demeanour. And he adds: “I am enthusiastic and knowledgeable.”

Rigby Group has notably never gone public (in fact it has no outside investors), despite many opportunities. “I believe very strongly in a privately owned business,” he explains, adding: “We are like an extended family. We don’t exploit, we develop.”

And it is a family affair for sure. Sir Peter, who divorced in 1998, works with both his sons Steve and James (“one guy who’s solid as a rock and one guy who’s adventurous. An excellent combination. The most committed executives I have ever had”) as board members.

“If they hadn’t wanted to join me, I would have been disappointed,” he says. “I would be happy for them, of course, but I would be disappointed, even if I never told them.”

In fact, he laughs: “Steve left school at 17 and told me he recognised he’d probably have to work for me one day so he’d better get it over with. He’s still with me.”

——————————————-

On the Desk

If the teenage Peter Rigby could have fast-forwarded a few years he might not have been able to believe his eyes. “You couldn’t enter my office and say: ‘This bloke doesn’t like aeroplanes,’” he laughs.

Apart from aviation pictures on the walls and a glass-topped coffee table made from the radial engine of a Cessna Bobcat, Sir Peter’s desk is made from a port tailplane from a Hawk jet.

“I came across someone at an antiques fair who puts metal objects through a chrome-plating process. I introduced him to the RAF museum who had dozens of ejector seats, so they sold them to him,” he says.

And so, in the corner of the room, there is a chrome-coated ejector seat from a Canberra B2 bomber and a large table made from the centre section of a Rolls-Royce Avon jet engine, originally installed on a Hawker Hunter fighter.

Far from being the millionaire businessman’s lap of luxury, it is the office of every aviation-mad boy’s dreams, albeit tastefully done out in black and chrome.

 

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About bambooinnovator
KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (www.moatreport.com), a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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