A LOW boredom threshold is how David Clipsham explains the various twists and turns in his career. Now using his considerable skills and experience working as a non-executive director, his latest move brings him back to the North East where his corporate climb originally began with Procter & Gamble.
A burning desire to work in the music industry fuelled by his experiences at university, where he studied French and Russian, brought him to Gosforth as a marketing trainee.
“That was a deliberate ploy while I was at Cambridge in the 60s, I fell in love with the music business,” he remembers.
“I was importing Bob Dylan albums before they were released in England, ran the Union nightclub, managed a band, did a lot of music-related stuff.
“I decided I wanted at some point to get into the music business but could see that it wasn’t a properly structured industry at that time; it was just going through its birth pangs, basically. And if I was going to make a career of it, I needed some business structure, some business training.
“The big blue chip grocery companies were thought of as being the training grounds, so I did the milkround and found Procter & Gamble much more to my taste than anywhere else. Fortunately they seemed to like me so they offered me a job.”
Four years in the North East gave him the skills he needed to “talk my way into the music business”.
He said: “I went from working for this huge corporation to working as sales and marketing director – it sounds very grand – for Atlantic Records. There were a dozen of us there, doing everything between us and the sense of scale was completely different.
“I was working and sharing an office with Dave Dee, the old pop singer, who was an A&R man for us and we were making it up as we went along, basically.
“I did the first proper television-advertised album – all stuff that was second nature from P&G training – that had never been done in the music business before.
“Every day was fun and we were making it up as we went along and there was trust implicit in everything that was done, a willingness to experiment, try things and some fascinating people to work with.
“And it was also fun working with people like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer – they were all on the label.”
His P&G experience also helped him to recognise the potential of two new pieces of technology which would revolutionise sound and vision.
“Those things were compact disc and video, neither of which existed up to that point and I was the only lunatic in the town that believed they had a commercial future,” says Clipsham.
“Again I think it was P&G training – I could see that people would be prepared to pay for the advantages that those products gave.
“No one in the music business wanted to know about it so I had to go out a bit on a limb in a way to get people interested and they were launched and obviously they were both successful. So I became known as a new technology specialist – which is a joke really – but I do have a marketeer’s appreciation of what they can offer.”
That ability led to work as a consultant across industries as diverse as banking and film and “by a series of coincidences and accidents” brought him into retailing.
“It’s typical of a lot of things that have happened in my life, where things have happened more or less by accident and they just happened to fit my mindset at the time,” he says.
He relaunched the poster company Athena and bookseller Dillons, which both belonged to Pentos, and then joined WH Smith, which had just bought the Our Price music chain.
Clipsham said: “They’d bought it but they couldn’t manage it – there was a huge culture clash between Smiths management and Our Price management, who’d come in with the deal.
“The Our Price boys were North London entrepreneurs, fleet of foot and not terribly good at the written word and Smiths were slow, ponderous – army, Eton and Oxford – completely different in style.
“I’ve often said that although I’m a trained linguist, I’ve rarely had the chance to use my language skills in business but I did then. I actually acted as translator because although there was goodwill on both sides, they were literally using the same words to mean different things.
“They’d just reached an impasse where nothing was happening because they couldn’t communicate. So we sorted that out fairly quickly.”
The Our Price integration led to WH Smith buying more music stores from Sir Richard Branson and gave Clipsham his first taste of mergers and acquisitions.
“Smiths saw that I’d turned their problems into the third biggest profits sector in the group in two years and asked me if I would do the same thing for their specialist book retailing business and specialist stationery business Paperchase, which they’d just bought.
“The book business it was impossible to do anything but buy another business to bolt on but we knew that either Dillons or Waterstone’s would run out of cash at some stage and sure enough, a few weeks later, the first one to have a problem was Waterstone’s.
“I again did the integration and went through the financial hoopla and started to clean up Paperchase.”
But hedging by Smiths when Clipsham staked a claim for the top job – “and frankly, quite rightly – I was being cocky” – coincided with an approach from music giants Universal to manage Mercury Records in 1990.
“I went and did that, ran Mercury for three years, again with an eye to getting the next senior job and running the group,” he says.
“After a year or so in, I found two things one was that the music business wasn’t the same type of fun that it had been previously.
“I also found there was one other guy in the corporate group who was actually better than me. In those types of industries you tend to either be a businessman or a creative person.
“There was one guy called Roger Aims who had both skills. So I figured that Roger’s the right man for the job so I should find something else to do.”
But he has fond memories of Mercury Records: coming to Newcastle’s Mayfair with the band James and the entire audience sitting down on the floor when they played Sit Down, and a weekend trip to Australia to see INXS.
“We had them signed for half of the world and the contract for the other half had come up. I got on very well with the guys in INXS and they were doing a concert in a big park in Sydney.
“I just thought if I go and say hello, it’ll just show that I really mean we want your deal for the world. So I left London on Thursday evening, got to Sydney, did the concert, had a meeting with the manager, got on the plane, came back via Los Angeles where I had a meeting, that’s a killer – that’s the worst flight in the world, that’s the one where you arrive before you leave – and I was back in London on Tuesday morning.”
The music industry had become a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job and once he’d stepped away from it, what became the third strand of his career came into play.
The man who was named the first Non-Executive Director of the Year in The Journal’s North East Business Executive of the Year Awards 2008, Clipsham had found his niche – one that crucially stopped that low boredom threshold from kicking in.
“By definition, if you are doing three, four, five non-executive roles you can’t be bored because you are moving from one to the other all the time,” he says.
He became a non-exec director of Game and saw it through flotation and the subsequent trade sale, then worked with venture capitalists to buy the Athena publishing company.
“All of it was going swimmingly until Pentos went bust and that coincided with the venture capitalist who had backed us selling his portfolio to another venture capitalist. They said basically, you’ve lost your biggest customer, 40% of your business – downsize and sell on. That’s effectively what we did. So I’ve had my share of disappointments.”
Clipsham moved to France, where he considered semi-retirement but discovered he still wanted to work. He returned to the UK and “I’ve been a serial non-exec ever since.”
He’s worked with businesses from packaging group Keenpac – “where we built, acquired and sold on all in four years – a textbook story really, everybody made six times the money” – to CD and DVD firm Prism Leisure and has recently become a non-exec director with Newcastle-based chain The Pen Shop.
Clipsham is keen to become involved with more regional companies that can use his skills. After 30 years in London, he considers himself an adopted Northumbrian from his vantage point “on the edge of a grouse moor” near Kirkwhelpington in Northumberland.
“The peacefulness, the tranquillity is probably the best thing. I just love the big open spaces and relatively untouched countryside.
“I walk up the hill behind my house and I can see 20-30 miles in every direction with nothing in between – no visible buildings, pretty much.”
But he is still ambitious to create business success stories – this time in the North East.
“I enjoy helping businesses to grow,” he says. “There are real opportunities here and huge success stories and there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be more. The spirit of entrepreneurism has always been here.”
But on a personal level, he has few ambitions still to be met.
“I’ve got my ego under control I think. In the same way that I don’t have too many heroes, I don’t have too many illusions about myself either.
“I’ve had my share of good and bad stuff. I think I’m pretty good at what I do but that doesn’t make me a genius.
“I was brought up to respect people but not to be afraid of them; it didn’t take me long to work out that a lot of people who claimed to be brilliant are at best lucky.
“But that’s with experience, that’s tempered just a sort of natural confidence into self awareness. There’s no point in going through all this stuff if you don’t learn from it.”
Page 3: The Questionnaire
What type of car do you drive?
An old 4x4 as I live down an unmetalled road a mile from the nearest public highway.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
In the region, for regular use, Secco. In the UK, Gordon Ramsay in Royal Hospital Road in London. In the world, Villa San Michele outside Florence.
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy – for me Waugh is the best writer of the English language in the last century.
What was the last album you bought?
Katherine Williams and Neill McColl after seeing them at The Sage.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Something completely different – gamekeeper?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
It’s Pimms o’clock.
What’s your greatest fear?
That we are not leaving much of a world for our grandchildren.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Don’t let your in-tray build up.
And the worst?
People will not accept change.
What’s your poison?
Wine – the best I’ve ever been lucky enough to have was a comparative tasting of 1982 first growth clarets.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Sunday Times, the Northumberland Gazette and the Hexham Courant – otherwise I tend to get news from the internet, despite the fact that my son-in-law is a news editor on a national daily.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
My first full-time job was as a marketing trainee at Procter & Gamble in Gosforth. We lived royally on a salary of £1,000 per year.
How do you keep fit?
What’s your most irritating habit?
I have been known to interject before people have finished their sentences.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
I’m not sure I admire anyone in particular – when you scratch the surface most of us, and especially the famous, are pretty flawed.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Billy Connolly, Victoria Wood, Joan Rivers and Ross Noble – I like to laugh.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good father.
Page 4: The CV
Cambridge University MA Hon (Modern Languages)
Procter & Gamble Ltd marketing trainee; brand management
Carreras Rothman Ltd, product group manager
Warner Music [UK] Ltd, sales and marketing director
Marketing consultant. Clients included Sony UK Ltd, Midland Bank and Pentos plc
WH Smith Group plc – Our Price Music, managing director and then chairman; Paperchase, chairman; Waterstones, deputy chairman
Universal Music [UK] Ltd, managing director Mercury Records
Chief executive Cartel International Ltd
Acting managing director Ronson International plc
Directer-general KCP Myrys SA
Creature Labs Ltd
Kaboom Studios Ltd
Sound Control Ltd
Prism Leisure Ltd
Virtual Music Stores
Head 2 Head Training, Chairman of trustees
The Pen Shop
Non-Executive Director of the Year at North East Business Executive of the Year Awards