Profile - Paul Winter: Enjoying playing the business game when the stakes are high

He’s competed at the top in sport and business. John Collingridge met Paul Winter, chief executive of Corpra and new president of the Management Consultancies Association.

WHEN Paul Winter describes business as “a game with a lot at stake”, he’s more qualified than most to draw the comparison.

Winter, a management consultant with clients including Microsoft, Kimberly-Clark, BP, News International and Xerox, has competed in both sport and business at a high level.

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“A game does not diminish it,” he adds. “It’s an amazingly interesting and perplexing game.

“We all play our part in it; some people take it too seriously. We know we’re going to win a lot or lose a lot.”

Winter, the new president of the Management Consultancies Association, can count stints as a Hull City trainee, triathlete, rugby player, squash player and skier among his sporting achievements.

These days, age dictates that Winter must focus on golf and skiing – “the only way I can move quickly on my own” –- but even these he takes seriously.

“I’m very, very competitive. It’s in your genes. If you’re deeply competitive, you end up finding a sport you can do well.”

Winter was brought up in Doncaster, moving with his mother to Withernsea when his parents split up.

After a couple of years playing for Hull City’s youth team, he realised the odds of making it as a professional footballer were slim when manager Terry Neill said to him: “Paul, you’ve got options. These lads, they do everything I tell them, but you ask questions. You’re better off going to university.”

Winter got the kindly-worded message – much to his mother’s delight, who’d told him unless he made it to the top as a footballer he should quit and go to university.

Winter, who was doing his A-levels at the time, had been nicknamed “the Prof” by his Hull City team-mates.

The irony was that at school, surrounded by peers destined for Oxford and Cambridge, he “never imagined I had anything remotely like a brain”.

Winter joined the University of Glamorgan and paid his way through university playing rugby for Merthyr Tydfil. Spells in logistics, property and venture capital followed, before Winter studied at Cranfield Management School. He then set up Corpra, a strategy house to help businesses grow sustainably by delivering change.

Now a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, he’s finally lived up to his former team-mates’ jibe.

And while Winter could not quite forge a career as a professional sportsman, he has found an outlet for his competitveness in Corpra.

Winter points to his diary. “The things that are genuinely exciting me are where there’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure and there’s something that needs fixing. It just grips my attention.

“In a recession I’m at my personal best.”

Right now he’s enjoying the success of his latest, and one of his most satisfying, turnarounds. The Mayfair Times, a magazine focused on one of London’s most exclusive residential areas, called on Corpra after struggling in the recession. With Winter’s help, it’s become a “wonderful community development vehicle”, with a corresponding revival in financial fortunes.

Why was the Mayfair turnaround so enjoyable? “It’s probably down to showing off,” he admits. “Everybody thinks you can’t fix a print-driven business but you can; it’s actually quite easy.”

Another of his big successes is a Yorkshire story – the turnaround of kitchens chain Magnet, founded in Bingley.

“They had a view that it would be better if all of their units were on the edge of industrial estates. It was a cost reduction and most people in the company would have agreed with that decision.”

Winter’s solution was both radical and simple.

“You’ve now got nothing that’s optimal,” he told the company. “You’ve now got everything that’s average.”

Pointing out that the group’s most profitable stores were on the high street, he told the company to focus its attention and resources there.

“It cost a huge amount to get into that problem in the first place and then a fair amount to get out of it.”

But Winter believes had Magnet’s then chief executive, Gary Favell, not called him in, the company would have crashed when the recession hit.

“If you’re going to get a business going you’ve got to focus on something that matters.”

It doesn’t always work out, however. Winter recalls what he thought was a successful turnaround of a company, only for it to go bust 18 months later. He blames failures on handing over to the wrong management.

Winter and his team can also rouse scepticism, and sometimes outright hostility, from employees who wonder if the management consultants are being paid a fortune to simply state the obvious.

“It’s never more than one person. It’s usually a majority saying what a great idea.”

Corpra commands a top rate of up to £5,000 a day, with a weekend strategy workshop priced between £25,000 and £75,000.

But despite the criticism, the returns are easily quantifiable, says Winter. For every £1 spent on a consultant, a company will get £6 back over two years – Corpra claims often to exceed this return. Winter says about 99 per cent of the FTSE 100 use management consultants, as do many in the FTSE 250.

“People often think that a bad chief executive employs us to make them look good. A good chief executive employs us to make them look better.”

Winter draws on the Rudyard Kipling’s motivational poem If as a source of strength.

The poem, which begins with the line, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” has helped him through 20 years as a management consultant.

Many of the situations Corpra deals with require considerable empathy and tact. Some, according to Winter, are like “EastEnders and Emmerdale rolled into one”, as tumultuous personal lives collide with high-pressure careers.

In some cases, Corpa must gently guide a troubled executive to the door, but so tactfully that the outside world will never be quite sure if he has been pushed.

“We’ll say, ‘Is this right for him? Is this fair for him? He won’t be strong enough to say, ‘I will go’.

“We’re not crude. You’ve got to do it respectfully.”

The rebuilding of a company starts with its key staff, according to Winter. “What we’re always looking to do is find the talent magnets and then cluster the better people around them.”

Winter describes it as a “partnery” relationship with a chief executive, earning their trust.

Finding out what’s wrong with a company can take a couple of months in itself. Then turning it around takes anywhere from one to four years.

Sometimes he’s asked to be interim chief executive of a company, but Winter says he’s rarely tempted to do it on a permanent basis. The fluid nature of management consultancy and its daily challenges are what appeal to him.

“Just running it – being the CEO of a company doing the same thing every day – would send me bonkers. That would cause me to do change for change’s sake.”

In fact, the only permanent role that interests him would be one that takes him back to Yorkshire.

“If in the next three years someone in Yorkshire says, ‘Will you run my company full-time, not just as a management consultant’, I would probably jump at it.

“That’s probably what I will do, but I’ll be a nuisance when I’m in there.”

Paul Winter Factfile

Title: Chief executive, Corpra

Date of birth: December 25, 1957

Education: Adwick School, Doncaster; University of Glamorgan; Cranfield University

First job: Logistics firm TDG

Favourite holiday: Sandsend, near Whitby

Favourite song: You Do Something To Me, Paul Weller

Last book read: The Philosopher and the Wolf, Mark Rowlands

Film: Brassed Off – it reminds me of my grand-father who was a musician

Car: I don’t own one but have a Triumph Legend 900 motorbike and a bicycle

Most proud of: Becoming president of the Management Consultancies Association