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Sunday, 29 November 2015

Jim Slater (1929-2015) a valedictory

This is a different blog from usual but a piece of news this week really struck home. It was that Jim Slater had died at the age of 86.

I would wager that very few people under the age of 50 will have heard of him even though he was a major player and influence in  industry and commerce in the 1970s.

Jim Slater was an chartered accountant having qualified at the early age of 24.  He went into business in an automotive company that was acquired by the then growing British Leyland and worked closely with Lord (Donald) Stokes.

During am illness Jim Slater took an interest in stock market investment and he devised a simple system which he called the Zulu Principle. In essence this involves searching out small undervalued companies sitting on underexploited  assets. This became known in the media as asset stripping.

With a friend, Peter Walker, later to become a Conservative government minister, they acquired a company called H Lottery (how appropriate is that) which they renamed Slater Walker Securities, a group that eventually grew to be a £200n conglomerate.

This became the vehicle for a rash of acquisitions and I was involved in the group of businesses in the rubber and plastics industry in what was then Slater Walker Industrial Group (SWIG).

We put together three companies all of which  were reasonably successful but remained in a somnolent mood with unadventurous leadership.

These companies, Greengate and Irwell Rubber, the wonderfully named Frankenstein Group and P B Cow all had significant advantages in their markets.

Greengate were major suppliers of conveyor belting to the National Coal Board, Frankenstein through a subsidiary Beaufort, supplied air/sea rescue equipment to the UK Government and P B Cow  which manufactured coated fabrics, supplied a wide range of companies in the UK. I was appointed a director of a very famous and iconic P B Cow subsidiary, Li-Lo Limited, a genuinely generic name for an inflatable air bed.

This group was launched on the London Stock Market in 1974 as the Allied Polymer Group and SW retained a stake in the business. The experience of thus launch will remain with me as a truly fascinating learning experience for me - another world indeed.

SW was now divesting itself of the industrial investments and branching out into investment banking at a time when regulation was, to put it mildly, somewhat lax.

Quite suddenly or so it seemed, the wheels started to come off.  A disastrous investment in Singapore and severe problems in the UK led to (unsuccessful) law suits against SW and Jim Slater who resigned as Chairman in 1975 describing himself at the time as being a "negative millionaire".

He wrote books including some for children, reinvigorated his investment portfolio, joined the boards of several industrial and property companies and repaid his personal creditors with interest in a very few years.

A role model? Not really because he operated in a world that I didn't comprehend. However I remember things about him that marked him out as an inspirational leader.

He appointed very talented people around him, he trusted them and was comfortable in delegating to them, and he was manifestly the deal maker in the business.

Perhaps that trust was misplaced when people without his commercial acumen went into deals that went sour.

I remember his saying that he "had no time for patient trading. I prefer to make money than to earn it".  In board meetings he insisted that discussion of the accounts was limited to no more than 20 minutes because what was going to happen was more important than what had happened.

He was a big influence in my life at that time bringing excitement and energy that I recall warmly.  Jim Slater exemplified the maxim that when you are knocked down, get up, dust yourself off and start again.  

He was a shooting star that never really fizzled out and it was a privilege to have known him.

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