The Post Office’s Cockburn can deliver the goods for WH Smith

George Pitcher is joint managing director of media consultancy Luther Pendragon

In true Sixties’ style, a record shot straight into the singles charts at number one last week. Was it Oasis, riding Earl’s Court like the Royal Tournament on Ecstasy? Was it The Beatles, demonstrating that they could still do it from beyond the grave and middle age?

No. It was Robson and Jerome, a pair of actors who appear – to borrow the marketing style of pantomime and supermarket openings – in “Television’s Soldier, Soldier”.

I am not familiar with the television series or the music, but I am told by those at the cutting edge of popular music developments that Robson and Jerome are to supposedly fashionable music what, in my day, Clive Dunn was to Led Zeppelin.

Here is a gold – nay, platinum disc – example of a syndrome that the record industry has known since Bill Haley wondered whether a kiss-curl might help. It knows that, when it comes to sales volumes, safe, mawkish ballads do the business.

True, there is the odd Beatles phenomenon, but no one is ever likely to suggest that the best way to build a business’s revenues is to buy lottery tickets – in other words, the likelihood of striking gold with a new band is too remote to form part of a business plan.

I go into this because it has been said recently – and implied in the more condescending quarters of the business press – that the appointment of Bill Cockburn, chief executive of the Post Office, to lead fading high street bulwark WH Smith is a rum one.

If I might paraphrase what is said: WH Smith is rather dull. What it needs is an exciting, new-wave retailer at the helm. George Davies of Next fame, perhaps. Or Ann Iverson, if Laura Ashley doesn’t suit her. What about Barry Diller, now that QVC doesn’t fill his day? Or, for that matter, David Sainsbury could be looking for a job.

Much of that is absurd. More realistically, there are those who point out that, if re cuperating shoemaker and retailer Clarks can pull a blue-chip, consumer-goods name like Tim Parker from Kenwood, then WH Smith might have found someone with rather more of a retail track record and profile than Cockburn.

Not that I have come across any hostility towards Cockburn. This will be to do with what has become his fashionable “decency”. And I have no argument with that. I have not met Cockburn for years and hold no kind of brief for him, but I recall, as many others do, a thoroughly decent bloke who had been untouched by his considerable corporate success.

Where there lingers doubt, however, is over Cockburn’s qualification for such a retail hot-seat as WH Smith. With the best will in the world – it is still murmured that he is Post Office man, boy, and very possibly foetus.

The Post Office is the state asset that even the Tories found that they could not privatise. It is an amalgamation of worthy but dull businesses, fronted by some of the least appealingly fitted retail outlets in Britain. What could the man who has run that lot possibly bring to WH Smith and its satellites – Our Price and Waterstone’s?

I ask the question rhetorically because the fears it expresses are misplaced. Cockburn is not only a thoroughly good egg, but a masterful businessman.

I could go on about how the Royal Mail now handles some 67 million letters a year, a 50 per cent increase on ten years ago, and how profits were lifted by 54 per cent last year to 472m.

I could add that Cockburn raised next day mail delivery to nearly 100 per cent; or that he made the UK the country of choice for mail-clearing from across Europe; or that he brought the Post Office close to real competition with the proposed abolit ion of the 1 minimum courier delivery charge, while main taining a national, guaran teed delivery service at a single price.

But one observation emerges from my earlier point about the record industry. WH Smith’s business is not primarily, or even principally, about leading fashion. Consequently, its attempts to glamorise itself have been misplaced.

The company will always make more money from retailing Robson and Jerome in Our Price than it will from Supergrass. It will always earn more from Jeffrey Archer and Delia Smith than it will from Jeanette Winterson and the Booker Prize.

And its two core businesses – news distribution and the WH Smith chain – are about exploiting efficiencies in distribution and service.

This is only worthy and dull in so far as making businesses profitable is worthy and dull. I suspect that WH Smith’s shareholders find it a rather stimulating prospect. If nothing else, that makes Cockburn ideally suited to his new job. The very best of luck to him.

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