Back where it all began
From the glitz and glamour of the music industry, via massive corporate success with WH Smith to the wide skies of Northumberland, Karen Dent meets David Clipsham, who is now using his talents to boost businesses in the North East.
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.”