The Wizard of oz

Angus Fotheringhame was marketing head at Forbo when his boss decided to dispatch him on an Australian odyssey. The rest is history…  

By David Strydom/Kirkcaldy

IT’S quite a distance from Kirkcaldy, Scotland to Wetherill Park, Australia – 10,461 miles, to be exact. Many people who make the journey from the UK to Sydney do so for holidays, but even then you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who’s heard of Wetherill Park.

This suburb, located 21m outside Sydney, is part of the Greater Western Sydney region and is home to just over 6,000 people. It also has the largest industrial estate in the southern hemisphere, boasting companies such as Jaguar, BMW, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz – and Forbo Flooring Systems.

It was here that Angus Fotheringhame, then Forbo’s head of marketing since April 1996, was parachuted in in 2003 to improve profits at its antipodean branches.

‘I actually had the opportunity to live and work in Holland for Forbo before I had kids,’ Angus says. ‘I worked there a couple of days a week and during a memorable lunch with my larger-than-life boss at the time, he suggested I work in Holland. I remember thinking that that would’ve been fantastic, but even better if it was somewhere more far-flung such as Australia or the US.

‘Funny how things work out in the end!’

Angus was tasked by the then UK managing director, Brian Paterson, to perform an onsite review of Forbo Australia’s market position and organisation set-up.

Angus’s marketing executive at the time, Julie Dempster, was seconded out to Australia to perform formal market research for three months.

After her return to Kirkcaldy – with an outline of the growth opportunity in the Australian marketplace – she was invited to return more permanently to implement her five-year plan (her in-situ boss at the time was Derek Byrne, previously md of Forbo Ireland).

Angus arrived in Sydney to take over as md from Derek about 18 months after Julie’s secondment.

But after the erstwhile marketing pair had collaborated for a further 18 months, Julie returned to Europe three years into her five-year plan (due to family illness) and subsequently worked in Holland for the international marketing team. Angus still had support, though, in the form of Kieran Fowley, also formerly of the UK sales & marketing organisation who was responsible for sales.

For Angus, then only 32, the Australian odyssey was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – but also a potentially risky gamble. If he could help turnaround the operation, he’d be well rewarded by Forbo. If he failed, peoples’ livelihoods were at stake. There wasn’t much margin for error.

At the time, though, it was a move that suited the Orkney native well. He had two children, both of whom were still too young for school, which meant it was a simple case of relocation. In addition, his move was a promotion in the sense that although he was going to a much smaller branch, he’d been appointed managing director. From now on, he’d need to develop and rely on a different skillset from the one he’d brandished as marketing head.

‘Australia is a pretty open and straightforward so it was really pretty simple to get on with people and integrating from a work perspective was pretty easy,’ says Angus.

‘From a family perspective, you meet people through the kids and after a tough first six months we settled quickly and made friends for life. Many of them were locals but there were also many fellow ex-pats.

‘From a work perspective, the biggest element was twofold – most important, I had a great coach and mentor in my boss Derek Byrne. I think early in their career people do need help and support and Derek was a massive support for me.’

The other element was just listening to the team, customers and specifiers about the needs of the market and trying to use his knowledge of Forbo to improve its offer to the market, says Angus.

‘We hadn’t really tailored the Forbo offer to Australian needs before and I was lucky as my experience in product management meant I got a couple of ranges developed quickly that really kickstarted our recovery and showed we understood the Australian market.’

‘Angus and Derek did much team-building, talking about how to build business and make people feel secure,’ adds Julie. ‘We’re not Australians so I look back at that situation and think it must at the time have been a significant thing for the staff.’

Between June 2003-March 2007, as md of the Australian and New Zealand businesses, Angus instigated considerable change and growth. As he puts it: ‘We relocated the business, implemented new systems and doubled turnover during a turnaround phase.’

It’s no surprise that when asked about his proudest achievement, Angus hesitates only momentarily before saying: ‘The Australian change. The reason is that the same good people – 28 of them - who were there from the start continued on the whole journey with us.

‘The changes had a huge impact on them. These were good guys where the only problem was that they just didn’t have the right product, marketing plan or incentive structure and all we had to do was tweak things. They had a great time seeing the improvements being made.’

And there were certainly improvements.  

‘Angus is an inspiring leader and great communicator but most of all he’s a person who relates on a one-to-one with all facets of peoples’ personalities,’ says Paul F Woods, retired sales manager of commercial products, Forbo, in Queensland.

‘He possesses that rare ability to read the reader and works within that sphere of the person to achieve the best possible result from his staff and all around him. Also, people are happy to work with him with gusto.’

Paul noted the ‘biblical contribution’ Angus made to Forbo Australia in his nearly four years’ there, allowing the company to ‘power ahead because of his inspiration and passion for our business.

‘It was a pleasure to have him as my md and I was proud to share with my team in massive growth here in Queensland, which continued the original path we shared on the long road to Forbo taking its rightful place as a brand leader in Australian commercial floorcoverings.’

Julie, who has worked closely with Angus for almost 20 years, says with Angus, the results speak for themselves. ‘He turned Australia around.’

After three years and 10 months Down Under, the mission was accomplished, and the Orcadian who’d exchanged hemispheres determined to do his best discovered the best can happen when you have a plan and you work hard.

Turnover was more than doubled from 2003-2007 and in the three years after Angus left, it continued to grow to almost four times what it had been seven years earlier.

He was duly rewarded on his return to Kirkcaldy, being appointed managing director of Forbo UK.

WITH an animated, engaging manner, Angus is by turns amusing and informative when I meet him at Kirkcaldy’s offices. Nobody could possibly tag him with the ‘dour Scot’ label. But I also detect in him a core of steel, at least when it comes to business.

Fast-talking and quick to show an interest in my background, he strikes me as an introvert who’s been persuaded by necessity into the world of extraversion. But if that’s true, he’s succeeded quite remarkably.

Julie Dempster, who probably understands Angus better than anyone from a professional perspective, notes that when their paths crossed again after their Australian adventure, his management style had evolved. ‘It was bound to. People were looking to him for decisions and a clear plan of action and he’s never shied away from that.

‘There were 28 of us in Australia and his style had to be very hands-on and collaborative. Then when he returned to Kirkcaldy, it was to an organisation triple that size. He had to adapt.’

Julie says Angus has a dry sense of humour and that his modesty is reflected by the fact he’s kept his office in the open-plan structure because ‘he’s never been interested in a big fancy corner office. He just wants to make a difference, do a good job and turn things around’.

‘Angus is super-smart but understated,’ Julie adds. ‘He doesn’t trumpet his achievements.’

Born on 30 November 1971, Angus had an idyllic upbringing in Orkney, an archipelago off Scotland’s northeast coast. Although it’s obviously part of Scotland – and Angus is proudly Scottish – Orkney has its own identity as an ‘island within an island’. At one point during our interview, he wryly points out that ‘I come from Orkney, that’s why my accent is different’.

I noticed the subtle difference only once he’d pointed it out – after all, there are more dialects in the UK than rainy days in summer.

At school, Angus’s most memorable ticking off came when, as part of his high school football team during a school trip to Inverness, he cheered the opposition netball team ‘who happened to be very attractive’.

After school, he worked part-time as a greenkeeper at the local golf club where he strimmed ditches and edges of fences (it was ‘character-building stuff’ he jokes).

Before he graduated with his BA Honours first class in economics at the University of the West of Scotland between 1990-1995, Angus was offered a job as a project manager for a marketing firm.

‘It was the easy route,’ he says – but that first pay cheque allowed him to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend and future wife, Morag (the couple now have three children).

When Morag moved to Edinburgh, however, it was all change; Angus had to find a job – and that’s when Forbo came into the picture. ‘Unfortunately, it was no great ‘I’ve always wanted to work for the flooring industry, Forbo is the only team I’ve wanted to play for – none of that’, he says understatedly.

He started off as an assistant product manager on 1 April 1996, being interviewed in the very room in which we’re speaking 21 years later.

‘There were two Forbo factories in Kirkcaldy at that point – one on either side of the industrial road,’ he explains. ‘I preferred the one on this side because it looked newer and shinier. So, on my first day I went to do my factory tour and turned in the direction of the factory I liked. But I was quickly corrected – I was told I’d be working in the less appealing building.’

That slight blip didn’t impede Angus’s progress, though. After working in customer service, technical service and in the sampling department, he got a good feel for what Forbo does, and was to serve as its head of marketing in Kirkcaldy for more than seven years.

In 2003 Angus completed a course at the Cranfield School of Management, which says that for the past 50 years it’s been helping individuals and businesses across the world learn and succeed by transforming knowledge into action.

‘The school brings together a range of management disciplines through a significant portfolio of activities that includes research and consultancy, postgraduate masters and doctoral programmes, executive development courses, conferences and customised programmes.

‘Our MBA, executive education and doctoral programmes are all highly ranked in the major league tables.’

Clearly, he made an impression. Says Sally Atkinson, learning & organisational development director, Tetra Pak: ‘Angus was on my programme at Cranfield. He stood out from the crowd in terms of his ability to think strategically and incisively, and his willingness to challenge others constructively. His contribution was outstanding.’

No surprise then that, shortly after the course, Angus was earmarked by Forbo for dispatch to Australia.

ANGUS returned to the UK from Australia in March 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession (2008-2013). As the ‘credit crunch’ led to a fall in bank lending owing to shortages of liquidity, an inevitable plunge in consumer and business confidence followed.

Soon after, exports fell as the global recession took hold; a fall in house prices led to negative wealth effects while fiscal austerity compounded the initial fall in GDP. In Europe, the single currency created additional problems because of over-valued exchange rates, and high bond yields.

The IMF would eventually conclude the recession was the worst of its kind since World War 2.

Incredibly, under these circumstances, Forbo announced on 28 July 2008 that it was acquiring Bonar Floors, the flooring division of Low & Bonar; it was a decision that would have far-reaching effects.
Julie Dempster, now marketing manager, takes up the story: ‘Angus was very clear about the benefit of fully integrating the businesses from day one.

‘Taking the pain at the start of the process would deliver a fully integrated and functional business model which would also ultimately cultivate a new company culture that all employees could be a part of.

‘The first year was taken up very much with internal communication, system rollouts and product knowledge exchange. The sales team model was critical to the success in the first few years as it was important to nurture and capitalise on existing relationships in the marketplace, years of experience and build a collective shared approach to building the future success of Forbo Flooring in the UK.’

After fulfilment of all conditions, the transaction was completed on 30 September that year. The acquisition meant ‘Forbo will further strengthen its leading position as a systems provider of resilient flooring solutions for the commercial market,’ the company said.

‘Including this acquisition, the company now employs about 6,800 people and has an international network of 38 production companies with distribution, and about 50 sales organisations in a total of 35 countries.’

Forbo is an organisation that regularly strategically reviews market opportunities and recognised the Bonar acquisition would help achieve the flooring division’s goal of becoming market leader in Western Europe, Angus explained.

‘A portfolio of products including the brands Tessera and Westbond, which would bring carpet tile into the Forbo proposition and make us more relevant for the commercial office market; Flotex (a unique product proposition); and Coral/Nuway (well-established and respected entrance flooring brands) meant the opportunity was too good to miss, regardless of the economic environment.

‘So, although difficult, Forbo used the acquisition to propel it through the recession because of being able to provide customers with a solution from entrance to exit saving both time and money.’

As the roots of Forbo’s founding prove, however, it’s never been averse to the odd gamble: In 1928, exactly midway between the two world wars, three linoleum manufacturers – German, Swedish and Swiss – form the Continentale Linoleum Union which would, in the ‘70s, be renamed as Forbo.

Angus acknowledges that on his return from Australia, it was ‘tricky here in Scotland. Business wasn’t doing well. Derek Byrne, my boss who in Australia had done a great job steadying the ship in both countries, saw the case for a turnaround in the UK’.

Process controller Pete Stevenson, who has been with Forbo for 44 years, says Angus was ‘like a breath of fresh air’ when he became md of Forbo UK.

‘I’ve worked with managing directors who didn’t want to get involved in the nitty gritty, and sat in their ivory towers. Angus’s management style is good but he can be ruthless, which is what you’d expect from a manager.’

But the recession wasn’t all doom-and-gloom for Forbo. ‘While the private sector declined dramatically, the public sector didn’t do as badly,’ says Angus. ‘There was still PFI and PPP works going on, so actually we didn’t too badly. We did well out of it all. If you were in the textile business you struggled, but with the resilient portion we did quite well.’

Perhaps this upbeat approach was the reason Forbo felt able to acquire Bonar Floors, although the acquisition wasn’t straightforward.

‘We had to structure ourselves carefully by splitting ourselves into public and private sector, then we had to consider many key account functions. So, for instance, we have a guy who spends all his time in transport, a guy on electronics, retail, multi-housing, leisure etc.

‘We changed the organisation completely from being product-out to being a little bit more market-in. People still gravitate towards product because it’s a comfortable zone – that’s been great and it’s worked well for us.’

‘One market dynamic was that instead of selling to distributors we sold directly to contractors because this was, purely and simply, the only way we could get the value of our offer to the customer. We had such a big chunk taken by the distributors that we had to get best value for the contractor.’

The business didn’t skimp on restructuring ‘properly’ says Angus. ‘It comes down to this: the end-user pays for everything. We may not sell directly to them but if we persuade the end-user to want our stuff, it doesn’t matter who else is in the chain. All you want is for the contractor to say: ‘That’s what I want’.’

Asked to define how Forbo is currently positioned, and how it sees its priorities in the short- to medium-term, Angus says: ‘Forbo is in a strong market position and has a wide portfolio of products so for us it’s about getting better every day, whether it be new products, addressing the changing needs of the market in terms of design such as dementia design or indeed improving our service propositions using digital tools.

‘Above all we just need to be committed to being open to new challenges, adapting, learning and evolving. We’re never finished and never still and in a way if we can stay committed to evolving and staying true to our core principles I think that’s what we try to achieve.’

Despite his ambitions – and his meteoric rise within Forbo – Angus hasn’t let his ego get too inflated. When asked if he’d choose another career, he says he’d go full-circle and be a greenkeeper again – but only when the weather’s nice.

Given his record in turning around the Australia business, managing the Bonar Floors acquisition, steadying Forbo through the recession and developing the businesses in The Netherlands and Belgium, Angus needn’t concern himself too much with changing careers: the flooring industry is clearly where he’s meant to be.