The winner of this year's Building Award for Chief Executive of the Year is John White, boss of Persimmon, the UK's biggest housebuilder.
Here we see the man whose perfectly timed acquisitions have propelled his £2.3bn turnover firm to the FTSE 100. Not bad for someone who started out as an apprentice brickie with no O-levels …
In his last year at the helm of housebuilder Persimmon, John White has been voted Building's chief executive of the year.
It wasn't a particularly difficult decision for the judges. White used his final year in post to achieve the common dream of all the major housebuilders: to join the FTSE 100.
Persimmon, Barratt and Taylor Woodrow have been competing to join the premier league of Britain's largest public companies for some years; White finally achieved it last December when he pulled off the £643m purchase of Westbury Homes. Next year he can enjoy the fruits of his success when he takes over from Duncan Davidson as executive chairman. Not bad for an apprentice bricklayer with no O levels, and an eloquent testament to his hard work, determination and focus.
White, who is regarded by his peers as a straight-talking man who takes no prisoners, has been the driving force behind Persimmon for the past 13 years. Following in the footsteps of Davidson, one of his business heroes, he is not a self-publicist. Nor is he one to court the City of London or to be impressed by the high-flying financiers of the Square Mile - even though Persimmon is one of the City's darlings.
At a time when other housebuilders are struggling to maintain profit in a challenging market, Persimmon has achieved growth. In the year to 31 December 2005, pre-tax profit rose almost 6% to £495m, turnover was up 7% to £2.3bn and the dividend rose 12.7% to 31p a share. And the results and achievements have been reflected in Persimmon's share price, which over the past five years has risen from less than 400p to a high of 1435p in February. It is not surprising, then, that the City considers it a safe bet. Last month analysts at ABN Amro said: "We see no better play in the sector. Buy."
Even its rivals have shown their respect and admiration for Persimmon's achievements. At the time of the Westbury acquisition last year, Redrow's deputy chairman Paul Pedley said: "It's a good move by Persimmon, which has in the past proved that it can execute acquisitions and subsequent integration effectively." In fact, Persimmon's track record is second to none in the sector, and includes the takeovers of Ideal Homes and Beazer.
As White has been successful in calling the market in the past, onlookers took this as a sign that the housing market would show signs of strengthening. As Pedley said: "When it has acquired in the past, Persimmon has done so at the most opportune point in the cycle, so the suggestion is that Persimmon is calling the bottom of the market." And according to housing research company Hometrack, UK house prices have risen for the past four consecutive months …
ABN Amro described the Westbury acquisition as "a shrewd manoeuvre" and the company's subsequent entry into the FTSE 100 was seen as good for the sector. The theory is that swinging the spotlight onto quoted housebuilders will help their rating.
Not all are impressed by White's ability to execute a successful takeover. When the company took over Westbury, 500 people lost their jobs. And later in December 2005, when it bought small housebuilder Senator for £25m, sources close to the deal said White took what some perceived to be a ruthless approach to the acquisition. Two hours after the deal was signed, Persimmon managers were making changes and the phones were being answered "Persimmon". The head office was closed and some central staff lost their jobs.
But most would admire White's unsentimental attitude to business, and nobody can argue with the results that he achieves.
At the 2006 Building Awards, White beat off five bosses shortlisted for the award including Stuart Chambers of Pilkington, John Dodds of Kier, John McDonough of Carillion and fellow volume housebuilder David Pretty of Barratt Developments.
The panel of judges couldn't fail to be impressed by White's track record. Although the Westbury acquisition was considered by all to be a great deal, the judges were clear that White was not a one-trick pony.
White set the company on a growth trail 13 years ago and can hang up his chief exec hat knowing that under his leadership Persimmon was the first housebuilder to reach the top table of British industry.
White on …
I wouldn’t describe myself as hard. Firm but fair is more accurate
How to achieve success
Bullshit doesn’t get you very far in this business. Hard work and commitment does
It’s the best part of business life when you do these deals. When you put two big businesses together, you
need a clear strategy, a set management and to move forward immediately
His loyalty to Persimmon founder and chairman Duncan Davidson
I have not looked at the situations vacant column since I joined Duncan in 1979
I live and breathe it. I talk about it all day. Our business is very simple. It’s not easy, but it wants keeping simple
The award was sponsored by KPMG. For all the winners see the 2006 Building Awards supplement, free this week