by Julian Goldsmith

Master and commander

Feb 23, 2011
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

It’s always good to have a hobby, something that helps you take your mind off the day job. As head of IT for airports operator BAA, Philip Langsdale has a big, demanding job, so it’s no surprise the activity that diverts his attention out of work is also quite ambitious.

In 2009, Langsdale acquired the assets­ of a failing boat-building business now known as Cornish Crabbers. He is the company’s owner and its chairman – a job he has to juggle with his task of running IT for the owner of six British airports including Heathrow. We met at this year’s London International Boat Show, on the effective second ­anniversary of his taking over the company,­ although the Cornish Crabbers as a brand has been going for nearly 40 years.

He appears cheerful and relaxed, as well he might, as the company has new launches to show off at this year’s show. With his grey beard, he wouldn’t look out of place at the tiller of one of his boats and confesses to being a keen sailor himself for around 20 years.

This is the reason why Langsdale’s inter­est was caught by the company. Select Yachts, as it was known, went into administration in October 2008. Langsdale was notified by the administrators because he owned a Cornish Crabber, and as a committed and loyal customer, he was moved to consider saving the company.

“First of all it was an emotional res­ponse, because it’s such a great brand that you can’t let it go,” he explains.

“When I heard it was going under, I felt I had to do something. And then it became quite serious because obviously if you’re going to spend some money on setting things up, you’ve got to know what you’re doing.”

Like many CIOs, Langsdale already had a rounded business experience. Even among those IT leaders that haven’t already owned companies, there are still many who doubtless harbour some entrepreneurial ambitions – it’s a mindset that often makes them right for the position.

Before joining BAA, he ran an IT consultancy, Langsdale Crook, which he co-owned for five years and which focused on IT governance and big, business-changing implementation projects. Before that, he spent a couple of years as chief executive of BBC Technology, a commercial spin-off of the Corporation which targeted converged media services at third-party­ companies. But, it has to be said, none of his experience was in the highly competitive and precarious world of boat-building.

Anyone who has owned a boat knows what a money pit they can be, so the risk of owning a boat company must be amplified exponentially.

Although Langsdale had some solid business experience, he relied on the firm’s existing staff to help him revive the company. He worked with head of sales Peter Thomas and works manager Roger Cox to create a business plan that would convince the ­local regional development agency to fund the company’s rebirth.

“So we put together a business plan and made some assessment of profit and loss and made some assumption of boat sales and you sort of convince yourself that it’s viable,” says Langsdale.

The company’s assets were signed over to him a few days before the 2009 London Boat Show, raising the morale of other British boat-builders at the event just as the credit crunch was having a real impact on the sector.

Langsdale’s projection of what the company needed to sell to succeed was modest. He aimed to sell eight boats in the first 12 months in order to keep the company afloat, but in that first year of operation under his guidance, the company sold over four times that amount. It was a fantastic result considering the UK GDP was shrinking by five per cent at the time.

So considering the company was in some trouble, what was it that turned it round in just a couple of years? Langsdale thinks the company lost focus and tried to add­ress too many markets. It had lost its way in branding, using the generic Select Yachts name when the customer loyalty lay in the older Cornish Crabbers brand.

“The company was trading everything as the Select Yachts brand, which didn’t mean anything to anybody. When I said we would be trading under Cornish Crabbers, there was a cheer from the staff. It’s about concentrating on what you’re good at.”

Langsdale moved the company back to focusing on the traditionally rigged boats it was known for. These boats have a select­ but loyal customer base that identifies strongly with a golden age of sailing. It’s possibly this strength in customer ­appeal that carried the company through the tough economic environment of the last two years, because it had differentiated itself from the white plastic and steel offerings of the big competitors.

On top of that, Langsdale reduced the prices of the range slightly, to make it more competitive in the market, although he does insist that Cornish Crabbers boats aren’t the cheapest in the market: much of the European boat-building industry is moving production to regions such as Eastern Europe, where labour costs are low.

Changing tack

Langsdale has since expanded the range to include modern boat designs, but he’s taken care to market the modern boats ­under a different brand – Mystery. “Arguably it is moving away from the focus, but I feel good about it because it is a cohesive product that stands on its own,” he says.

“We are not trying to trade as a single brand encompassing classic sailing yachts and modern yachts. It’s too much to cover. They are very different people that buy the two different styles.”

All of this activity has been undertaken while Langsdale has been looking after his day job at BAA. He normally chats twice a week with Peter Thomas on the phone to keep up to speed with what is going on at ­Cornish Crabbers and meets with him once a month to review the business on a more formal level.

“I bounce ideas off Peter and he bounces­ ideas off me. So out of that came the idea for the [Cornish Crabber] Twenty Six. I don’t meddle as much as I could.”

To any landsman, adding another size of boat to the range wouldn’t seem like a particularly hard decision, but it’s a good illustration of how precise Langsdale and his management team’s perception of their customers has to be. The customer profile of a 22ft boat-buyer could differ greatly from a 26ft boat-buyer in terms of family size, size of house, lifestyle, age and expectations of what they want out of a sailing holiday, so it’s a very measured decision whether to tackle what is effectively a new market with each new design.

Langsdale admits that his role as CIO of BAA takes up most of his time and that the airports operator takes absolute priority.­ There’s no conflict of interest and he won’t compromise on his time there. He ack­nowledges that he places a lot of trust in his management team at Cornish Crabbers and admires their business skills.

The management team at the moment is Thomas, who has just been promoted to managing director of the company, Fox, who overseas boat production and draws on decades of experience at the company, and relatively new recruit Cherish Maxwell, marketing manager for the last year.

So the management structure is simple and in total there are only 32 staff. Langsdale points out that it’s a good start and he’s happy to have provided employment in the area that the company is based, Rock in Cornwall.

Bringing the latest Mystery Yacht design to this year’s Boat Show to promote was the start of a two-year project to bring the boat to market: new boats are commonly launched at the design phase and the sales effort ­begins before the production line is set up. It will require extra manpower, and as a result Langsdale believes that there is a limit to how fast the company can grow, because of the skills and experience required: boat-building in the UK is somewhat of a cottage industry and the employment pool is small.

“To be honest, getting the local staff we need is difficult. You have a four-year apprenticeship to get to the level of skill that we need, so there are some finite capacities as to how fast we can grow,” he says.

Not being a boat-builder by trade, some observers might wonder what an IT man can bring to the table at Cornish Crabbers. Langsdale is certain his contribution has been full and there are obvious experiences­ from his career in business technology that he can apply to running the company.

On the technical side, Cornish Crabbers has upgraded some systems, such as imple­menting Sage accounting applications and recreating the company website, under Langsdale’s chairmanship. It has also embraced social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to reach out to its customer base.

“We are really trying to use IT to connect with our customers. Part of the joy of owning a Crabber is they’re very clubby things to have. There’s a very strong community of owners,” he says.

On an even keel

Langsdale has also been able to contribute his business acumen and share his experiences of leading his own business and heading up business units.

“I think I’ve brought some focus. Making sure we are just doing a few things well and not getting too complicated. I have the basics of financial accounting and management accounting. I know the routines of big business. I think I bring some drive. I like pushing things, I like driving change. I think I have a willingness to take risks,” he says.

In return, being chairman of Cornish Crabbers helps him deal with being CIO at BAA, and colleagues at the airports operator have responded well when they hear of his other job. He smiles when he says that he thinks other CIOs are slightly envious of his out-of-work activities when he meets them at networking events.

“I think it makes you more credible in many ways,” he says. “You can talk with more certainty about marketing and selling. You get some fantastic war stories that you can share with colleagues. With any job, you learn things and you find different ways of looking at things. I draw on that enormously in terms of the retail mindset, the focus on the customer, the speed at which you get things done.”

In terms of production systems, Langsdale admits there are many things the company could be doing, but it’s that constraint on spending that makes a refreshing change from the stellar budgets he is used to at BAA and a welcome reminder of what can be accomplished with very little.

So with all this access to box-fresh sailing boats, does Langsdale still get to practice the hobby that got him interested in Cornish Crabbers in the first place?

No fair-weather sailor is he. Late last year, he could be found in the waters off the Brittany coast, braving four-metre high waves in a force-nine gale – 50mph winds that are strong enough to take the tiles off your roof.

This August, he will be competing in the Fastnet Race, a gruelling 608 nautical miles from the Isle of Wight, round the Fastnet Rock off Southern Ireland and then back to Plymouth, in one of his company’s yachts. The race is often used by crews as a warm-up for round-the-world races.

“We will be sailing in the Mystery 35, which won the Round the Island Race [ar­ound the Isle of Wight] this year, so we are hoping to get a good result. Pride comes before a fall, but we’ll do our best.”