Crispin Odey “looks forward when others can only see the past”

I was sitting in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse Lounge in Heathrow the other day and picked up a copy of a paper called Financial News. It is a paper I have rarely seen, and never read. Yet inside the edition that Virgin had left out I found a fascinating two page feature on Crispin Odey written by Harriet Agnew and Liz Chong.( ) It appeared to be part of what the paper calls the FN100 Most Influential. He has been spectacularly successful in the City of London since he founded Odey Asset Management in 1991.

I hope that some readers of this blog will recognise the Odey name. Until the recent refurbishment  a picture of George Odey , Crispin’s grandfather, was on the wall in the main lecture theatre.  And alumnus Alec Finch tells us “When I was staying at the Lairgate Hotel, Beverley a couple of years ago I noticed the very fine oil painting of George and I believe it was painted by Fred Elwell a Royal Academician and highly sought after local artist”. Better known, though, to many will be Dick Odey, Crispin Odey’s father, who was Managing Director of Barrow Hepburn in the 1960s and 1970s. Within the leather industries both Odeys were controversial. George for the way he came to the helm of the company in the early 20th century and Dick for the way that he ran it.

Barrow Hepburn was a big animal

Barrow Hepburn was a big animal, and Dick adopted a strategy for growth that we now recognise as being misguided. He went for critical mass and bought up one ailing UK side leather tannery after another. He believed that the UK industry would shrink to the size of the UK kill and that if he had a majority market share he would be in a better position to bargain with the domestic shoemakers. What he missed, perhaps understandably back in the late 1960s, was the arrival of globalisation in the leather industry. Since the industry has always been global perhaps we should call this a rebirth rather than a new thing altogether, but however you view it the outcome was that the UK shoemakers preferred to go to Brazil to get cheaper leather than to stay in the UK and pay more. And what is more when the buyers travelled they found that British leather had slipped into a rut and in aesthetic quality and fashion sense was far behind what the rest of the world was making.  In the UK tanners were steeped in a tradition of corrected grain leathers and making the break to the natural full grain leathers coming out of Italy proved impossible for most UK side leather tanners at the time and accelerated their closure. In the latter days Dick Odey saw this and he threw money at new installations and brought in overseas technical experts such as Wolfgang Bolter to try and force a change. Those of who were there know how  hard we tried but frankly it seemed an impossible battle.

Curiously it was not this that ended the episode for Dick but a catastrophe in Scotland for which Dick was not responsible.  He had noticed that a hide trading business BH had there seemed to be overtrading so that the financial results did not match what he understood was happening.  He asked the accountants to check and then the auditors. Both came back saying all was OK. I remember well what followed as he and I were then to tour BH’s facilities in New Zealand. I flew from Paris, where I was living at the time and he from a vacation in the USA. A telephone call and a telex found him transiting in Hawaii and he was called back. The loss in Scotland had indeed been real and amounted to £1.6m – a huge amount at the time. Two years later the auditors admitted liability and in the first case of its kind repaid the £1.6m  and actually the company overall never went into loss, but Dick lost his job over it. Sadly he was a big company man, and all his subsequent ventures were doomed to failure, leaving his son Crispin to make his own way in the world.

Yet reading the article about Crispin Odey you can recognise the many great things about his father. Crispin has had the advantage of entering the right industry at the right while his father entered the leather industry right at the start of its UK decline.  In describing Crispin the article says “Odey is seen by some as almost a throwback to another era, when traditional stock-picking and client relationships were paramount.”  Without question Crispin is a better strategist than his father and he sees the future better, but for those of us who worked with Dick we liked his vision -the global moves like the purchase of Rizzi and of chemicals in the US. He was trying to put together a leading strategy  at a time of global change and some, of whom I am one, would have liked him to have been allowed to stay in place to see where the process would have taken him.

Crispin Odey, we are told, is a “hard headed businessman. He’s got a lot of imagination, courage and patience. One of the reasons he has been so successful is because he has been willing to take a different opinion to other people and back it up”.  Crispin Odey is a man of the times.  Both his father and grandfather were men of their times and in watching the latest generation do well we see a different person, yet much that was good of the old.  For those of us who actually worked with Dick Odey we found much that was admirable in him. He tried to build a big plan for the future and in doing so worked hard with to help all his staff develop and utilise their skills. The article says that Crispin likes to have a good working environment and remunerate his staff properly. Just like Dick.  Barrow Hepburn was a pressured environment but it was an exciting place to work.