Richard Baker is on a walkabout in his Oxford Street store and has been ambushed by one of his staff imploring the chief executive of Alliance Boots to take part in the Great British Lung Test.
This involves blowing, hard, into a tube to assess the “age” of your lungs. Boots is running the test to help with some British Lung Foundation research – and to make some money by encouraging smokers to sign-up for its quitting scheme.
Mr Baker is not keen, even though he has never been a smoker. “It will be all over the newspaper and this is not about Richard, this is about the company.” He looks a bit put out. But his staff press him. “Are you going to write about this?,” he demands, with a sigh of resignation, “If I come out with lungs of a 65-year-old, don’t print it, OK?”
He takes a huge gulping breath and blows extremely forcefully into the tube, ending his effort with a splutter.
Mr Baker – who is 44 – has the lungs of a 36-year-old. It cheers him up but he is still a little put out that he didn’t have the best puff of the two of us. “Not bad; if I had beaten you, I would have been even happier.”
He readily admits he is ridiculously competitive: “Funny that, why wouldn’t I be? I spend my life playing sport – hockey on Saturday and tennis every Sunday morning”.
In spite of this strong desire to win, he says he does not like being the centre of attention.
“I never wanted to be a celebrity chief executive,” he says, back in the safety of his small office above the store. “The celebritisation of business people, I think it is a dangerous thing, this whole hero or zero thing. My strong conviction is that successful businesses are run by strong teams of people where no one person has an excessive influence over the business. If you over-personalise the leader in my mind you are a hostage to fortune.”
But as chief executive of the first FTSE 100 company to fall into private equity hands, as well as being a household name, Mr Baker is being constantly talked about.
The City and the retail industry want to know whether Mr Baker will throw his lot in with KKR and Stefano Pessina, the deputy chairman and the mastermind behind the deal. The private equity group has said it wants to keep the current management team. Mr Baker claims he has yet to talk to them about his role.
Asked how he feels about the concept of working for private equity owners, Mr Baker says he has “an open mind”, adding that his former Asda colleague boss, Tony DeNunzio, who now runs a business for KKR, gives “fantastic reports” about his new bosses.
“I don’t think [private equity] is the scary ogre that is has been portrayed as. If I honestly thought that I couldn’t have recommended the deal, but I think the company can grow and this platform has been built.”
The question is whether, having run the shop by himself for more than three years, Mr Baker will really want to stay when KKR and Mr Pessina are calling the shots. Mr Baker has already been a chief operating officer at Asda after it was bought by Wal-Mart, and some retail industry watchers have pointed out that the chief executive of Alliance Boots might not want to go back to that role at this stage of his career.
“The observation is reasonable,” says Mr Baker. “I have to wait and see, I haven’t spoken to them or seen the details. Until I know what is going to be proposed, I am not going to jump to conclusions. I have a bunch of questions.”
In the meantime he is also under pressure amid an escalating battle over the future of the pension fund, which has put KKR at loggerheads with John Watson, the chairman of the Alliance Unichem pension scheme.
This is uncomfortable territory for Mr Baker. On one hand, he is “proud that 77 per cent of all pharmacy graduates applied to work at Boots. I said I would put the chemist back into Boots, so that is a highlight for me.”
On the other hand, these are the same pharmacists who sent their company representative to the extraordinary meeting last month to tell Mr Baker that they were worried about the impact the KKR deal would have on their retirement income.
Mr Baker’s expression darkens when he is pressed on the ongoing wrangle between KKR and the pension trustees. “I would like to see this resolved as quickly as possible for the employees,” he says – twice. He then points out that under his watch the Boots pension fund is one of the few FTSE 100 funds to be in surplus.
One thing that he feels strongly about is that he has done a good job for shareholders, particularly since last August’s £7bn merger of Alliance Unichem and Boots.
“Everyone said it would be a disaster, but we have just produced earnings [growth] of 11.5 per cent and the FTSE is only about 5 per cent and that is in a year of mergers. Everyone says mergers don’t create value. Well, 18 months ago, the share price was 600p.” says Mr Baker. KKR is paying £11.39 a share for Alliance Boots.
It is a pleasing result for Mr Baker, who underwent bruising treatment from the City in the first couple of years at the helm of Boots after a string of bad news stories. His finance director Howard Dodd abruptly resigned and the company made three profit downgrades in quick succession.
“I took an unneccessary slating for a 4 per cent miss on the profits – £20m on £500m -– that in the scheme of things was buttons,” says Mr Baker. “I was 40 years old [when getting the job], you are going to make some cock-ups and make mistakes and you do it in the blaze of publicity.”
Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, Mr Baker is clear on one thing: his final set of strong annual figures, released in May, were a “vindication of all the hard work”.
He is also set for a financial reward for his efforts, netting £6.5m from his share options when the deal is signed off.
“The whole last three years has been [about] putting healthcare into the heart of the business,” he says, as he surveys the store. “This is not a self-service supermarket, this is a specialist retailer.”