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Business Management

O Lucky Man: Brian McBride on a career at Dell, Amazon, BBC and Celtic

Of all those that have ridden the waves of technological change in the UK, few have had the ride that Brian McBride has enjoyed. The Scot was a country manager for Dell when the clone PC business boomed, T-Mobile when smartphones took off and Amazon as e-commerce skyrocketed. Sideline roles have included influential positions at the BBC and Celtic Football Club.

“I’ve been lucky,” he says when we meet for coffee in the Mayfair, London offices of Scottish Equity Partners, one of the firms he advises. “I either picked fledglings that could grow or things I had to fix.”

McBride was born the son of a teacher and one of a family of eight children in Glasgow, the tough shipyard city in the west of Scotland. He says that his father always stressed the importance of education and McBride attended university in his native city. His first job started the pattern that saw him frequently hit the zeitgeist, like a smarter, real-life Forrest Gump or Zelig. That was selling photocopiers for Xerox in 1977 when offices were beginning to automate. “They took a rough and ready kid and turned you into a semi-plausible salesman,” he recalls.

Big Blue

Next he spent 11 years at IBM selling mainframes and then RS/6000 Unix servers and recalls the Unix systems being treated “like the antichrist” in a bitter internal war when mainframe advocates tried to cling to power.

Towards the end there was a stint in upstate New York.

“It was still two nations divided by a common language,” he remembers. “Even in 1991 you still felt a bit of an outsider, there was no internet. You don’t know how your football is doing so a guy I knew would email me Celtic match reports on the IBM PROFS system.”

McBride was there for the contrasting reigns of John Akers as IBM was spiralling downwards and Lou Gerstner who transformed the company.

“Gerstner did a phenomenal job shaking it up and simplifying the problems: too much cost, not enough focus, didn’t really listen to their customers… I liked them both. Gerstner was a straightforward no-bullshit guy. Akers was like an aging movie star with armies of assistants.”

McBride couldn’t settle back into IBM UK and left in 1983 when in his late 30s at a time when it was still quite rare for an executive to leave the company before retirement.

His next move was a misstep, joining a DuPont-Fuji joint-venture, Crosfield Electronics, in the pre-press sector just as the triumvirate of Apple-Quark-Adobe was changing the industry. But it was his first stint as a managing director and he says he learned valuable lessons in managing through crisis, reducing staffing from 1500 to 800 and managing a precarious cash position that made it touch-and-go whether payroll would go through.

“That was the toughest job I did and it was like my MBA,” he says.

Dell days

Next he went to Madge Networks, Robert Madge’s Token Ring competitor to IBM where he sold his first business unit and then on to managing Dell UK in the early 1990s. He confirms the impression of a tough culture where Michael Dell and fellow executives Kevin Rollins and Mort Topfer ran the business hands-on and impromptu visits demanding detailed business updates were common.

“They were very smart but unforgiving; there was no respect for school holidays or any of these fixed points in the calendar. I flew back from Florida for meetings, flew back from Spain… Michael was a real visionary at the time. Like many people he probably stayed wedded to the time for too long. The PC industry is a deflationary industry, margins are squeezed and it’s all about low-cost manufacturing. But they seem to have got their stuff together again now.”

T-Mobile calls

Five years after joining Dell he was at T-Mobile where his initial impression was that “the lunatics were still running the asylum”. He struggled with the management and governance structure while loving the German sense of humour. He managed to convince others that 18-month contracts would help profitability because 12-month deals left almost no scope to make money, but he underestimated what the iPhone would do to the market.

“I thought it was quite nice but I didn’t think it would be a transformer,” he says.

He also thought that the fat fees raised by then UK chancellor Gordon Brown “ruined” the cellular market for a spell because carriers had nothing left to invest.

Amazon religion

In 2005 he endured about a dozen interviews in one day at Amazon, the last of them with CEO Jeff Bezos throwing curve balls. 

“I’d never thought about being in retail and went there with a healthy dose of scepticism. By the time of the last interview I was punch drunk and he was a bit trickier. He asked me how many windows there are in London. It’s not about the right answer but the thought process. I took a SWAG at it.”

The answer (or thought process) must have been convincing as McBride got the gig and was frequently in Bezos’s company to hear the CEO’s famous “maniacal” laugh shaking the room.

“Amazon was almost a religion,” McBride says. “It was a very intense place and a very data-driven business. You had to have a thesis you were going to test. I honestly felt most of the people were smarter than me and I loved that. The thing about Jeff, like a lot of these corporate people, is the public persona, the press persona, are not always reflective of the real person. He is incredibly driven and visionary.”

Bezos showed McBride the first mock-up of the Kindle.

“It was slightly thick and ugly. I couldn’t understand why Amazon would want to get into building product. I said to Jeff I like the idea of selling razors and razor blades but you don’t have to make it yourself. He was right and I was wrong. Having dinner with Jeff was an amazing experience and he was a fun guy but he was relentless and ambitious. If you were up 25% you got a bollocking, not a pat on the back.

“Because it was such hard work you had to enjoy it. There was no fluff or fun around it. No corporate entertaining. Amazon was just frugal: I flew Economy to Seattle every time and they didn’t accept any hospitality. Tony Blair or Gordon Brown would want to meet you if you were a rock star like Michael Dell but Jeff wasn’t into fronting that side of it and didn’t like doing media stuff.”

While at Amazon a routine medical found prostate cancer and McBride left the company later, grateful to have been diagnosed early. Bezos, he says, was “nice and gracious throughout”.

The Beeb and Celtic FC

Outside of technology, McBride’s career has also been rich and colourful. He joined the BBC Executive Board in a non-executive role just as director general Mark Thompson was decamping for the New York Times and George Entwistle was to follow soon after as the broadcaster became embroiled in scandals.

“It still has too many managers and layers of bureaucracy,” he says. “The governance model is nuts. They have a very thick tier of middle managers, many of them that would get paid the same in private industry and there’s too many of them. The content makers are great but there are too many accountants and press people and headquarters people.”

Then there was Celtic, the historic Scottish football team, where he sat on the board of directors.

“It consumes your holidays and your private time but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” he says. He adds that football is “broken” financially but says that’s the case in England, where money has flooded into the game, as well as north of the border.

“In Scotland there’s just not enough money coming in. In England no club has been able to retain the money: it washes through and into the pockets of players and agents.”

He says Celtic bosses would have welcomed a long-mooted switch to play in the English leagues.

“We’d all have loved to have been invited in but the Premier League didn’t need Celtic and [ancient rivals and neighbours] Rangers to make it more attractive. And wherever [the Scottish clubs would have come in to English football] two groups of people would get threatened: those below and those at the top.”

These days McBride has fingers in numerous pies. He’s a non-exec at AO World which runs the white-goods website AO.com, chairman at apparel e-commerce firm ASOS.com and has just taken on the same role at cycling gear outfit Wiggle.

“I’ve lived through Moore’s Law and it’s defined what all the industries I’ve worked in have become,” he says. “The technology is almost all here. We’ve ended up with form factors the size they’re going to be so it’s not price/performance but how people are using this stuff that will be important.”

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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