Interview: John Pluthero

Longer stuff
April 30, 2012

Discussing abstract art with controversial executive John Pluthero is a slightly surreal experience, akin to ballroom dancing with Tony Hayward, or playing Twister with Steve Jobs. Pluthero is showing me around an exhibition he helped to curate at the Kings Place Gallery in Islington. Bright swirls of colour adorn every wall, each one accompanied by his impassioned commentary.

He may be a long-standing art collector, but anyone in the business world will know him from his previous incarnation as head of Cable & Wireless Worldwide (CWW), the company sold to Vodafone last week for £1bn. To say he left under a cloud is something of an understatement.

He cuts an imposing figure: tall and broad, with the heavy brow of a PE teacher, albeit one dressed in a fedora and a baby-blue seersucker jacket. I expect him to be prickly, evasive, flanked by PRs and limited to as many pre-approved sound-bites as you can squeeze into 15 minutes.

If this was the plan, he didn’t stick to it. Two hours later, we’re drinking coffee – sans PR – and talking about life after CWW. He’s softly spoken, measured but candid, often accompanying his answers with a tinkling schoolboy laugh. I was rather charmed; you can see how he convinced shareholders to approve his now infamous bonus.

The payout he received in the wake of CWW’s de-merger from Cable & Wireless Group (of which he was chief executive) netted him more than £10m, even as the company floundered. It made him one of the most controversial chief execs in the country.

With Pluthero as chairman, CWW haemorrhaged value, issuing three profit warnings in just over a year. A £443m first half loss in November 2011 was enough to force out chief executive Jim Marsh, heralding the brief return of Pluthero to the helm. Six months later, he resigned.

CWW has since said Pluthero’s management team spent too little integrating acquisitions such as Thus and Energis. He stands accused by critics of being more interested in meeting the targets of his (clearly flawed) incentive scheme than investing in the long-term future of the company. It is telling that the £1bn Vodafone will pay for CWW amounts to the same as the combined cost of Thus and Energis – hardly value-adding purchases and a remarkable reminder of the value destruction at a once proud firm.

Someone who worked closely with Pluthero through the Cable & Wireless years told me he is immensely proud and apt to hold a grudge. This might explain why he hasn’t spoken to the media since his departure. You can see why – by the latter stages of his tenure, open season had well and truly been declared.

“No-one comes out alive,” Pluthero says of running a public company. “You take Lord Browne. He ran BP brilliantly and was a truly world-class business leader. Right at the end he gets hounded out through the fact that he’s gay and might have talked about the business to his partner. You show me a business leader who doesn’t talk to his wife. But that’s the world we live in. I do wish it were a bit different.”

The sheer weight of negative coverage must have hurt though, right? “It is tiresome. [But] I don’t think I’ve been treated any worse than anyone who finds themselves in the public eye. If you poke your head above the parapet, you have to accept there will be people who want to have a shot at it.

“I’m not a great one for regrets. You make decisions as best you can at the time – hindsight is a very cruel mistress. You’re looking back thinking ‘well I could have done that slightly differently.’”

Since his departure, Pluthero has thrown himself into his new project, AbstractCritical (or “AbCrit” as he calls it), aimed at promoting the abstract art community, which Pluthero admits “hasn’t been the most popular genre”. It recently held its first Newcomers Award, which hopes to find the best young abstract artists in the country. By all accounts, it’s been very successful. Pluthero is particularly taken with a young artist called Jack Sutherland, of whom he has high hopes (“at first I wasn’t really taken with him but the more I look the more I’m convinced he’s a true contemporary artist”).

AbCrit launched when Pluthero was still at CWW but his subsequent departure has given him considerably more time to devote to it. So how did it start?

“Robin [Greenwood, a London-based abstract painter and sculptor] and I started bemoaning the state of abstract art. I’m not a very good spectator, though, so I said either we shut up about all this or we do something about it. So we did.”

Even when he’s discussing art, you can hear the executive coming through, with his talk of “distribution networks” and his desire to promote the “long tail and the J-curve – the smaller artists who are at the base of the pyramid that more famous artists sit at the top of”.

He says his status is a mixed blessing for AbCrit. It means the project attracts more publicity than it may otherwise have – “but it also leaves people asking ‘what’s his angle, what’s he after, this Pluthero guy?’” One newspaper rather snarkily worked out that if Pluthero were to invest his bonus in the Newcomer Award, he would be able to keep the £5,000 prize running for over 2,000 years.

Pluthero is a multi-millionaire who could comfortably while away his days attending opening nights and expanding his art collection (which is already outgrowing the space he has to store it in). But what does a 48-year-old former chief executive with a tarnished reputation do next?

“My concern, and it is a significant one, is that I have two young children and I absolutely believe they should not grow up seeing their old man getting up at 9am and padding around in his dressing gown.

“I never expected to have the choice [over whether to work or not]. I’ve never had time off before. I’m enjoying it. I’m finding it a lot easier than I thought I would, or than others thought I would. There are such a lot of things you put off because you don’t have time: I have a whole bookshelf I have put off reading, places I have put off visiting. I’ve lost a stone since I quit because I actually have time to go to the gym. “

“[Being a chief executive] is not a wonderful lifestyle: stress, lack of exercise, lots of international travel messing your body clock up. But then you get very well paid and people hang on your every word: you get the whole gig.”

Surely he must miss the cut and thrust of the corporate world, especially in light of the sale to Vodafone?

“I don’t miss it at the moment. I suspect I will but I’m actually very open-minded about it. Mentally I had made the break before I left – it was essentially Gavin’s [Darby, current CWW boss] business since before Christmas.

“But you look for parallels elsewhere – you get racing drivers who retire then reappear a few years later [because] they couldn’t get the satisfaction elsewhere, or they received an offer that was too good and for whatever reason, they’re back. Of course, you get others who say ‘no, that was fine. I lived that kind of life’. Only time will tell which camp I’m in. At the moment I get up on Monday and look at my diary for the week and there is very little in it, and that makes me smile very broadly indeed.”

It’s hard not to read a trace of wistfulness into this. For better or worse, I doubt we’ve seen the last of John Pluthero.

First published in City A.M.