In the management changes at Sinclair Research last year, Bill Matthews became financial director. He talks to Claudia Cooke
BILL MATTHEWS sits in his office and smiles at the recollection of his old school chum, Sir Clive Sinclair, tinkering with radios while the other boys listened to them.
"He was innovative even at that age, you know. He was always tinkering with something and he made his first matchbox-sized radio while we were still at school.
"We lived very near each other in Guildford and I remember going to his house for enthusiastic demonstrations of his latest plans. I think he was very much an individual character and did not fit into the standard schoolboy image at all".
A great deal has happened to both men since those early days at St George's School, Weybridge, Surrey. Now, once again, they are together, Bill Matthews having joined Sinclair Research as finance director last September.
"I was working in Toronto last year and Clive had to go there for a Mensa conference. We had lunch and he asked me if I was interested in this job. I thought what the hell, why not? Here I am, thoroughly enjoying it".
The two men, in fact, worked together previously, but in the very early days of Sinclair Radionics. "I think I kept his cash book or something when he was busy packing-up and selling little bits by mail order. It seems a long time ago".
Matthews, now 43 and married with four children, went straight from school to read economics and business administration at Sheffield University. He followed that with training at a firm of accountants in London, qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1963.
The first five years of his career were spent in public accounting in Turkey and Italy. "It was great to be able to travel and, having been released from all that studying, I did a reasonable amount of work but certainly nothing you could call strenuous".
Then followed marriage and the offer of a job with ICI as a group accountant. He spent four years there and still considers it one of the best-run companies for which he has worked.
He moved on to become financial controller for Sony U.K. for two years and was involved in setting-up the company's successful television factory in Wales. Emigration to Canada was the next step, working for management consultants Price Waterhouse. His most recent job, in Houston, Texas, was as executive vice-president of a company with clients from the oil and gas industries.
|'He asked me if I was interested in this job. I thought what the hell, why not?'|
A varied career but one which has always involved him in the use of computers, particularly for management information. The finance department at Sinclair Research is now in the process of computerising its system with an ICL 25. Matthews expects it to be of considerable help in financial reporting and control.
One of his first tasks at Sinclair was to place 10 percent of the company shares with institutional investors, an offer which was well-subscribed. He says:
"We see ourselves getting a Stock Exchange quotation in two years. It is still our intention to keep the company small in terms of the number of people employed; that concept has not disappeared.
"Sales have grown substantially and we have reached a size where we could issue shares and get a public quotation. It will be our coming of age, if you like".
Matthews sees one of his tasks as ensuring that Sinclair has sufficient resources to continue to grow rapidly and ensuring that those resources are generated from within the company - from its profits. No easy task, he admits.
"Coming from a financial background, you find all companies have a great deal in common. The exceptional thing here is the sheer speed with which we are growing and the dynamism of our research activities.
"It can be a problem to find the resources to cover all that development. It creates its own problems and puts exceptional pressure on everyone who works here but it also creates a much more optimistic attitude among the staff. We tend to pay better than the normal market rates to get good people and it is a marvellous team".
Matthews says the company philosophy will always be to design products which are inexpensive and produced in large volume, thus making them widely available.
"I think the Sinclair computers are marvellous little machines. We are just seeing the beginning of a revolution in the use of computers. The first stage was to make them so inexpensive that anyone could use them and Clive has certainly done that.
"We have to be careful because the life expectancy of our product is fairly short. You can be fairly sure other firms will catch-up rapidly. We have to make the best use of that technical lead and exploit it fully, to the best possible advantage. We cannot afford to sit still. In three years I do not suppose the ZX-81 will be marketed. We are not making pyjamas for Marks and Spencer after all; that kind of thing you can probably go on selling for about 200 years."We must have a stream of new and innovative products all the time and we must remain inventive".
Listening to those exacting standards is tiring but they are the standards which have taken Sinclair to the top so quickly and Matthews has absorbed them with equal speed. Approximately half the staff of Sinclair Research is involved in research and development and Matthews intends to concentrate substantial resources for its continuation, buying new premises and rationalising existing ones.
With Sinclair products tending to be market firsts, Matthews admits there is often a tendency to under-estimate the product. "When sales are restricted they are restricted by the ability to produce rather than lack of demand for the product but one has to be cautious to a certain extent," he says.
"You are making a commitment to the subcontractor, so you have to be careful not to over-estimate the demand. Then the subcontractor has to buy components and perhaps hire people. So you have to be as realistic as you possibly can.
"Producing new concepts means a greater risk element and greater flexibility in financial control. You have to keep re-assessing the situation in financial terms and try to predict what will happen".
Because the Sinclair market is largely domestic it is by nature more volatile than selling to big industry. This is another factor Matthews has to take into consideration. With all that on his mind, Matthews, who displays a Casio calculator on his desk, has not yet had much free time to experiment with the Sinclair products.
|'We have to be careful because the life expectancy of our product is fairly short'|
His eldest 15-year-old son has compensated for that. He has two Spectrums at home and, his father says, spends most of his time sitting solidly in front of them, lost to the world.
He has two sisters, aged 12 and 13, and a five-year-old brother, but none is yet showing the same enthusiasm.
Matthews likes to keep fit in his spare time and when I visited him was keenly awaiting the Sinclair half-marathon due in Cambridge on July 17. No newcomer to running, he participated in last year's Boston marathon. Nevertheless he was taking the Cambridge event seriously. So, no doubt, was one of his fellow runners, Sir Clive Sinclair. Their speed, it seems, is not confined to work, nor their competitive spirit.
Matthews is reluctant to predict how long he will stay with Sinclair but says: "The chances are it will be a long time. I am really enjoying it so far and with the effects of recession hitting so many companies, it is fine to work for one as successful as this.
"We have built a very big turnover and we have the financial resources to expand into the future. That all gives the company a great deal of strength".
As part of the Sinclair management team, Matthews attends the monthly meetings of the board, together with Sir Clive, Nigel Searle the production director, and two research directors.
At the moment the board doubles as a management committee which has enabled Matthews to look at every aspect of the company within a short space of time. He likes what he has seen and is full of praise for everyone, from the genius of Sir Clive through the dedication of the rest of the staff down to the excellent quality of the company canteen.
In short, he appears to have been converted and he speaks as if he has been with the company for years. St George's, Weybridge should be proud.