Walking into Imperial Tobacco's Bristol headquarters is like stepping back in time. It's not just the redbrick building in what was once the city's thriving cigarette manufacturing centre that evokes a sense of nostalgia. On the walls of reception are posters of young adults enjoying a smoke in the shadows of Big Ben, Sydney Opera House, the Brandenburg Gate and the Forbidden City.
The brands depicted in these illustrations – Gauloises Blondes, Drum, John Player Special – hark back to a bygone era, a time when smoking was glamourised on TV and glossy magazines. Today, this small corner of Imperial's global empire must be one of the very few places in Western Europe where you'll find advertising of this kind.
The posters sit alongside a glass cabinet featuring various corporate governance awards – another nod to how the world has changed since Messrs Wills and Watkins opened their small tobacco shop in the city in 1786 (although WD & HD Wills did pioneer staff canteens, free medical care, sports facilities and paid holidays).
Pinning the group's finance director Robert Dyrbus down for an interview has been a challenge. As the finance chief of a FTSE 100 company with a presence in 160 countries, a portfolio of global brands and an adjusted profit of £3 billion, there's rarely enough hours in the day.
In addition to a full diary, each morning he's on the phone to his broker discussing the group's ongoing share buy-back programme and there was also the matter of a price war in Spain earlier this year for which the company issued a trading statement (although he says it might not be as bad as first seemed).
Dyrbus, Imperial's long-standing finance chief, appears affable and open for a businessman in a highly controversial industry. He spends most of his days attending to board meetings, conferences and monthly reporting for up to two years hence – a blank week on a Monday will be filled with last-minute scribbled meetings by the Friday. It's not surprising given his overarching role includes compliance and audit, investor relations, IT and more besides finance. It's a wonder he has time to catch a breath, let alone a quick cigarette with his colleagues outside the back door, where he is simply known as Bob.
"One of the side-effects of the smoking in public places ban in this country is that I, along with any of the other smokers, sit outside the back door and chat to a complete slice of the organisation. I don't think I'm Mr Dyrbus to anyone," he says, hinting at his open-door management style.
Dyrbus, aged 58 and a keen sportsman despite his habit, explains that it's only in the last couple of years that he's been able to take his full complement of annual holiday. This let-up in his workload has coincided with the arrival of new chief executive Alison Cooper, who is taking the company in a new strategic direction.
"In terms of where we are today if you look over the past 14 years, earnings per share grew about 16 percent compound. If you strip that down into the two elements, deals and the extracting synergies accounted for around half of that growth and about half was the ongoing business. Back in 1996 we were the 14th largest international tobacco company in the world and now we are the fourth," he explains.
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