Master and commander

It’s always good to have a hobby, something that helps you take your mind off the day job. As head of IT for airports operator BAA, Philip Langsdale has a big, demanding job, so it’s no surprise the activity that diverts his attention out of work is also quite ambitious.

In 2009, Langsdale acquired the assets­ of a failing boat-building business now known as Cornish Crabbers. He is the company’s owner and its chairman – a job he has to juggle with his task of running IT for the owner of six British airports including Heathrow. We met at this year’s London International Boat Show, on the effective second ­anniversary of his taking over the company,­ although the Cornish Crabbers as a brand has been going for nearly 40 years.

He appears cheerful and relaxed, as well he might, as the company has new launches to show off at this year’s show. With his grey beard, he wouldn’t look out of place at the tiller of one of his boats and confesses to being a keen sailor himself for around 20 years.

This is the reason why Langsdale’s inter­est was caught by the company. Select Yachts, as it was known, went into administration in October 2008. Langsdale was notified by the administrators because he owned a Cornish Crabber, and as a committed and loyal customer, he was moved to consider saving the company.

“First of all it was an emotional res­ponse, because it’s such a great brand that you can’t let it go,” he explains.

“When I heard it was going under, I felt I had to do something. And then it became quite serious because obviously if you’re going to spend some money on setting things up, you’ve got to know what you’re doing.”

Like many CIOs, Langsdale already had a rounded business experience. Even among those IT leaders that haven’t already owned companies, there are still many who doubtless harbour some entrepreneurial ambitions – it’s a mindset that often makes them right for the position.

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Before joining BAA, he ran an IT consultancy, Langsdale Crook, which he co-owned for five years and which focused on IT governance and big, business-changing implementation projects. Before that, he spent a couple of years as chief executive of BBC Technology, a commercial spin-off of the Corporation which targeted converged media services at third-party­ companies. But, it has to be said, none of his experience was in the highly competitive and precarious world of boat-building.

Anyone who has owned a boat knows what a money pit they can be, so the risk of owning a boat company must be amplified exponentially.

Although Langsdale had some solid business experience, he relied on the firm’s existing staff to help him revive the company. He worked with head of sales Peter Thomas and works manager Roger Cox to create a business plan that would convince the ­local regional development agency to fund the company’s rebirth.

“So we put together a business plan and made some assessment of profit and loss and made some assumption of boat sales and you sort of convince yourself that it’s viable,” says Langsdale.

The company’s assets were signed over to him a few days before the 2009 London Boat Show, raising the morale of other British boat-builders at the event just as the credit crunch was having a real impact on the sector.

Langsdale’s projection of what the company needed to sell to succeed was modest. He aimed to sell eight boats in the first 12 months in order to keep the company afloat, but in that first year of operation under his guidance, the company sold over four times that amount. It was a fantastic result considering the UK GDP was shrinking by five per cent at the time.