Former Cambridge Consultants’ chief executive Paul Auton dies at 80: A tribute to a Cambridge great
Following the death of former Cambridge Consultants’ chief executive Paul Auton at 80, Claire Ruskin, who worked with him for two decades, writes for the Cambridge Independent on his impact and legacy.
Paul Auton, one of the key people leading the growth of Cambridge technology businesses to the success we see now, has died aged 80.
Paul, who lived in Girton, was chief executive of Cambridge Consultants, one of the iconic Cambridge businesses that found a way to serve the needs of industry and build a whole series of successful products and spin-out businesses.
He leaves his wife Colette, daughter Martine and son Stéphane. He will be missed by a whole generation of Cambridge business people who learnt from his leadership and challenge, and who created companies that now employ thousands of people.
Paul joined Cambridge Consultants in 1969, nine years after the formation of the company, and soon after it had moved to its own building in a new village – Bar Hill.
He was a physicist by training, but also a natural leader, with business sense that allowed him to recognise that the company was in trouble financially – in fact a shambles.
Paul was invited onto the board under the chairmanship of Clive Sinclair and in 1972 the near-bankrupt business was bought by an American company, Arthur D Little. Robert Maxwell had put in a bid and the Boston-based management consultancy was viewed with less suspicion.
Cambridge Consultants was ‘professionalised’ and expanded through the 1970s, with a successful spin-out – Domino Printing Sciences – which started the inkjet printing we still use widely today. Like many Cambridge start-ups, Domino started when the original funding dried up.
Paul moved from deputy to CEO in 1983 and set about leading the transition to commercial products. He encouraged working practices that have been woven into the DNA of the key Cambridge technology consultancies – all of which are destinations for other businesses from around the world seeking innovation. They specialise in ideas, inventions and the hard graft of science and engineering development through to market.
I was at Cambridge Consultants from 1978 to 2000.
Paul shared his wisdom, his clarity of thinking and his great sense of humour – we knew what he thought, we were allowed to challenge and we were allowed to build our own castles. I made a case for setting up an electronic product design group and found I was encouraged.
Friends and colleagues had other ideas and specialised in digital printing, chip design, healthcare or radio systems and we solved difficult problems for other businesses five days a week and created new ideas for the other two days.
Developing bleeding-edge radio systems on chips meant Bluetooth was crucial for Cambridge Consultants.
Five years after spinning out, Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) became a billion-dollar global leader.
CSR was bought by Samsung and Qualcomm, others have been bought by global companies and some have retained their original names.
Cambridge Consultants’ spin-outs Domino, Xaar, Inca and many others are part of the vital Cambridge Phenomenon success that still give the region jobs and diverse employment, through recessions and not over-dependent on any one industry sector.
Collaboration and multi-disciplinary development remain a key part of Cambridge’s success and Paul set out much of the clear thinking and commercial insight.
Varied work was carried out on drug discovery, drug delivery, optical, biological, chemical sensors, telemedicine, telecoms, radar, satellites, software, artificial intelligence, washing machines, cars and batteries – the challenges are a big part of the fun.
Paul, who was a loyal member of the Rotary Club of Cambridge for many years, was part of the wider group that supported the formation of Cambridge Network and he was on the board in the early days.
Hermann Hauser and David Cleevely both comment that he was not only one of the Cambridge greats, but also a wonderful person.
Having contracted polio in his early years Paul’s health was not good, but his poor eyesight didn’t stop him from seeing everything that was going on.
He was the best umpire at the cricket matches between local businesses in the 80s and a weak report would never get past him.
Paul moved to chairman in 1998 having appointed Howard Biddle to take over as his successor chief executive, before retiring in 2001.
In 2014, Paul officially opened Cambridge Consultants’ new building, aptly named Auton in his honour; a fitting tribute to the impact Paul has had, from CC’s business practices to its core values. The company still blends the fun touches with very challenging work – the Auton range of beer was created specially for the event.
Howard Biddle, who took over from Paul as CEO, recalls: “Paul’s guiding management philosophy was to build an environment to enable people to thrive. He encouraged me to do things I never realised I was capable of and for this I will be forever grateful.”
Alan Richardson, who was CEO of Cambridge Consultants until 2017, said: “Paul led growth of the fee-for-service product development from 100 to 300 people and some of Cambridge’s most important start-ups including CSR and Xaar. He combined a great sense of humour with a knack for inspiring people to make their maximum contribution.”
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Saving a phenomenon
Matthew Bullock and Walter Herriott remember Paul saving a future Cambridge Phenomenon when Hermann Hauser needed to borrow £1million to save Acorn, the predecessor to Arm.
Matthew, who was in banking at the time, said: “Hermann and Chris Curry had formed Acorn in 1978, won the BBC Micro contract and started to build the units, with money coming in on mail order from expectant punters. Their bank manager called a halt to the lending and the whole business would have folded.
“At that point, I got a phone call from Hermann. After the usual pleasantries about how surprising and nice it was to hear from him, I asked what he wanted, and he asked whether I would be willing to lend him and Acorn £1 million!
“I asked quite a lot of questions at that point and learned that Acorn had hit a technical glitch in their build of the units, which was preventing them from shipping and from accessing the more than £1 million that was sitting in an escrow account at the other bank.
“I was not able to lend the money from London, but I phoned Walter Herriott, and we decided that we needed to get a thorough evaluation of what the technical problem was before we could take a decision to put the lending ‘up the line’.
“We agreed that we would ask Cambrige Consultants to carry out this technical review at the bank's expense, as trustworthy friends, which they did.
“In the event, the review report explained that there was a small heat sink problem with one of the components placed where it was on the board, and that if they moved that, then the computer would function normally.
“Armed with that report, London agreed to Cambridge's request, but because they thought it was very high risk, they raised a provision for the full amount of the loan as they agreed it!
“The Acorn accounts were therefore transferred and the old bank paid off. As it turned out, the review report was wholly accurate and within three weeks all the units had been reconfigured and shipped, the BBC Micro was a huge success, the loan was repaid forthwith from the money held on the escrow accounts, the head office provision cancelled, and our bank’s reputation as a high tech lender made!”
It was an early example of how the ‘Cambridge network’ worked - with elements of both trust and risk.
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