Some things are reassuringly predictable in the British way of life: the Archers, rain stopping play at Wimbledon, the English cricket team getting beaten, and ICL declaring that it is almost time to float on the London Stock Exchange again.
But while the Archers continues undisturbed, ICL's everyday story of computer folk is heading towards an uncertain future, following its latest abortive attempt to go public.
ICL's talk about going public has become the stuff of UK computer industry folklore. The company was delisted in 1984, after it was taken over by communications group Standard Cables and Telephones. Japanese firm Fujitsu then bought the business in 1990.
But ICL has yearned to make it back on to the stock exchange for more than a decade, with the idea being dusted down and aired at least once a quarter when its financial results are released.
Although over time, many observers began to have their doubts that the dream would ever become reality, in 1997 the company suddenly got serious and named the day it would take the plunge and refloat. Or rather it named a year - sometime in 2000.
By the start of this year, however, it had still declined to reveal any formal timescales, although plans were still in place to make the big move in the latter half of 2000 - November being the most frequently suggested month.
So last week's announcement that all bets were off and that the flotation is on indefinite hold came as something of a bolt from the blue.
In a prepared statement, ICL said: "Fujitsu and the board of ICL believe that it is important for ICL to concentrate on growing and strengthening the business in the next phase of its development without the additional challenges involved in preparing for a flotation. ICL's flotation has therefore been suspended indefinitely."
This seems to be a recurring theme for ICL, which almost appears to be jinxed. The firm has already backed off from floating its KnowledgePool training business, which was due for a £400m listing on the London Stock Exchange this summer. While last month's plans to float ICL Invia, its Nordic unit, on the Helsinki bourse were also cancelled.
Trouble in store
In retrospect, perhaps the market should have seen it coming. ICL's financial performance is - to be charitable - inconsistent. In its fiscal year ending in March, it made operating losses of about £70m, on turnover of £2.7bn. Although the supplier made a pre-tax profit of £96m, this resulted mainly from the sell-off of different businesses.
But ICL is also suffering from an image problem. Despite great efforts to reposition itself as a services company, then latterly an e-services provider, it still has a lot of legacy baggage to shed associated with its public sector, mainframe-oriented past.
So what will ICL do now? The situation has caused chief executive Keith Todd to fall on his sword at the behest of his Japanese masters - with ruthless efficiency his presence was wiped from ICL's corporate website within hours of his departure - and a new management team will take up the reins in the coming weeks and months.
Richard Christou, director of commercial and legal affairs, has replaced Todd temporarily as acting chief executive and although it is early days, his main message to date is pretty much one of business as usual.
"Our strategy of concentrating on ebusiness is the right one," Christou insisted, before adding with considerable understatement: "What has happened in the short term is that we have not seen that story translated into operating profits."
In other words, ICL reckons it is doing the right thing. It's just not making any money from it.
The worst of times
The vendor cited difficult market conditions as being a major contributing factor in its decision not to go public. And it's certainly true that the IT services sector as a whole has taken a hammering this year, with companies such as EDS having issued profit warnings over the last few months. The slowdown is being attributed to that most reliable of stand-bys: the year 2000 bug and the resultant delays to purchasing decisions.
The decision to abort the flotation was taken at a meeting between ICL's board of directors and Fujitsu last Friday. A range of investment advisers had warned the management team that given the recent downturn in hi-tech stock valuations, ICL was unlikely to achieve the price it wanted. While a few months ago, the figure of £5bn was being whispered in some quarters, by last Friday a valuation of £2bn was deemed more realistic.
So what went wrong? Was Todd to blame? As chief executive, he has to shoulder the burden of ultimate responsibility, but his tenure has seen some sensible, if at times uninspiring, management decisions.
One of Todd's problems was that he never quite seemed to shake off his accountancy background. A company that is trying to cause a stir needs to be headed by someone with the fiery evangelism of a Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison, and Todd, for all his strengths, was not a naturally charismatic front man.
To make matters worse, ICL has been coming out with mixed messages for some time. For example, it was keen to highlight its alliance with Microsoft, a deal that put it among the first rank of Redmond business partners. But it was never able to clarify how this open display of affection for all things Windows sat alongside its former enthusiasm for Unix. In effect, the impression - erroneous or not - was that ICL had pulled out of the Unix market.
Then there was the embarrassment it suffered over the Pathway initiative. The UK government left ICL to carry the can for the failure of the Post Office benefits project that was redundant before it was completed thanks to changes in legislation.
The company took the rap for much of that debacle, but its silence was ensured by the prospect of several million pounds worth of further work. Mud sticks, however, and the taint of a high-profile public sector contract cockup reeked of the archetypal old-style ICL.
Caught on the hop
There is also the question of the firm's reinvention of itself as a services business. This strategy has been executed methodically and to a great extent successfully. ICL is now recognised as a leading European services provider and deservedly so.
What appears to have caught the vendor on the hop, however, is the emergence of the internet as a computing platform and the consequent demand for e-services.
This should represent rich pickings for ICL. According to analyst IDC, e-services will account for 30 per cent of all IT services spending by 2003, compared with only 10 per cent in 2000. But the companies that are riding the crest of this wave are smaller and nimbler, and the larger service providers are, on the whole, still struggling to get to grips with a new market.
Whichever way you look at it, ICL has a lot of baggage to carry around and is still in the throes of transitioning itself to a new corporate culture.
So what will the company do now? The flotation has been 'postponed', not cancelled, although the idea is unlikely to be raised seriously again for a few years. A new permanent chief executive has to be found and put in place and he or she will have the unenviable task of rebuilding confidence, both internally and externally.
ICL has put so much emphasis on going public, however, that staff morale is likely to have taken a serious knock. As a top priority, the new chief executive should perhaps examine the idea of breaking the company up. This would free its e-services business from the shackles of the supplier's public sector, box-shifting past to let it stand on its own two feet and enable it to articulate the ebusiness message more eloquently.
And ICL has a lot to shout about, particularly in the wireless application protocol (Wap) device market and mobile internet space where it is well positioned to take a lead if it can execute its strategy correctly.
The danger, however, is that Fujitsu will see the firm as its European shopfront and be reluctant to break it up into smaller, leaner operations. Part of ICL's attraction for its Japanese master lies in its size and scope as a heavyweight player. This means that the idea of spinning off different businesses is unlikely to meet with Fujitsu's approval.
Whatever the case, the next chief executive needs to reignite the company. And ICL could do worse than take a leaf out of Hewlett Packard's (HP's) book. HP is attempting to rebuild and rebrand itself, with Carly Fiorina at the helm, by evoking the past and the firm's former glories without dragging them into the future as baggage to weigh it down.
There's a lot of potential inside ICL and much good work has been done to enable the vendor to exploit potentially lucrative markets, but it also clearly has a long way to go.
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