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Cultivating new breed of British entrepreneurs

Roger Clark stands by his desk in a new factory here in central England, a plastic cup in one hand, a plastic model airplane in the other.

Around us lie green fields, villages of warm reddish stone, and manicured thatched roofs, and a history studded with ''spires and squires,'' as the locals say.

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The bearded Mr. Clark is anything but the portrait of the traditional British managing director. He has no pin-striped suit, no Oxbridge accent, no executive suite, no retinue of aides.

Instead, he wears blue corduroy trousers and an open-necked shirt, is constantly out on the shop floor, and runs, virtually single-handedly, an entire (STR)1 million-a-year ($1.6 million) plastics business and a staff of 70. He is his own marketing strategist, personnel director, sales chief, production manager, and treasurer.

To lead by example and to keep his factory afloat, he has, among other moves, sliced his own salary in half - from (STR)12,000 ($19,200) a year to (STR)6,000.

As we talked one recent sunny morning, he emerged as one of the steadily growing band of new-style British entrepreneurs, battling the era of recession with a flow of flexible new ideas to lessen overhead expenses and generate new business.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher constantly exhorts British business to take advantage of the recession to become leaner and fitter, to shed excess staff and outdated practices and to become more competitive.

Men like Mr. Clark see no alternative but to take her at her word.

The process is extremely difficult in a society not given to rapid change, where the current world recession was felt first and where it has hit hardest.

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Unemployment is not only above 3 million (13.2 percent, even though 250,000 people have been removed because of a new method of counting) but also has climbed every month for the last three years.

Government officials concede it will keep climbing for many months to come.

Fifty years ago, the iron in Corby stone made this the biggest steel center in Europe. A Scottish company, Stewarts & Lloyds, brought in Glasgow labor to transform a sleepy village of 1,596 people into a gigantic continuous industry, extracting iron ore from ironstone, then converting iron to steel, steel to strip, and strip to tube.

By 1978, there were 40,000 people in Corby, and 12,000 of them worked in steel. Then came a sudden, dramatic collapse that made Corby a grim byword for recession. By the end of 1980, 8,500 jobs had been lost.

Today, only 3,000 people still work at the British Steel Tube Works, the one remaining piece of the once-huge plant. Six hundred more are to go soon - part of a drastic steel squeeze in Britain that has seen British Steel announce the end of 7,000 jobs up and down the country since this summer. News of 6,000 jobs to be eliminated came in just one week - Nov. 29 to Dec. 2.

British Steel itself, a nationalized industry, has recently been losing (STR) 1 million ($1.6 million) a day.

Corby, however, has fought back. Given the British tradition of staying put, the impossible expense of finding a house in London, and the difficulty of finding work elsewhere, all but 1,000 of its population have stayed here - and they have been helped by a variety of government programs and some private initiative.

At 20 percent (about 6,000 people) the jobless rate is still above the national average. Yet, without government help and vigorous efforts to attract new light industry and small business, it would be much higher. It has reversed the national British trend by not rising at all in the last two years.

Roy Clark, quiet yet intense, helps illustrate why Corby has attracted about 160 new companies in the last two years, offering 3,000 jobs today and promising 3,500 more. His is the grit and flexibility Mrs. Thatcher wants to see spread throughout British industry.

Eighteen months ago, Mr. Clark's company, the K. V. Wooster Ltd., employed 40 people in Aylesbury outside of London. It was paying $:22,000 ($35,000) in local rates each year. Its annual rent of $:26,000 ($41,600) was about to double.

Somehow, overhead costs had to come down. Mr. Clark discussed it with the staff and decided to move north to Britain's first enterprise zone in Corby. Twenty employees resigned rather than leave their homes. Mr. Clark was so grateful to the others for moving that he has divided a 10 percent share of the company among them.

He spent $:85,000 ($136,000) to move in November last year. Some $:60,000 of that came back to him through a European Community grant to help companies provide employment in depressed steel areas.

And being in the enterprise zone is slashing his overhead, as he intended. He pays no rent for two years, no local rates for 10, and qualifies for a range of other start-up and development benefits. Britain has 11 enterprise zones now and plans 11 more.

On top of that, he has come up with a new idea that looks as though it might be worth a great deal of money. For many years he has made disposable and reusable (''rotable'') cutlery and plates for airline meals. Now he is developing light plastic models of commercial aircraft for airlines to sell in boxed kits, duty-free.

The airlines make 100 percent profit and sell their name and image. British Airways is considering giving a Concorde model to each passenger. Mr. Clark hopes for $:300,000 ($480,000) of business next year alone and much more after that.

Out in the factory, he has hired 22 new workers, many making the plastic models and stamping them with the correct airline colors: The livery of one of the airlines (Air Europe) requires 52 separate applications.

''My aim is not profit right now, but survival,'' Mr. Clark says. ''We're onto something with the model idea. We are a bit further from Heathrow and Gatwick here in Corby, but we are closer to Manchester and Glasgow and other airports. Anyway, I can drive to Heathrow in less than two hours and to Gatwick in three and a half.'' He does all his own selling.

''You have to hustle to stay alive,'' he remarks. The factory works 24 hours a day from 6 a.m. Monday to 6 a.m. Saturday, and workers come in on Saturdays as well.

Mr. Clark cut his own salary before reducing anyone else's, and says when times improve, he will restore his last of all.

Margaret Bremner, a mother of two teen-agers, is one of his supervisors. She finds the recession a mixed blessing. She enjoys working for Mr. Clark (''more like a friend than a boss'') but has been forced to live apart from her husband for two years while he looks for work in Scotland.

He lost his job with Corby Steel in the 1980 cutbacks and went to look for work in Inverness, where he grew up. He finally found a job with British Rail, but left it to return home for three months to help his wife last Christmas.

Now back in Inverness, he has just landed another rail job but is waiting for a council (public) home he can afford. Waiting lists are long, amd locals come first.

Meanwhile, Margaret works six days a week for $:51 ($81.60) a week. She is helped by $:10 ($16) a week in child allowances, and a rebate on half of her rent.

Her children have the evening meal ready when she gets home, and they help with the housework, but her eyes fill with tears as she says how much she hopes her husband can return home this Christmas as well.

As we talk, Roger Clark walks by. An American company has just offered to buy him out for about $:200,000 ($320,000). Will he sell? ''Not a chance,'' he says.

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