MT BUSINESS LIFEFORMS: The Retiring Chairman

Sir David Saunders, chairman of Ammco plc. Now portly and florid, with a bluff Yorkshire manner, Sir David Saunders has been the chairman of retail giant Ammco for as long as anyone can remember.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Now portly and florid, with a bluff Yorkshire manner, Sir David Saunders has been the chairman of retail giant Ammco for as long as anyone can remember. Until recently, he was one of the FTSE's few remaining executive chairmen. Then pressure from consultants, bad press and another of those 'bloody governance reports' forced the business to separate the roles, and he took a back seat to the grey but (he has to admit) efficient former FD.

He's noticed changes: the great and the good still return his calls, but not with the urgency they once did. And people no longer seem to fear him. Five years ago, he was a 'ruthless hatchet man' and the 'dark side of the Square Mile'. Now his prostate is playing up and he's described as a 'wise elder statesman'. Even the Guardian writes warmly about him - flattering, but on balance he preferred the fear and loathing.

Sir David is a company lifer. A cricket-mad grammar school boy from Tadcaster, he had a spell in the army before joining Amalgamated Meats, as Ammco was then known. His big break came when he was sent to sort out the flagging Argentine operation. He returned to London with a reputation for dealing ruthlessly with johnny gaucho and - emulating his hero 'Fiery' Fred Trueman - a Uruguayan society beauty on his arm. His marriage to Mercedes de Varela caused a newspaper wag to quip that she was 'the only Mercedes that had given a ride to every polo player in Latin America'.

He lived in Kensington - a stone's throw from the Stones - in the late '60s and early '70s, but the spirit of the age passed him by. As others (including, it was whispered, Mercedes) pursued free love, he pursued free markets; and while those around him turned on, tuned in and dropped out, he built empires, bashed unions and forged alliances. One of these, the partnership with his formidable PA, Penelope, led to suggestions that she was Lady Falkender to his Harold Wilson.

When the '80s arrived, Saunders gained the board and, in 1986, became executive chairman in a messy coup. A swashbuckling corporate raider, he was hailed by Maggie as 'a man who is making Britain great again'.

The Independent called him 'the living embodiment of the Thatcherite ideal - and slightly to the right of Genghis Khan'. There was carping that despite a 10-year flurry of M&A activity, the shareholder value he created had been at best negligible. John Major knighted him anyway.

Recent years have been less glorious. A disastrous internet punt - flogging pet food online - briefly saw the shares triple before a collapse that forced Ammco out of its Art Deco headquarters in the City and into somewhere with much less wood panelling. Blair's new regulatory environment shows you can't trust Labour, New or otherwise; then there's what they did to the Savoy Grill. An innate distrust of too much cleverness saved him from signing a deal with Kenneth Lay. Well, that and the fact that he had no idea what 'Kenny Boy' was talking about.

He won't be sorry to leave some of the new millennium's new ways behind.

They had a woman in the other day, a 'holistic consultant', talking about the company's 'spirit book' and the need to achieve 'buy-in' to a 'shared, value-rich internal belief system'. He thought they'd all have a good laugh when this silly filly left, but instead the CEO asked him if he'd mind 'actioning' a couple of her proposals, 'going forward'. He sat back and, going forward, thought about his retirement.

Sir David will be sorely missed. Even those who regard him as a dinosaur recognise that when you've been around this long, you acquire a sort of totemic value. Already there have been offers of consultancies and board places even more ceremonial than his present sinecure. He's not a man who can't let go - he's 64 and his gut and liver are duking it out to see which can enlarge faster.

Come June, he'll devote himself to his sprawling Surrey garden, playing golf, chairing the MCC (if he can have a word in the right ear) and holidaying in Barbados. All supported by a pension, the generous terms of which, like him, are part of a bygone era. It's true that Ammco will never see his like again. Principally because in these days of MBAs, psychometric testing and personality profiling, the firm would never employ someone like him in the first place.

SAUNDERS IN A SECOND

1939: Born 10 October, Tadcaster, N Yorks. Educated Tadcaster Grammar

1958: National service, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Stays

on after his two years, is promoted to captain, serves in Singapore and

Cyprus

1962: Joins Amalgamated Meats as trainee

1966: Director, Amalgamated Meats (Argentina)

1970: MD, Offal & Bloodstuffs

1974: Head of reformed products, Amalgamated Meats

1981: MD, Amalgamated Meats

1986: Executive chairman: Ammco plc

2001: Non-executive chairman, Ammco plc Clubs: Carlton and Yorkshire

County Cricket

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