The takeover merchant

Private-equity hardman Murray Wright finds grim satisfaction in his wealth.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In an anonymous suite of offices, in a nondescript building, up an obscure street on the City's tatty north-eastern fringes are the headquarters of Murray Wright's controversial and ever-shifting empire. And, if his many critics are to be believed, Wright is in there right now, either sharpening his knives or counting his ill-gotten gains. Whatever he's up to, there's unlikely to be more than one beneficiary.

Michael Wright is to the Noughties what Gordon Gekko was to the 1980s.

He's a takeover merchant, a private-equity buccaneer, a corporate raider.

He's a man who buys assets - usually failing companies or property. He puts the fear of God into the management, slashes the workforce, flogs off the under-performing bits and cuts costs and expenditure to the bone.

When he has licked (or kicked) the balance sheet back into shape, he sells whatever remains at a hefty premium. And if his chosen vocation isn't enough to have real value-creating business-people foaming at the mouth, he does it all with debt (ie, other people's money).

But there are differences between Wright and old Wall Street: the movers of the '80s relished their notoriety, but he eschews the limelight - the phrase 'shadowy figure' might have been invented for him. And whereas yuppies were more flash than cash, Wright's pile would make Croesus blush: one and half billion, it's whispered.

Wright was born in 1962, the son of a self-made tool-hire tycoon. For his critics, this is a double gift. They can be snooty about his lack of polish and education, of establishment credentials. Yet Wright senior was wealthy and tabbed junior's dabbling in property in the early '80s.

So detractors can point to Daddy's largesse, too. OK, Wright's claim that his father gave him nothing is strictly true, but his boast isn't aimed at the financially sophisticated. (Dad underwrote hundreds of thousands in bank loans, which is much the same thing.)

Whatever help Wright had, though, he has now far outrun his origins - and most of the Sunday Times Rich List. He moved on from investing in residential property to the commercial market and then, in the early '90s, into underperforming companies. For him and his wealth, it has been a relentless one-way journey ever since - apart from just one reversal of fortune. In 1992, his partner Nick Proud stitched him up royally, costing him around a third of his fortune. At their final meeting, it's said, Wright told him with glacial calm to leave the country within a week.

Proud relocated to Hong Kong almost overnight and the reasons he gave for doing so were less than convincing.

This alleged incident and a growing appetite for playing rough in really big deals cemented Wright's reputation for ruthlessness. Current business associates have almost nothing bad to say about him, former business associates almost nothing good. Press coverage tends to paint a quietly spoken Machiavelli, a cross between a gifted accountant and Vlad the Impaler. He reacts with affected hurt. Why do people say these things? He takes on underperforming companies and turns them round - what would you rather, that a business lost a few of its staff and assets or that it went under? The business community should welcome him etc, etc ... Wright has his champions - including several Labour MPs - but if he could convince the world he's a nice guy, it would be his biggest coup yet.

The real stumbling block to believing that Wright is a force for good is his motivation. Of course he's in it for the money. But when most people admit this of themselves, they mean that they are in it for the goods and services that the money can buy, that they're materialistic. It's not altruistic, but it's understandable. And Wright does have lot of shiny things: fast cars, a Chelsea townhouse, a clutch of holiday homes, yachts, helicopters, even a Gulfstream jet. But this is all stuff you can buy with your first few hundred million. After that, if you're not creating anything and have no passion, then you really are in it for the money, but, as they say, only to keep score. And that is the key. Wright is the embodiment of the old maxim: 'It is not enough to succeed - others must fail.' In this sense (repackaged, repositioned and re-spun) he is Gordon Gekko's heir as surely as Tony Blair is Margaret Thatcher's.

THE WRIGHT STUFF
1962: Born 12 January, Canterbury, Kent. Educated Canterbury Grammar
School, LSE (dropped out in second year)
1982: Founds MOW Property Investments
1989: Co-founds Wright Proud
1993: WP dissolved. Starts MOW
1994: Property portfolio estimated at £60m
1995: MOW starts to buy distressed firms
1997: MOW internet investment arm set up
2000: Liquidates dot.com investments; moves back into
property/conventional business
2003: Investigated by FSA, cleared
2005: Rich List estimates his worth at £1.5bn
- Any resemblance to a real person is coincidental and unintended.

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Finance

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