Blackhurst's diary - In which our diarist has trouble putting a face to the Lever name, looks to the likes of Joe Lewis for a new career and sees two very wealthy Yorkshiremen go Dutch.
AN OPEN AND SHUT CASE
Giving a talk to 80 marketing managers from Lever Brothers about the way journalism works, I am struck about how little is known about their business. There can be few more faceless companies than Unilever, their parent. I mention this in the questions and answers that follow. Here is one of the world's largest corporate concerns, yet it has no public identity to speak of. To the relief of the senior executives present, one bright spark says, of course, it's our brands, Persil et al, that enjoy the profile, not the parent company. Judging by their smiles, his bosses agree. Good answer. He will go far. I say I am not so sure. We live in a world where consumers are looking for more from a product. They want to see a personality, to build a sense of trust with the product and the people who supply it. Niall Fitzgerald, their ultimate boss, may be well known within Unilever and in high-powered trade and industry circles, but he is unknown to the public. As for the rest of Unilever's top team, few in the media could name any of them. Nobody knows what Unilever stands for, what it believes in. My fellow speaker rescues me from the stony silence, accusing Lever Brothers of sometimes being too secretive in its dealings with the press. Asked to name companies that can be relied on to be responsive and positive with journalists, we both say, as one, Tesco and Asda. Asked to name one that is not, we both say Marks & Spencer. Given the recent performances of those three businesses, say my colleague and I, there must be a lesson there. At this, everyone, including the senior staff, nods sagely in agreement.
In Edinburgh, on my way to the airport, I share a taxi. My fellow traveller is a management consultant from one of the big, well-known firms. He asks what I do and I tell him. 'Why do we always get a bad press?' he wants to know. I reply: 'Because you're always seen to be sacking people, to be telling management how many jobs must go.' He shakes his head. 'No, management often tell us how many jobs they want to lose. It makes it easier for them if we are seen to be brought in and to make a recommendation. It lessens their pain and makes it easier to sell to staff.' Now we know.
SPECULATE, ACCUMULATE, VEGETATE
A senior colleague comes to see me. He is leaving journalism to pursue a business career. First stop is an MBA from Insead. When I say: 'But the most successful businessmen I know do not possess MBAs,' he explains that he feels he needs to acquire a commercial knowledge and business school seems like the best place. An alternative grounding, with much better prospects, is currency trading. Forget internet, media, property, software, any other sector you care to mention - the global money markets are where the big money is. You learn the ropes, then go offshore, from where you make daring forays into the markets and, it would seem, Bob's your uncle. Joe Lewis did it and became Britain's richest man. Michael Tabor is another, operating, like Lewis, from the Bahamas. Now, another currency speculator, Derrick Smith, is building a 45,000 square feet home, costing £25 million, at Sandy Lane, Barbados, Smith already owns a £10 million home next door to the site or his new one. My colleague should apply to work for one of these three. On second thoughts, maybe I should.
TAKING CARE OF THE PENNIES
As a fellow Northerner, I find it hard not to like Paul Sykes, the Yorkshire entrepreneur. Unlike the rest of us, he has not sold out, remaining faithful to his roots. Talking to him, I find my vowels hardening and my accent slipping back to its old self. I do not share his views on Europe, where he is profoundly sceptic, to the extent of funding the anti-euro campaign, but as a businessman he has few equals. Three times he has made fortunes, from scrap metal, property development (he built Meadowhall, the giant Sheffield retail centre) and the internet. The only evidence of wealth changing him is that he now has more opportunity to spout his political opinions. He is still the bluff, down-to-earth character he has always been. One of his closest friends is Jack Tordoff, the Leeds car dealer (estimated worth: £60 million). The other day, Sykes (estimated worth: £350 million) was lunching with Tordoff in one of Leeds' plusher restaurants in Headingley. After they talked, presumably, about the euro, the fate of Yorkshire County Cricket Club and all the other things sent to distract Yorkshire's elite, they turn to a more pressing matter: who will pay for the lunch. The two of them, worth a combined £400 million-plus, carefully go through the bill to see who ate and drank what. Then they each pay their share. Aye, take care of the pennies and the millions of pounds will take care of themselves.
Chris Blackhurst is deputy editor of The Express.