UK: The enhancement of Hanson. (2 of 8)

UK: The enhancement of Hanson. (2 of 8) - White, likewise a lanky six-footer with a string of early escortees, reported to include Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, took the role of bloodhound thereafter. It was he, cool and fastidious, who sought out the tar

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

White, likewise a lanky six-footer with a string of early escortees, reported to include Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, took the role of bloodhound thereafter. It was he, cool and fastidious, who sought out the targets, while the hotter-headed Hanson held all the ropes together at the centre.

First Wiles Group was stripped down - the fertiliser arm sold, the sack company retained. Then, in 1967, for £655,000, Wiles bought into muck-shifting equipment group Scottish Land. The next bid, for West of England Sack, ran at £3 million, and by 1968 the City was sitting up and taking notice. Jim Slater, the "go-go" financier of Slater Walker, astutely swapped shares for a 14% stake in this precocious newcomer. "He was an able, hardworking and honest man," Slater now recalls of Hanson, his then backgammon partner.

These were uproarious days on the stock market, and Wiles's shares bounded from 10 shillings to 68 shillings within a year. Hanson, elated, ploughed on, tucking two printing groups, Rolls-Royce distributor Provincial Traction and a Glasgow plant hire company into its bulging portfolio.

But by 1969 a sinking market had shot down the glamour stocks - Hanson Trust, as it became in November of that year, included. James Hanson, however, remained aloof. "We are very much underrated," he declared to a journalist. "We have stacks of money in the kitty." And the trading continued. Out went motor interests Tillotson and Swain Group, and in came National Star Brick. With a new turn in fashion, property interests were bought, trailing buckets of much loved cash flow.

Between 1970 and 1973 Hanson made five unsuccessful bids or tenders for companies: Steels Garages, Thomas Cook, Sykes Lacy-Hulbert, Rolls-Royce Motors and Richard Costain. The first four were profitable or painless. The bitterly opposed Costain bid, described by its board as "manifestly ludicrous and unfair", pinched egos a little more when the share price outraced the bid. But it was the subsequent failure of a £47 million merger with Bowater - the deal was dropped immediately when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was called in - that really set onlookers stirring. The failed Bowater merger snatched away Hanson's ticket to the international arena. Analysts claimed that the group was on a slippery slope trying to grow to its next stage. Later that same year Hanson swallowed its ire and turned its sights across the Atlantic.

Gordon White, with the mere £3,000 allowed by exchange controls in his pocket, flew to New York in mid-1973 and set up office in a hotel room. His calls so jammed the switchboard that soon he was politely asked to leave. Moving to a Park Avenue office, he founded the American arm, Hanson Industries, and within 18 months he was turning out half of Hanson Trust's profits. Over the next eight years only one major acquisition was made - the £25 million engineering and textiles company Lindustries.

In the United States, White took Hanson into new fields: animal foodstuffs with Seacoast Products, textiles with Carisbrook Industries, meat packing with Hygrade Food Products, food vending with Interstate United Corporation and footwear and building with McDonough Company. White, as the press noted then, "barely put a foot wrong".

Knighthood descended on James Hanson in 1976 when his friend Sir Harold Wilson named him in a controversial honours list. (White would wait until 1979 for his.) Hanson's vast empire, with profits of nearly £20 million, no doubt impressed, but so too, cynics suggested, did the magnanimous donations which saved one of Sir Harold's pet opera companies from ruin. Socially and in business, Sir James Hanson drew wide admiration. "He is a totally efficient man," a friend of the time commented; "the way he works, the way he dresses, the way he speaks, the way he entertains."

In the summer of 1981 Sir James turned back to the UK. This time he went for the big one. The dawn raid on Berec that concentrated the mind of chairman Colin Stapleton blossomed into a full bid of £73 million in September. Berec, faced with tough competition from Duracell's new long-life batteries, had seen trading profits fall from nearly £30 million in 1977 to £17 million. When mini-conglomerate Thomas Tilling stepped in with a white knight bid, it easily won the board's backing. But the plan backfired. Hanson boosted its offer to £95 million and there was no way out. The price was, says Stapleton, "bloody marvellous".

For Hanson it proved more than marvellous. After selling the overseas businesses, from Europe to Hong Kong, it clawed back £41 million. After laying off 60% of the UK factory staff, selling the leading edge R and D arm and, most importantly, shifting the renamed Ever Ready into long-life batteries, the group today is making annual profits of over £40 million, according to vice-chairman Martin Taylor. Ever Ready still dominates in the UK, but critics say that Hanson sold off its chance to succeed internationally. Taylor says simply: "The overseas branches weren't making profits and weren't likely to be."

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