UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (1 of 8)

UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (1 of 8) - Gone the psychedelic stars of the 1980s, enter grey man - uncharismatic, low-key. Chris Blackhurst paints the monochrome picture.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Gone the psychedelic stars of the 1980s, enter grey man - uncharismatic, low-key. Chris Blackhurst paints the monochrome picture.

The alarm rings again - six o'clock. John Grey climbs out of bed and puts on his slippers and, though it is not cold, a thick dressing gown. Downstairs he has his usual breakfast: a mug of tea and a bowl of cornflakes.

This quiet, well organised figure does not look exceptional but he represents a growing phenomenon in British industry: grey power. Gone are the psychedelic superstars of the '80s - Sir Terence Conran, Sir Ralph Halpern, Jimmy Gulliver, George Davies: in their place, a new breed of inconspicuous tycoon.

Take, for instance, Tony Millar of Albert Fisher, Geoff Mulcahy of Kingfisher and Ian Prosser of Bass, who run three of Britain's most successful companies. The general public would never recognise them. There are others: Martin Sorrell (WPP), Sir Colin Marshall (British Airways), Sir Iain McLaurin (Tesco), Gareth Davies (Glynwed), Sir Anthony Gill (Lucas), Nigel Rudd (Williams Holdings), Sir Harry Solomon (Hillsdown).

As for the superstars' old companies, they too are now run by virtual unknowns: Michael Julien (Storehouse), Laurence Cooklin (Burton), Alistair Grant (Argyll) and David Jones (Next). Low profile, low key, totally dedicated, the new tycoon unwinkingly fixes his whole vision on the bottom line. Unless it adds to profits, personal publicity is out. He will not buy anything which he cannot afford, nor does he believe in expansion for expansion's sake. Having seen what happened to the colourful "characters" of the '80s, how they fell so dramatically, he is proud to be thought of as grey.

The new, grey men and their flamboyant predecessors could not be more different. John Grey and his predecessor, "Flash" Harry, are extreme examples.

Like all of the new breed, John dresses unpretentiously. Not for him sharp suits and loud ties. Every day he chooses one of the 10 white shirts in the wardrobe. Today is Tuesday, so he reaches for his Tuesday tie. It is striped, like all of the others - this one red, with a thin line of blue. The suit, though, is a problem. To the laymen they are all the same - navy. To John, each is different.

Looking in the mirror, he enjoys what he sees. Tall and athletic (fitness fanatics, the men have no time for contemporaries who allow themselves to go to seed), with neatly cut grey hair and steel-rimmed glasses, John looks younger than his 46 years. Friends are right when they say that he bears an uncanny resemblance to John Major. John claims to be embarrassed; privately, he is flattered to be compared with such an obviously outstanding grey.

John puts on his digital watch, a common grey tool, a present from his wife. She had wanted to get him a flashy Swiss number but he preferred the more practical Seiko. Before leaving, he checks the contents of his briefcase, a Samsonite; he thinks it more solid and secure than those old leather things which some people carry. Tucked alongside the Psion Organiser, another piece of grey equipment, and telescopic umbrella are the papers for this morning's board meeting.

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