UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (2 of 8)

UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (2 of 8) - Unlike "Flash" Harry, John believes in committing his thoughts to paper. Again, unlike Harry, who was also chairman and chief executive, John invariably makes a point of ensuring that his c

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Unlike "Flash" Harry, John believes in committing his thoughts to paper. Again, unlike Harry, who was also chairman and chief executive, John invariably makes a point of ensuring that his colleagues do the same. The result, as John has set up a series of committees to examine ways of saving money so as to make the company even more efficient, is a monthly mountain of reports and proposals. Board meetings, which never used to last for more than 30 minutes, now run to three or four hours. John knows that his colleagues think them a waste of time but he does not care: this is his company and he will do things his way (in other words, strictly according to the textbooks).

He picks up the Financial Times and the latest copy of Which? (the quintessential grey magazine) and opens the door. As chief executive, John could choose any car up to £70,000. He chose the same car as that owned by one of his heroes, Martin Sorrell, the boss of WPP, Britain's biggest advertising agency: a Ford Granada Scorpio, at £22,000.

Despite the low cost, it was not an easy choice. He could have taken over Harry's car and saved the company even more money. A green Rolls-Royce with the registration BOSS 1, the car was his predecessor's pride and joy. It still sits in the company garage and gives John a twinge of conscience whenever he thinks of it. But the Scorpio, he knows, is more appropriate for the company's new image. As he drives along (his chauffeur was in the first wave of redundancies), John recalls his inevitable rise to the top.

As finance director, he knew better than anyone just what a perilous state the business was in. A creature of the '70s, it grew and grew throughout the '80s. Driven on by the ambition of Harry, its charismatic founder (motto: "Everything is possible"), nothing was too big or outrageous. It seemed unbelievable now, but at one stage, John remembers, Harry tried to emulate the Saatchi brothers by aiming to buy a clearing bank. For once, like the Saatchis, who found that the idea of advertising men buying a bank was taking things too far, Harry failed.

To be fair, thinks John, the madness was not all Harry's fault. A born entrepreneur, he allowed himself to be sucked along by the mood of the time. The Government itself was partly to blame. As part of the development of an enterprise culture it embraced Harry, the Saatchis, Davies and the other entrepreneurs with open arms. Regularly feted by Mrs Thatcher, they were hailed as living proof of the realisation of the Conservative dream.

Then there was the City. At no stage did it stop to question what Harry and Co were doing. In fact, recalls John, it did just the opposite, urging them on to bigger and greater things. Money was never a problem. Banks queued up to lend them as much as they wanted. It seemed like a never ending gravy train. Everybody made a killing: Harry, who, thanks to his shareholding, dividends and seven-figure salary, was one of the richest men in the country; the banks, which were paid interest and advisory fees; the public relations and other advisers, which also picked up fees; the management, which awarded itself huge salaries, bonuses and share options; the workforce, which received big rises; and the shareholders, who saw the share price carry on rising.

Some members of the press benefited. Several of them, John knew, built their careers on well timed leaks from Harry. In return they did their best to keep the share price climbing, wrote full-page profiles, regularly sang his praises in their columns, made declarations of open support when he made a bid. Thanks to them, Harry became a national figure. He moved from the business pages to the gossip columns. Like "wee" Jimmy Gulliver, "gorgeous" George Davies and "five times a night" Sir Ralph Halpern, the tabloids gave Harry a nickname: "Flash". The papers loved all of them. They were folk heroes, real-life rags-to-riches stories.

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