UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (3 of 8)

UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (3 of 8) - Hardly a week went by without some sort of article on Harry in a magazine or newspaper. He got quite a kick from emulating his peers. Jimmy Gulliver showed a journalist around one of his fi

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Hardly a week went by without some sort of article on Harry in a magazine or newspaper. He got quite a kick from emulating his peers. Jimmy Gulliver showed a journalist around one of his five homes. When, at one stage, the journalist remarked on two marble-topped tables, "wee" Jimmy did not hesitate: "I'll look them up for you. Ah yes, George II tables with marble tops, £40,000." Harry emulated the style.

Like all other entrepreneurs, Harry had his face everywhere: throughout the annual report; taking delivery of the corporate jet (since sold); aboard his yacht (for sale); presenting his polo team (disbanded) to the Queen; acting as a sponsor (discontinued) at Ascot; going to lunch at Chequers.

Harry was a star. John turned on the television set one night and there was Harry charming the audience on "Wogan". When, against John's advice, the company joined the craze and bought big in America (most of the US businesses are also open to offers, for less than half their purchase price), Harry appeared on all three networked breakfast shows. Awards and honours rained down on Harry and his contemporaries: Businessman of the Year, The Guardian Young Businessman of the Year, honorary degrees and, finally, as in the cases of Halpern and Conran, a knighthood.

Sir Harry was flashier than ever. At what later turned out to be his final shareholders' meeting, he borrowed an idea from Sir Ralph and appeared against a backdrop of a bank of giant TV screens showing is face from different angles. The rest of the board, including John, was nowhere to be seen.

Even now, John muses, after all that has happened - the destruction of shareholders' savings, the loss of thousands of jobs, the wiping out of his own millions - Harry is still revered in some sections of the press. It makes John laugh. Only last weekend, in one of the quality Sundays, an especially sycophantic follower went so far as to declare that "Flash" was all set to make a comeback.

As finance director, John experienced the collapse at first hand. He saw the gravy train coming off the rails long before any of his colleagues. Like Burton, Storehouse and the other '80s "super-companies" that subsequently ran into trouble, it followed a familiar pattern. First, interest charges crept up. Then the operating accounts began to lose their shine. The bankers became less friendly. They asked John, quietly, what were Harry's plans for cutting costs and making disposals. John could not tell a lie: there were no plans. The share price wobbled.

Then, as it became apparent that Harry was reluctant to break up his empire and that, even if he did, there would be few takers, it collapsed. The banks gave Harry an ultimatum: go or be pushed. In a blaze of publicity, he went. John's immediate reaction on being asked to take over was to feign amazement. In reality he was unsurprised. He had been working towards it all of his life. Like so many of the new breed of tycoon - Mulcahy, Jones, Sorrell - John went to a grammar school and from there to a red-brick university to read accountancy and economics. Like so many grey men, he had trained as a chartered accountant.

When Tony Millar was casting around for something to do after leaving his job in 1981, he spent six months researching his next move. First he looked for the right industry, then the right company. It did not matter too much what the industry was - provided that it was well established and fragmented. He chose fresh produce (previously he had been in the laundry business and before that in property and textiles) and has never looked back. Today his company, Albert Fisher, is one of the largest suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables in the world.

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