UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (7 of 8)

UK: The rise of "grey" power in Britain's boardrooms. (7 of 8) -

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Not for nothing was it said of Kingfisher chief Geoff Mulcahy that the only high thing about his profile is the high street. Mulcahy is an unknown, a man who not only does not seek publicity but totally avoids the public gaze. He is married, with a teenage son and daughter. A non-smoker and light drinker, he likes squash. He called his yacht "No Comment" and lists business as a hobby. He will talk for hours about business and management. He spends his Saturdays looking at stores.

No flash in the pan, Mulcahy likes to describe his career as "managed change". He read physics and chemistry at Manchester University, before joining Esso, which sent him to Harvard to do an MBA. Then he worked for Norton Abrasives, the American corporation, as finance director. In 1977 he became finance director at British Sugar. Seven years later he became group managing director.

Ask Tony Millar what his hobbies are and he struggles: "I work long hours, I travel a lot, I've been happily married for 26 years."

A chartered accountant, the softly spoken Millar is the ordinary bloke next door who 10 years ago bought a small fruit and veg outfit in the North of England and turned it into one of the world's biggest food distribution companies.

A former associate of Michael Ashcroft of ADT fame, Millar is clever, tough and ambitious. So Albert Fisher is a 1990s success story. For that it has to thank Millar and cautious strategy. Millar is coming under intense City pressure to do something dramatic, to buy big - in America maybe. Millar refuses to budge. Instead he and his team of 25 people at the company's small, anonymous Windsor HQ have concentrated on buying small and building the company from within.

Martin Sorrell is the king of advertising who has never written an advertisement. In 1985, while finance director of Saatchi and Saatchi, he bought a stake in Wire and Plastic Products, a company that made supermarket trolleys and shopping baskets. Today, renamed WPP, it owns J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy and Mather, to mention but two of its agencies, and outranks Saatchi as the world's biggest advertising group.

In advertising, Sorrell's approach is unique: low key and unpretentious. He dislikes being photographed and is a master of understatement. He describes his job as that of "a dull, boring, little clerk"; himself as "quite boring" - "I have no personal opinions of relevance to anything".

Despite his wealth, he lives quietly in north London, with Sandra, his wife of 21 years, and their three sons. His one indulgence is a flat in Switzerland, for skiing.

As chairman of Bass, Britain's biggest brewer, Ian Prosser could have a Rolls-Royce, chauffeur, palatial country mansion, swimming pool, Mayfair apartment - the lot. But he drives a Volvo, has an ordinary house (no pool), and takes the train to London daily.

Educated at Watford Grammar and Birmingham University, where he read commerce, he joined Bass in 1969, aged 26, after training as an accountant with Cooper Brothers, now Coopers and Lybrand. Serious and unassuming, his reaction to being made finance director for the whole group, at the youthful age of 33, was typical. Rather than saying "Whoopee, here's my opportunity to be chairman", he saw it as an "opportunity to really contribute and make a significant impact across the business".

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