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

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

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A few months ago Sir Ian MacLaurin, the Tesco chief, finally made it to the front pages of the tabloid newspapers - as Britain's highest-paid man (salary £1.5m). The tabloids did their best and got nowhere. The Sun discovered a man who rises at 6.30 am, goes for a brisk swim, eats a breakfast of grapefruit, toast and orange and gets to his desk by 7.30 am, where he puts in a 12-hour day.

Until he achieved his accolade, few people outside retailing and the City had heard of him. Chosen by Sir Jack Cohen to succeed him as chairman, Sir Ian is quite unlike the supermarket chain's founder. Sir Jack would confound visitors by pinning labels on them bearing the initials YCDBSOYA ("You can't do business sitting on your arse"). Sir Ian prefers to talk about Tesco, his one, all-consuming passion. "It is my religion. I guess I'm in love with it. I still get up every morning excited at the thought of going to work."

The first thing that Alistair Grant did when he took over Safeway in 1988 was to change the check-out sign saying "Less than 8 items" to the grammatically correct "Fewer than 8 items".

That is Grant. The man who succeeded Jimmy Gulliver as head of Argyll, he is still in the shadow of "wee Jimmy". Gulliver owned five houses, including an Edinburgh mansion, and five cars. Grant's weekend home is a wing of an Edinburgh mansion. He drives a discreet Bristol, and eschews Gulliver's expensive lunching haunts: "If somebody wants to get to know me, it's just as easy to have a cup of tea with them."

An avid reader of The Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator and the Literary Review, he confesses to wanting to go to university to take a degree in English.

The rise of Gareth Davies to the top of Glynwed International, the West Midlands steel parts and engineering group, has been slow and inexorable. Born in 1930, he went to King Edward's Grammar School at Aston in Birmingham, and trained as an accountant. In 1957 he joined Glynwed as accountant of its steel parts subsidiary. Seven years later he was appointed group computer manager.

Then, in 1969, he was made group financial director. His budgetary controls were strict. All of the company's units were required to give head office 25% of their assets in cash every year. In 1984 he finally took charge.

Like many grey men, he is extremely astute at pleasing the City. Parts of the group have been sold off, debt reduced and targets met. Despite his low profile, the City loves him.

All Tony Gill wants to do is run Lucas. Interviews are only given if they benefit the company. Equally, he refuses to involve himself or his company in the Confederation of British Industry, because he sees it as a waste of time.

Born in Essex, he began his career as an apprentice engineer before taking a degree at Imperial College. Virtually all of his working life has been spent with Lucas. But he showed when he took over, in 1987, that he is not stuck on sentiment by selling the starter, alternator and lamp operations and moving out of Lucas's central Birmingham headquarters.

Under his direction, Lucas has pared down its operations to focus on two core activities: aerospace components and car braking systems. Layers of management have been stripped out and young blood brought in. Profits have grown from less than £20 million to £140 million in the past five years.

A private man, Gill has plenty to shout about but he resolutely refuses to do so.

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