A PROPER GENT
Every generation of businessmen has its heroes. A good bloke like them, someone who has built his business, who isn't too showy, too fond of publicity, but gets on with the job. This year's top man, the one spoken of in hushed tones in bars in conference hotels up and down the land, is Chris Gent of Vodafone AirTouch. In two years since taking over at Vodafone, he has created Britain's biggest company and the world's largest mobile phone group. These days Vodafone is a household name, a universally recognised brand. But it was not always so. When the company was deciding what to call itself, someone came up with the name Vodafone. Management were not overwhelmingly impressed - 'Sounded like an east European gramophone supplier,' says Gent - so decided to ask management consultants what they thought.
'No company beginning with the letter V has ever been successful,' was their considered expert opinion. Fortunately, wiser heads pointed to Volkswagen and Volvo as putting paid to that theory. A nice story, which illustrates one of the reasons why Gent is so popular among his peers: he does not stand for any nonsense from management consultants.
BRING ON THE BRANSONS
During lunch with Richard Branson at his house in Holland Park, Joan, his wife, pops her head round the door and taps her watch. Branson declares he has to go, sheepishly explaining that they are due to go and look at a new house - this one is too big so they want something smaller. On the way back I found myself imagining the shock of a houseseller opening the door to find Branson on the doorstep ...
CAKES AND ALE
Charles Dunstone, head of the soon-to-be-floated Carphone Warehouse, is one of the new wave of British retailers who value their staff and know how to engender loyalty. He sends every employee a birthday cake and for head-office staff has installed a huge walk-in fridge to store food deliveries when they have no time to shop. The last Friday in the month is free beer night - 'the beer bust' when, for 90 minutes, he stands the tab for all employees to slake their thirst. A fanatical sailor with one and a half yachts, he is renowned for looking after his crews well in a race. 'While we may not be in the top 10 at the Fastnet, our crew will be the only people doing the race with a wide-screen TV, two cooks and proper hot sit-down dinners.'
The extra-curricular activity of Dunstone's deputy David Ross is a question occupying the minds of the firm's team of advisers. A keen mountaineer, Ross was planning an assault on Everest - causing the company's cautious bankers and brokers to tremble.
HIGHER DEGREES OF SUCCESS
Ever keen to be first with a trend, I can reveal that the 21st-century equivalent of the uneducated barrow boy is the boffin turned entrepreneur. First there was Dr Chris Evans, the king of the British biotech industry. The country's undisputed internet champion, Mike Lynch of Autonomy, is a Cambridge PhD. Then there is Dr Andrew Rickman, the founder of Bookham Technology, the latest entrant into the FTSE-100. Rickman achieved the mind-boggling feat of completing a PhD at Surrey University and an MBA at Cranfield in parallel, setting up his business at the same time.
Dr Mike Kelly took a PhD in particle physics and an MBA from Manchester Business School before launching Telecity, an internet group. Also from Manchester comes Professor Madan Singh, with his floated software company, Knowledge Support Systems. Singh took a PhD in engineering and was a professor at 33. And there may be a lesson here for all those dot.comers anxious to leave university early and start cleaning up in the City.
WHEN IT'S NOT GOOD TO TALK
Let this be a warning to others. In 1998, Haslemere Travel, a small but successful travel firm, moved premises. Unfortunately, BT took two days to install a phone service at the new office. Haslemere demanded compensation for the lost two days, as was its right under BT's customer service guarantee.
BT admitted the mistake but pointed to the small print of the guarantee, which stated that it would pay only for actual financial loss - a detailed estimate from Haslemere was not good enough.
The travel firm queried how it could show actual loss when the travel business is so immediate and a would-be customer failing to get through would have contacted another agency. Despite the logic of Haslemere's argument and the unfairness of BT's, the phone giant would not budge.
Haslemere has refused to back down. The result has been two years' worth of correspondence - but no concession from BT. You'd think a pounds 70 billion company might want to put right its damage, to help a smaller business. You'd be wrong.