THE HUMAN FACTOR

THE HUMAN FACTOR - Sometimes it's not all down to money. Sometimes what drives people to strive for ever-increasing business success is a desire to be accepted. Unlike Groucho Marx, they want to gain entry to the club.

by PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sometimes it's not all down to money. Sometimes what drives people to strive for ever-increasing business success is a desire to be accepted. Unlike Groucho Marx, they want to gain entry to the club.

Philip Green might not admit it, but when he produced his upbeat trading statement for Bhs, his satisfaction came as much from the message it sent to his critics as from the paper fortune it implied. For Green, already enjoying the millionaire lifestyle in Monaco, the fact that his rapid turnaround of the high street retailer has made him a potential billion pounds won't change his life. But envy and admiration from his rivals gives him satisfaction beyond price.

Although Bhs is a private company, Green published the figures with fanfares and press conferences. He had already decked his board with characters designed to show he had moved far beyond the ranks of wheeler-dealers.

There is Allan Leighton, the former Asda chief executive and now chairman of Consignia. Then, adding City kudos to the Bhs board, there is Robin Saunders, the WestLB corporate financier.

Add to those two Terry Green, the former Debenhams chief executive, and Philip Green has a team that any plc might be happy to parade before investors.

One can almost hear their employer saying: 'Those snooty types who kicked me out of Amber Day after one missed profit target got it wrong, didn't they!'

The urge to prove the critics wrong is understandable. It must provide at least some of the motivation for Gerald Ronson, whose Heron group is once more a major player on the property scene.

Ronson built his business into the second-largest private company in Britain but, even as his riches grew, he would refer to his lack of educational qualifications. He gave vast sums to charity, bought himself an enormous yacht, but still, behind the stocky facade and wreath of cigar smoke there seemed to lurk a simmering inferiority complex. Could this be what led to the launch of the Heron lunch, an annual gathering that fills the Savoy's vast River Room with not only Heron's business partners but the great and good of the City?

After Ronson's involvement in the Guinness affair, and subsequent spell in Ford open prison, the lunches resumed in even more spectacular style. The need to show that Ronson was persona grata was greater than ever. He has rebuilt his business and is determined to have his Guinness conviction overturned. Whether or not he succeeds, the lunches are an opportunity to reassure himself, and his critics, that he has made it to the top table.

Lord Stevens of Ludgate, former chairman of Express Newspapers, also used to host an annual Savoy lunch for the City establishment. It seemed to be designed more to boost the stature of the diminutive former fund manager than to entertain the guests. His bronze bust in the foyer of Express Newspapers was deemed by some to be a vanity too far. When Lord Hollick took over, Stevens suffered the indignity of having his likeness removed to a far corner of the building.

Perhaps it is not so much vanity as insecurity that drives apparently successful businessmen to such gestures. When markets can turn hostile almost overnight and investors show no sympathy for an embattled management, a business chief may need to bolster his self-image. In a more charitable mood, that is how one might explain the extraordinary series of portraits that used to hang at Tesco's former headquarters in Cheshunt when Sir John (Jack) Cohen was still in charge. The one in the foyer of the dingy building was relatively small, but as one progressed upstairs the images grew and grew until one reached a larger-than-life representation of the Tesco founder just outside his office.

The Hinduja brothers had their own variation on this grandiose gesture. In their London HQ, guests would be invited into a room decked with photographs of the brothers shaking hands with famous politicians. The twist was that there were two such rooms, one in which the politicians were from the Left, the other from the Right. The Hindujas alternated rooms according to their guests.

The brothers, now enmeshed in bribery allegations, were not content to enjoy the fortunes they had amassed: they wanted to be acknowledged as powerful and successful. So when the Sunday Times Rich List first included them, they bought hundreds of copies of the paper, rushed them back to India and ensured that every member of the Indian Parliament received a copy.

As subsequent events have shown, they might as well have saved on the air freight. But at least they had the brief satisfaction of parading their success before their leaders.

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