Patience Wheatcroft

Why do some business leaders seem to have so much fun running their enterprises? Shirley Conran was wrong: life is not too short to stuff a mushroom.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Shirley Conran was wrong: life is not too short to stuff a mushroom. If creative cooking is your delight and you have just devised an exotic and delicious new filling for funghi, then whipping up a perfect dish will not be deemed a waste of time. What seems like dreadful drudgery to one individual may be pure pleasure to another. For some people, business is not work; it's unadulterated fun. No-one talking to Philip Green could doubt that he is having a whale of a time running his retail empire. He gets involved at every level, from choosing stock to dealing with bankers.

Enthusiasm for a business that is enriching him by hundreds of millions of pounds is understandable, but Green's enjoyment is not related solely to money: he loves what he's doing. Even when he joins his family to spend Christmas in the Caribbean, the cellphone is never far away. Keeping in touch with sales figures and outwitting his rivals is too much fun to be ignored in favour of a holiday. Others may enjoy swinging a golf club or swimming with turtles, but Green much prefers to negotiate a smart deal with suppliers, or to beat sales targets.

That level of enjoyment is infectious. If everyone had fun doing the job, productivity would rise. That was certainly what happened at Selfridges when Vittorio Radice had a ball turning the once-staid department store into a non-stop happening. The charismatic Italian made Selfridges into an exciting playground for style-conscious shoppers and launched the brand outside London.

He made it clear that he was enjoying himself enormously running the business. But Radice had a fear of boredom setting in, so he decided to move on before Selfridges lost the fun factor for him. Now, it seems, he may be regretting his decision to join Marks & Spencer, for life there does not appear to be a bundle of laughs.

Radice, who is in charge of the new homewares division at M&S, admits that he finds working within the heavily bureaucratic organisation 'a challenge'. Yet while some challenges can be energising and enjoyable, those who know Radice well say that this one appears to be wearing him down.

 Recent poor sales figures at M&S will have done little to lift the mood in Baker Street. But while it may be easier to enjoy business when the results are going in the right direction, this is not always the pattern. The late Gary Weston, chairman of Associated British Foods, was hugely successful in running the family-controlled business, yet seemed to gain little pleasure from his work. He took pride in having invented the Wagon Wheel biscuit, but gave me the impression that he'd prefer to be living a different life in Australia rather than chairing one of the UK's biggest businesses. Renowned for his antipathy to profligacy, he seemed to have left any sense of fun on the other side of the world.

Lord Hanson, in contrast, exuded boyish enjoyment throughout the decades in which he ran Hanson Trust. Partnered by his long-time friend, the late Gordon White, he delighted in plotting takeovers and doing deals. Business was undoubtedly a pleasure for both, as it is for Lord Young, the former Conservative cabinet minister who now runs his own venture capital business. He makes no secret of the excitement he gets from being involved with young entrepreneurs and their high-tech projects.

But you would not associate one of the most successful technology entrepreneur of his generation with the word 'fun'. Bill Gates is driven, determined and has wealth beyond most mortals' imagining. He may gain pleasure from knowing the impact that Microsoft has had on the way we live and work, and from the vast amounts of money that he has been able to donate to deserving causes, but he does not seem to be someone who is having fun. Maybe the excitement that drove him and his colleagues in the early days of his business has been dulled by the constant legal battles that have ensued.

Eric Nicoli seems to have been fighting battles ever since he took over at EMI – against the competition authorities and against the illegal downloading of music that is wrecking his profits – but he remains the epitome of one who is happy in his work. A man who loves music, he gives the impression that he still cannot believe his luck in having managed to move from the biscuit business into the world of showbusiness.

Allen Leighton's working life spans a variety of sectors, from media and retailing to technology and even the Post Office. Dealing with some of the problems that he has encountered would not appeal to many, yet Leighton is an obviously happy man. He revels in his plural life and his enjoyment enthuses those he works with in his various guises. If he were to be dispatched to talk to the nation's schoolchildren, there would be no shortage of candidates determined to make a career in business. What, they would conclude, could be more fun?

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