THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW - GERRY ROBINSON - The £1 million a year Granada boss surprised many in accepting the chairmanship of the Arts Council of England. Now he has begun dismantling it for a reorganisation that will take time and commitment. So why has he moved his family home to his native Donegal?
The first time I laid eyes on Gerry Robinson he was opening the door of his many-million-pound mansion in London's Holland Park. He was dressed in shirt, slacks and cardigan, he looked tired, big bags under his bright blue eyes - his baby son had been keeping him up late - and, despite the fact it was a weekday and not yet evening, he had been home for a while. He was already hugely rich, the result of a management buyout at his previous job running Compass catering, and he didn't believe in long working days as chief executive of Granada, he said. His first marriage had collapsed and as a man starting his second family, he wanted to see as much of his new son and daughter as possible.
It all sounded very reasonable. He served me tea in his sitting room, and he charmed me. I admired his enormous white sofas, the white grand piano, the oil paintings, the view over the garden. He told me there was not much on the horizon for Granada, just consolidation. After all, what could they buy? I left. That was in the summer of 1995. A few months later Granada launched its massive bid for Forte.
All of which led me to suspect that what you are getting on the surface with Gerry Robinson may not be an accurate reflection of what is going on underneath. Four years on, the sandy hair is a lot greyer, the face a little fuller and the blue eyes a touch faded but, at 50, Robinson is more successful than ever. Now chairman of Granada, earning £1 million a year to add to his £15 million Compass cashpot, he has not lost his capacity for surprise, either. After proving to be a late convert to Tony Blair's New Labour, he caused consternation in the arts world last year by accepting the Government's invitation to become chairman of the Arts Council of England. This, remember, is the accountant-turned-manager who was faxed 'fuck off out of it, you upstart caterer' by John Cleese eight years ago when he had ousted David Plowright from the top of Granada TV.
Now, only months after joining the Arts Council, Robinson is, of course, in the process of dismantling and reorganising it.
He has also pledged his future to Granada, for at least another five years, after continual speculation that he might be leaving. Yet at the same time he has sold the many-million-pound mansion, bought a flat round the corner, and quietly moved his young family from London to Donegal, where he was born - not the actions of a man chasing more challenges over here.
He now commutes from Ireland's north-west coast, where he owns both a cottage and a big house and where his children go to school. That, you feel, must take some commitment. 'Oh, the travelling is a pain,' he agrees, looking, unusually for Robinson, rather glum. Despite the roots, he has no trace of an Irish accent.
There are compensations. He is sitting at his desk beside the vast windows in his first floor office at Granada's base in St James's. The office is sumptuous, tall and wide, with a long view over Green Park and Buckingham Palace. Inside, the room is arranged with pleasing precision.
His desk and chair sit in the window flanked by two giant jungle plants.
Opposite him, four chairs are lined up like penitent beggars. By the fireplace, two rows of plain leather sofas huddle over a low coffee table. Every fitting, every standard light, every chair appears to be a work of art.
A gorgeous Ben Nicholson abstract, part of the Granada collection, hangs on the wall in front of him. Anyone who thinks Robinson is an austere, cost-chiselling accountant should come and look at this.
OK, let's get it out of the way first: is his future in England or Ireland?
He seems to have been pondering retirement and emigration - it comes up again and again in interviews and press speculation - for over a decade He smiles.
'Yes, I think I have been talking about retiring since I was 12.'
His current compromise is weekends with the family in Donegal and weekdays in London. It's pretty lonely, he says, but it gives him plenty of time to do the arts circuit in the evenings. He has pledged himself to the Arts Council for at least three years. And then there is Granada, of course.
But after that - maybe before - Ireland beckons.
So this is all a sort of Long Goodbye? He's going, he's gone, but he's actually still here doing more than ever before?
'Ha!' he laughs. 'Yup, bit like Frank Sinatra.'
Robinson laughs easily, great, breathy gusts of giggles that often catch you by surprise. It is his easy-going sense of humour that those who meet him note first. His elder brother John, who headed the construction firm Trollope and Colls, says that the Robinsons have always been a family of mickey-takers. 'We are either getting upset or taking the piss,' he says, laughing, too, when I ring him up.
They are a famously large family. Robinson is one of 10 born to a Donegal carpenter and his tough, Glaswegian wife (nee Stewart). They left Ireland when Robinson was nine and moved to London's East End. There was little money, Dad worked on building sites, but Mum ran the family with real management precision, and was ambitious for her children, especially bright little Gerry, born ninth, who was sent to a seminary but eventually chose accountancy over the priesthood. They have all done well, 'but Gerry was always keen to learn a bit more than the next person,' remembers John.
He had a quick wit, a brilliant head for figures and, more pertinently, Mum's genius for delegation.
Now forget the humour. Those outside the business world have a very different view of Robinson. This curious form of double vision was well illustrated by the BBC documentary Blood On The Carpet - about the Granada/Forte takeover battle. Bizarrely, it depicted Robinson as a cold, humourless roundhead endlessly preoccupied with reducing payrolls, and Sir Rocco Forte as a warm, lovable cavalier who put his staff before everything.
(Some who worked for Forte remember it rather differently, but that's another story.) The Guardian had another shot at it in January, heading a potted biography of Robinson: 'Ruthless charmer from humble Irish stock.' Note the large dollop of British class consciousness. 'Hmm, makes me sound like a recipe, doesn't it?' says Robinson smoothly, regaining his humour.
He has, it seems, a quip for everything.
In truth, many people cannot make him out at all. To some, he is the recipe for late '90s success: modest, driven, self-deprecating, and very much not of the old Establishment. And despite his run-of-the-mill executive experience - he started as a cost clerk at Lesney Toys and worked his way through finance positions at Lex and GrandMet's Coca Cola franchisee subsidiary before moving into senior management - he has always had that quality which most British-born bosses lack: charisma. You feel it the moment you engage with him - the attention to detail, the soft charm, the infectious good humour. It is said he was something of a ladies' man in his early years, and you can quite believe it, especially as he doesn't exactly discourage the impression. There are the endless jokes about why he left the seminary, and the admission that his first marriage broke up because he was unfaithful.
So, was he a terrible womaniser?
'Yeah, in the sense I was never very good at it!' he shouts, eyes twinkling, nearly falling backwards off his chair with laughter. It's all loud enough for you to know it's not a straight denial.
The bantering charm cuts both ways, however. Business rivals are infuriated by his popularity in the City, and the insouciant image he promotes. One media mogul attended a press lunch on the day that Granada's bid for Forte was announced and could barely contain his glee, declaring to journalists that this time Robinson was definitely in the mire. Definitely. Schadenfreude wasn't the half of it..
But the bid went through, of course, and Robinson's Teflon coating remains unchipped. Others find his easy-going accessability impossible to square with the rigorous efficiency of his managerial regimes. No-one in the City cares about worker happiness, though. They say, just look at the figures. When Robinson joined Granada in 1991, it posted a pre-tax loss of £110 million on a turnover of £1.4 billion. Last November it announced pre-tax profits of £735 million on £4 billion turnover for 1998. Profit has gone up and up every year, and acquisitions (Sutcliffe Catering, London Weekend Television, Forte) have been easily digested. On that basis, every company could do with a Robinson. Few executives have so large and faithful a following in the City. That magnetism now seems to be working its power on Britain's Labour politicians, too.
Robinson protests that actually he was very reluctant to take on the Arts Council job, co-ordinating about £400 million of government arts subsidy - it's a no-win situation, he says, like judging a beauty contest: whoever gets the vote thinks they deserve it, and the others think you are an idiot. But David (Lord) Puttnam kept on nagging him, and Alex Bernstein, the former Granada chairman and a close friend, told him he should do it. He had already got involved with fundraising for London's Royal Court theatre, so he attended a couple of Arts Council meetings and thought it probably did need a shake-up.
A shake-up? When we met, the redundancy notices were just going out, half the 300 staff were expected to lose their jobs. Some Council directors had already walked out. The press was getting hostile. It hadn't taken Robinson long to get started.
What about the accusation that he's a Tony crony? He shrugs. Heading the Arts Council is hardly a reward for friendship, he mutters, more of a punishment - and, anyway, he barely knows Tony Blair. His link is with Chris Smith, the culture minister, whose book on the arts sits prominently on Robinson's desk.
But some undoubtedly judged Robinson's 'coming out' as a Labour supporter two months before the last election to be blatantly opportunistic. Certainly the way it was promoted - as an exclusive in the Sunday Times - seemed rather self-serving.
Wasn't it? 'Well,' he says with a gentle smile, 'it was useful to Labour to have it as part of their PR. The Tory party was like Rorke's Drift, it was all over the place. The thought of sticking that lot in for another term was abhorrent.'
But what does Robinson know about the arts? He may have read a few Cracker scripts in his time, but it is not as if he has long and deep experience of, say, dance, drama, opera, orchestras, poetry, the visual arts.
Perhaps I am missing the point. Powerful forces wanted change, and clearly saw Robinson as an instrument of that change. Alex Bernstein, in particular, is the key influence here. As well as heading Granada in his time - and recruiting Robinson in 1991 - he also spent 10 years as chairman of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and is a passionate arts evangelist.
He has firsthand experience of the Arts Council and is clearly not a fan.
'What was wrong with the old council?' asks Bernstein incredulously when I call him. 'Where do you want me to begin? Everyone in the arts world was unhappy with it. It couldn't get more money out of Government; it could never make a decision because it was so bureaucratic; it tended to support organisations that had failed; it had promised people Lottery money it hadn't delivered; it had supported schemes that weren't viable; it was at war with Government and different factions in the arts world. It had been a shambles. Do you want me to go on?'
All fair criticisms, but it is hard not to conclude that Robinson might end up waging someone else's war. He himself demurs. 'The Arts Council is only of value if it makes a difference to the arts,' he says, 'and to make a difference you have to be effective.' So, first off he has cut the gabble by reducing the decision-making council from 23 to 10, and is already laying down aims for the future, a typical Robinson move in line with his belief that good management is all about clarity of purpose, and making sure people know what is expected of them. Once the systems are in place, his role then, he adds, is one of 'controlled unreasonableness'.
People know what you want, and, if it doesn't happen, they understand 'there is a consequence to that'.
It is no more than any senior manager expects but if it causes a frisson in the arts world, you have to remember, many people outside modern business are just not used to working to those imperatives. A kind view of Robinson's patrician predecessors at the Arts Council such as Lords Gowrie and Rees-Mogg is that they were better known for artful compromise. So what does Robinson want the new Arts Council to be?
He runs through his wish-list: first port of call for anyone who wants information on the arts, good systems, good phone answering, proper register of who is doing what and where; best fund-raiser for arts possible, sorting out how it makes the case to Government, how it gets the tax rules changed for giving, how it gets money from Europe. He wants new ideas, too. 'Why aren't we like the National Trust, for instance?' he asks. 'Why don't we have half a million members tipping in £200 a year each for special concessions? We haven't because we never have. These are the things we have got to set in train now.'
Well, you cannot accuse him of lacking ambition. But the question sticks: why does he want to do it? He has already got an £8 billion market cap empire to run, his wife Heather and his kids are in Ireland, he hated not seeing enough of his first family (he has a grown-up son and daughter).
Why not spend more time at home? And even if he is successful on his own terms, there are so many sectional interests in the arts that there will always be some who say he has failed.
Charles Allen, the Robinson protege who is now chief executive of Granada, admits he certainly had his doubts. 'Sure, Gerry's a good fit at the Arts Council, but I did have mixed views about it,' he says. 'He is dealing with people who will always want more.' The downside is that if Robinson becomes embroiled in rows between major figures in the arts (theatre director Sir Peter Hall, for example, has already said he wants to set up an alternative arts council with Harold Pinter), Granada's image will certainly suffer, just as it did in the Plowright episode. The upside, whispers Allen cheerfully, is that 'the less time he spends here, the happier I am. It would drive me nuts if he was crawling all over the business.'
And there's the nub. According to Robinson, the main reason he is doing it is that he just needed something else to focus on. Being chairman of Granada, he implies, is pretty dull, as he has to step back from the business.
Major acquisitions are not on the cards - well, that's what he says - as the group's aim is to reduce debt and increase interest cover. His stints as chairman of ITN and BSkyB are over. So he has been open to suggestions about other work for some time.
'I am a doer by nature,' he says, 'and in part the Arts Council gives me that. I can get involved in doing things, and following them through.'
But hang on, hasn't he just appointed a chief executive there, Peter Hewitt?
Robinson senses the trap opening. Yes, he says, but in the early stages, he will be much more active in the 'process of change and recruitment and leading of strategy'. Then he will take a back seat.
So maybe he took the job just to lay to rest that 'upstart caterer' jibe?
No, he says softly, that was a reason for not taking the job.
I put the same thing to his brother John, who laughs and says he doesn't think the row over Plowright affected Gerry that much. All the same, the family loved the caterer bit. 'The real joke,' he says, 'is that Gerry has never cooked a fekkin' egg in his life!'
(Robinson's family, it transpires, remains unimpressed by his rise.
His brother Pat told a newspaper during the Forte takeover that when little Gerry played Monopoly as a child, he would always borrow too much and try to buy all the hotels. 'Can you believe it?' asks Robinson. 'Of all the things to say!')
Will nothing dent his assurance? Only claims that Granada has sacrificed quality in its chase for profits, and that its employees feel like galley slaves. It is just not true, he counters, suddenly looking very serious.
Yes, Granada service station prices are high, but the sites cost a lot to run - because, for example, they have to be kept open all night - and they are certainly no higher than those of their rivals. And on the television side, Granada programmes in the last few years have won more awards than ever. Morale? That is not a problem, he says. And if it is, it's not exclusive to Granada.
Bernstein puts it another way: 'Everyone says working in television isn't as good as it used to be and they're probably right. The pressure on costs comes from competition. Don't blame Gerry or John Birt - blame Mrs Thatcher and the advance of technology.' He has a point. I give up. It's impossible to rattle Robinson's cage. Where are his vulnerabilities? Perhaps his greatest may be a gnawing worry that people don't think he is as smart as he is. There have been embarrassing attempts at erudition in the past - journalists remember cringing at his attempts to make jokes about Juvenal in a speech at Granada's What The Papers Say awards. But this is a student who got four 'A's at A level, then joined Lesney because he thought Oxbridge, after the seminary, would be 'more of the same'. Why should he worry?
Maybe he wants to be liked too much. After all, he chased John Cleese, after the fax episode, and dined him till he was won over. But if he wanted to be loved, he wouldn't take on the Arts Council job. It's like breaking up a family row as an outsider. The only thing that's going to get the warring arts world factions together is turning on him.
Won't he even acknowledge that the work-shy image is something of a pose now? He shakes his head. It's a question of balance, he says. 'If something comes up that requires seven-day working, like the Forte bid, then I will do it. But it rarely does. I think many people just use work as a way of not confronting themselves.'
He smiles broadly, confident in the strength of his argument. You can't knock it. No wonder some City analysts used to call him the Fairground Hypnotist. He is beguiling; a master of persuasion.
He will need all of that and more at the Arts Council. I would bet that at times over the next few years, digging the garden at his converted deanery in Donegal every weekend, Robinson is going to ask himself whether it really is worth all the effort.
I wonder what he will decide? Clearly he likes challenges.
No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.
ROBINSON IN A MINUTE
1948: born 23 October in Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal
1960: St Mary's College, Castlehead, Lancashire
1965-70: cost clerk to works accountant, Lesney Toys
1974: controller, Lex Industrial Distribution and Hire
1980-83: finance director to MD, Coca-Cola S Bottlers
1984: managing director, GrandMet Contract Services
1987: chief executive, Compass Group
1991-95: chief executive to chairman, Granada Group
1998: chairman, Arts Council of England.