UK: The best advice money can buy.

UK: The best advice money can buy. - When you're spending millions on the next move, you want to be sure you have the best advisers on your side. So who are the City's stars so admired, yet resented, by their employers?

by Chris Blackhurst.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When you're spending millions on the next move, you want to be sure you have the best advisers on your side. So who are the City's stars so admired, yet resented, by their employers?

Open the financial pages of any newspaper these days and the chances are there will be an article breathlessly recounting how the salaries of even the lowliest City workers have reached epic proportions.

But while it's not just the top deal-makers who are raking it in, make no mistake, the City still operates a star system as rigid as anything in Hollywood. In the heat of a takeover bid, a named bank, broking house or PR agency is not enough, companies want the stars within each firm. Everyone, it seems, wants to play fantasy football - to assemble their own dream team of City advisers.

Small wonder, given the amount of money they're being asked to part with.

According to one adviser in the takeover industry, on a £1 billion deal, the bidder can expect to pay £20 million in advisory fees, twice that if it wins. This is for pure advice - underwriting the bid, which is not included, can push the total bill towards £100 million. The defender, meanwhile, can look forward to having to shell out upwards of £15 million for advice. The total bill for the Granada-Forte battle, for example, came to £130 million. When Lasmo, the oil company, fought off Enterprise's £1.6 billion offer, its battery of corporate finance, broking, legal, accountancy and public relations advisers cost £24 million. Enterprise also spent a similar sum, in vain.

Such is the demand for particular individuals that the City is fast moving towards a situation where certain people are bigger than their firms.

If the big hitter the clients want is not available, they will go elsewhere, rather than be fobbed off with a lightweight. More and more, contracts specify that the firm will supply the named executive to work exclusively on their account.

Firms are caught in a bind. On the one hand they want to end the star system, to bring other employees to the fore, to increase their chances of winning the business. On the other, they want the deal, and the fee.

The result is that the star system is tightening its hold and a handful of individuals pick up more and more work, which adds to their lustre, and puts them in even more demand. Their colleagues do not get a look-in. Breaking into this magic circle is down to a combination of factors: skill, judgment and luck. One great deal, and a huge amount of exposure, can make all the difference.

So who are these star players, and why are they rated so highly? We set out to assemble our own City dream team starting with the corporate financier.

Currently the hottest City banking property is Brian Keelan of SBC Warburg.

Until Andrew Regan made his audacious bid for the Co-op earlier this year, few outside the City had heard of Keelan. Now his is the name that is pencilled first into any dream team.

When Keelan was asked to spearhead the Co-op's defence, it seemed to the outside world that the historic institution was playing safe, choosing a solid pair of hands from the pukka Warburg. Those in the know thought differently. 'Like the Salvation Army hiring the Hun,' was the verdict of one City commentator.

With his slicked-back hair and a broad, stocky frame, Keelan looks far more like a minder from the East End gangland than the stereotypical corporate financier. But appearances can be so deceptive. Oxford-educated Keelan's intellect is described by one colleague as 'high-octane'.

Conventional wisdom might have suggested the Co-op throw in the towel and try to accommodate Regan. Keelan, however, had made his name within the corporate finance community as someone, said the colleague, who, 'never thinks too much about the conventional wisdom'.

A rival was admiring, albeit grudgingly: 'Brian is on the edge, he goes as close as he can without falling over.'

While Keelan is a member of SBC Warburg, he comes from the more aggressive Swiss Bank Corporation half of the marriage. At SBC he led a series of audacious manoeuvres, making a daring raid on Trafalgar House on behalf of Hong Kong Land ('We bounced through the door,' is his description of the assault on Trafalgar, owner of Cunard and the Ritz Hotel), a strike against Amec for Kvaerner and a clash with Sir Alastair Morton, the no-less combative Eurotunnel chairman. Keelan advised Transmanche-Link, the builder of the tunnel, and criticised a rights issue by Eurotunnel.

In the House of Commons, on Trafalgar House's bid for Northern Electric, the tactics of SBC and Keelan, acting for Trafalgar House, were attacked by Jack Cunningham, Labour's then trade and industry spokesman, for being too aggressive. Keelan is unapologetic. 'There is an old saying, if you want to make an enemy, do someone a favour. I am not ashamed of any of the deals we have done.'

It was his pugnacious, forthright style - rather than the historical, grand reputation of Warburg - that so endeared him, in their hour of crisis, to the Co-op. Sure enough, he did not disappoint, turning Control Risks, a firm of private investigators, loose on Regan and his partners, with fantastic results.

If a fight promises to turn nasty, two names currently stand out head and shoulders above the rest: Keelan and John Thornton at Goldman Sachs.

If clients cannot secure Keelan, they will go to Thornton at Goldman, rather that use someone else at SBC Warburg, and vice versa. In a survey of the 100 most powerful people in Britain, Thornton came in at 27th, one ahead of Carol Galley, the feared fund manager from Mercury Asset Management who played an influential role in the Granada Forte battle, and well ahead of the likes of Lord Rothschild and Richard Branson.

The reason for Thornton's prominence is not hard to discern. For his employer, Goldman Sachs, he has helped defend a whole raft of companies against takeover from some of the most formidable names in business: Pilkington against BTR; BAT against Sir James Goldsmith; Woolworth against Dixons; Standard Chartered against Lloyds Bank; Racal against Sir Nigel Rudd and ICI against Hanson. When Hong Kong business tycoon Richard Li was looking at selling satellite broadcaster Star TV, it was Thornton who brokered the deal with Rupert Murdoch.

A hyperactive, almost manic American, who talks nineteen to the dozen, Thornton eats, sleeps and breathes each struggle. While English banks pursue a more gentlemanly course - Keelan being the exception - Thornton isn't shy about going for the jugular. When Lords Hanson and White appeared to be mounting a bid for ICI and the chemical group started scrambling its defences, it was Thornton who advocated blitzing their Lordships.

A team of investigators was dispatched from Goldman's offices and came up trumps with the revelation that Hanson had secretly invested in racehorses.

Aggressive and single-minded, Thornton doesn't rest until he gets the deal. Thanks to him, Goldman has appeared in countless bids as a second adviser, after the long-retained English bank. When Nestle launched its bid for Rowntree, Thornton camped outside Rowntree chairman Ken Dixon's office to secure the defence mandate. Unafraid of cold calling chairmen to warn them of danger, he rang Sir Ernest Harrison, out of the blue, to say that Racal looked vulnerable to attack from GEC or Cable & Wireless.

Thornton, though, had a solution: if Racal demerged Vodafone, the threat would pass. Sir Ernest took his advice; Racal remained independent.

Rival English banks who have to watch Thornton and Goldman take their business are sniffy about them 'Defence is very easy to sell to a client,' says one financier. 'Often, the client is desperate and will try anything. They are not as good as they say they are.'

Next on the fantasy team is David Mayhew, an altogether more urbane character, the blue-chip stockbroker par excellence. 'The finest corporate broker in London,' is how one City commentator describes Mayhew, a partner in Cazenove. 'The powerhouse of the firm,' says another. So valuable is Mayhew to Cazenove, in terms of his business-winning ability, that when the firm came to appoint a senior partner recently, the job went to another partner, three years Mayhew's junior, because, it was said, he would be too great a loss in a management role.

Mayhew is the comeback king, a broker whose career seemed over during the Guinness affair a decade ago, when the Serious Fraud Office brought charges against him. The charges were withdrawn, but lesser men would still have suffered a knock-on effect. Mayhew, though, bounced back, and is frequently drafted in on large bids to shore up institutions or to go into the market to buy stock. Smooth and courtly, the immensely experienced Mayhew knows everyone of any importance in the market, and is on first-name terms with them all. There is nobody he cannot ring up - and nobody who will not respond to his call. When Rocco Forte was hit with the bid from Granada, he assembled a mighty team of the banks Warburg and Morgan Stanley, where he had close personal friendships with two of the directors, and UBS, on the broking side. Still, they were not enough. Said Forte: 'I wanted a bit extra so I called in David Mayhew of Cazenove.' Not Cazenove, notice, but David Mayhew of Cazenove. The distinction is subtle but important.

Similarly, with takeover law, clients often don't want any old partner of Slaughter and May, one of the City's leading firms. They ask for Michael Pescod. Tall, stylishly dressed, Pescod does not look like a typical bookish lawyer. Clients like him because he talks their language. He owns racehorses and, rather than dusty bookcases, his office is filled with modern art. Although he works in the background, those involved in deals with him say he is at the forefront of any roundtable discussion, advising on strategy, specialising in mapping out the bid timetable in his head. He has a fantastically sharp eye for detail.

Among City PRs, as important in modern merger battles as bankers, brokers and lawyers, again, one name is top: Alan Parker. Brunswick, the agency he founded, has cleaned up in City public relations these last few years. No other firm comes close to its market share or involvement in so many deals. The son of the ex-British Rail boss, Sir Peter, Alan's style is gregarious and deceptively relaxed, a cheeky chappy with a shrewd eye.

His latest coup has been to muscle in on the lucrative BA account, ousting the star of the previous generation, Sir Tim Bell. Brunswick, which is private, earns over £10 million a year in fees, most of which has come from City takeovers and bid battles. In conversation or at press briefings, Parker's approach is deceptively laid-back, and nearly always off the record, but this disappears back at his London office. Every morning his team gathers to talk tactics, to analyse and dissect the day's press coverage, and discuss the meetings ahead. He runs the firm on a collegiate basis - everyone knows more or less what the others are doing - always, though, with him in charge of the biggest clients and largest deals. Parker will personally ring round the clock and harry away, not taking no for an answer, until he is convinced his message has got through. He encourages his troops to go that extra yard, sometimes leading to accusations by journalists that they go too far. 'The key to success is control of the press,' is his oft-repeated mantra.

It is easy to be taken in by Parker's publicly casual manner. When Hanson was lining up to tilt at ICI six years ago, Lord Hanson went for the tried-and-trusted advisers at the time: Bell and Brian Basham, for whom Parker once worked before branching out on his own. On the other side Parker and his team hit the phones, working away at the press, until, eventually, Hanson cracked. In a letter leaked to the press, His Lordship complained that Parker, 'shows himself to be running rings around us ... What sort of clown is he?'

If there is one area where Parker is weak, it is in parliamentary relations.

Unlike Bell's firm, Lowe Bell, Parker's is not known for its lobbying expertise. Parker has friends in New Labour and knows Peter Mandelson, the powerful minister without portfolio but he is not so close to this Government as Bell, say, was to the Tories. As Bell's connections with the centre of power at Westminster have been drastically curtailed, following the Tory rout, and with Ian Greer virtually destroyed by the 'cash for questions' scandal, the final place on the dream team, for a lobbyist, belongs to Andrew Gifford of GJW. A former adviser to David Steel, he has been involved in more than 100 bids including most of those in the utilities sector. Neither Tory nor Labour, Gifford has succeeded by building political links on all sides. He is also a signed-up member of the hunting, shooting and fishing brigade and has sealed many a deal with his City contacts on the grouse moors. A founder member of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, Gifford has managed to keep GJW clear of the sleaze that has tainted many in the lobbying profession - although his image took a dent last year when it emerged that he was working for Libya's Colonel Gaddafi.

This then is our fantasy team. Other may disagree and may have connections with other advisers, but there is not a company in Britain which would not feel comfier with this lot on their side - if they could afford them.

Chris Blackhurst is assistant editor of the Independent on Sunday.

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