UK: THE DAVIDSON INTERVIEW - GERRY ROBINSON.

UK: THE DAVIDSON INTERVIEW - GERRY ROBINSON. - To the arts world he is still some kind of accountant from hell; to the City he is a miracle worker. Perhaps it's the effect of his charm but no one seems clear, says Andrew Davidson, how Granada's chief ach

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

To the arts world he is still some kind of accountant from hell; to the City he is a miracle worker. Perhaps it's the effect of his charm but no one seems clear, says Andrew Davidson, how Granada's chief achieved the group's dramatic turnaround.

Gerry Robinson walks on water, they say in the City. It should be pointed out that this might be a rather unfortunate description for the son of a carpenter who once trained to be a priest, but the Granada Group chief executive has his fans and his turnaround of the sprawling television and catering conglomerate certainly speaks for itself. In 1991, the year he replaced Derek Lewis (now running the prison service), Granada posted a pre-tax loss of £110 million on a turnover of £1.4 billion. Last year it was a profit of £265 million on a turnover of £2 billion. With figures like these, Robinson's band of devoted stockbroking followers are prepared to believe he regularly flies to the moon and back as well.

Sitting in the vast white sitting-room of his fine white house in London's leafy Holland Park, Robinson, 46, looks less the miracle worker and rather more the tired father who has had some rough nights with his baby son. The boyish, sandy hair flops forward and the blue eyes twinkle, but there are bags underneath which no amounts of Calpol will help shift. He pours tea brought in by a maid, also dressed in white, and sinks into a plump, white sofa by the fireplace. Large oil paintings decorate the walls, a white grand piano sits by the windows. The man once vilified as a potential destroyer of British television but now more usually described as the premier British businessman of his generation - actually he was born in Ireland - exudes calm and purpose. He is also so charming that it is easy to forgive him for being rather elusive.

For Robinson is the current holder of Management Today's Most Cancelled Interview trophy, an award he won by shifting this meeting no less than five times in the space of a fortnight. The difficulty, I gather now, is that he doesn't like working long days in the office - in at 9.30am, out at 6pm - now that Granada is running smoothly, so occasionally things get shunted around in the squeeze - things like me.

In the end we meet at his home on a warm Thursday evening at six sharp, with no threat of business getting in the way. Dressed in elegantly-tailored cardigan and slacks, he looks like he's been there a while. He says he works on the sensible principle that eight good hours in the office are better than, say, 12 tired ones. He thinks others at Granada are beginning to follow his lead, though one has to say it is always easier for the boss, especially if you are the one with at least £10 million to come home to, as well as the wife and kids.

That is the sum Robinson is believed to have made from his last job, heading the management buy-out of Compass, the catering specialist he bought from Grand Metropolitan in 1987. Others in the City say he made £20 million. Whatever - what's a few million between admirers? - he doesn't have to rely too heavily on his £482,000 a year salary, his £1.5 million-worth of Granada shares and his £2-£3million-worth of share options, nor indeed worry about whether others think he is giving value for money.

For everyone thinks Robinson, who trained as an accountant in London's East End, comes cheap at the price. It seems only yesterday that the group, founded by the socialist entertainments mogul, Sidney Bernstein, and best known for its television arm, was teetering on the edge, desperately selling off its bingo halls and raising a panic rights issue to stay afloat. Now it is the toast of the stock market. The intriguing thing is that the more thoughtful among Robinson's fans aren't quite sure how he has done it.

he visible changes are a better bottom line, a couple of major acquisitions, Sutcliffe contract catering and London Weekend Television, and the redivision of Granada into three: 'television', 'rental and computer services', and 'leisure and services'. 'Three clearly defined and well focused divisions' trumpets the last annual report, which hints, of course, that some might have thought they weren't. Costs have been cut, head office control re-established, targets set and hit - there is bags of 'focus', which is so fashionable that everyone simply has to have it, but nothing too radical. Indeed one or two have suggested that really it is just a bit like Granada a few years back.

So how has he done it? Those who work with him say he has a distinctive hands-off style: aims are laid out, managers are told to get on with it, figures are checked once a month. Most importantly, he does not get involved in detail where he doesn't need to. 'Everyone always thinks groups like Granada are run from the top,' says Robinson. 'They can't be. Personally when I was a junior I always hated having to explain the detail of what I was doing to someone else. Providing you deliver the thing at the end of the day, you like to be left alone. Most people I know manage things like that.' It does, of course, require trust and good communication, if only to make sure that unrealistic targets are not being set. That takes time to establish, one reason why Robinson quickly brought in his own right-hand man when he joined Granada. Charles Allen, another former Compass executive, is now chief executive of Granada's television division and chairman of the leisure and services division as well, all at the tender age of 38.

The only way of guaranteeing that the system works, continues Robinson, is ensuring that the people who report to you are able, so that whatever they run, they run well. The function of head office is then to be an 'unreasonable shareholder', with good reporting and reviewing processes which concentrate on the results they have set out to achieve.

It sounds deceptively simple stuff - and it is typical of Robinson to make light of it - but in reality, according to insiders, a lot has changed beneath the surface at Granada. One of the first tasks was unravelling a set of management structures that were confused and complicated, where no-one was really sure who was responsible for what. Next, morale was tackled by removing the 'for sale' signs on many of the businesses. Few knew what Granada's core businesses were; 'If you think about it,' says Allen, 'Gerry is one of the few bosses to come into a job like his and not start selling everything off. He has sold hardly anything. In fact, he has made many of the businesses more "core".' That is now being defined as 'media and services', but basically encompassing anything that is highly cash-generative.

Then there was a change in incentivising managers, getting rid of bonus schemes that encouraged executives to talk down targets, bringing in bigger salary and share-option packages and forcing everyone to look more closely at pricing. Too much was being undersold (for example, Granada TV sold Coronation Street, television's most watched soap, to the ITV network for less than the rival, lower-rating Emmerdale Farm). Everywhere the concentration was on profitability and growth, backed by what Allen describes as Robinson's 'streetwise shrewdness' concerning organisation and motivation - partly inspired by what they had both learnt within Grand Met, and partly a reaction to it - and by his innate gregariousness, the famed charm that enables him to communicate with staff at all levels.

And it is the charm that you keep coming back to. Everyone mentions it, perhaps to the extent of almost being suspicious of it, as at times it makes Robinson a dangerous man to do business with. At one City stockbrokers they have even nick-named him 'The Fair-ground Hypnotist', so persuasive is his patter and manner. 'It is the way he draws you in, and then the voice lowers, and it is like you are sinking into hypnosis,' says one analyst. 'We have this joke that one day in a Granada meeting we will all come to with a jolt and find we have taken half our clothes off or something.' Others might suspect that this is a bit of kneejerk reaction to Robinson's Donegal roots; some feel he has a touch of the Blarney, even though he has not a trace of an Irish accent.

ntriguingly, Robinson does not really see himself as Irish, as he has spent most of his life here, although he loves his roots and describes his extended family as 'typically Irish', his father and many of his brothers being involved in the building trade. 'I'm a bit of a mess really, ' he laughs. 'If I'm in Ireland when the rugby is being played I don't know who to support.' Of course, not everyone succumbs to his charm. Famously, Robinson fell out with Granada TV chief executive David Plowright shortly after he arrived, precipitating an extraordinary bout of corporate civil war that made front-page news in many newspapers. The row centred on whether the targets set by Robinson for the television arm were achievable, without damaging programme quality. Robinson eventually forced Plowright out, and feels he has been vindicated by the television division's performance since then (more profit and more awards), but the manner in which it was all done still rankles with many in the arts world, who tend to see him as some kind of accountant from hell. The row culminated in John Cleese's well-publicised fax to Robinson telling him to 'fuck off out of it, you ignorant, upstart caterer'.

ard times? Robinson looks thoughtful. Not many bosses are subjected to that kind of high-profile ridicule from a public figure and no one doubts that the battering he took has left some scars. 'I had no anticipation of that kind of thing when it came and it shook me. I wonder if I would have taken this job if I had known? It was just unbelievable. I was depicted as single-handedly destroying British television. It didn't change my perception that what I had done with David going was absolutely correct. Whether or not it could have been better handled or given more time, I'm not really sure. You see, David and I got on really well the five or six times we met before the bust-up. All I was trying to get from him was some kind of assessment as to what could be done, what were the realistic assessments. Why did we just accept that Granada TV was making £30 million one year and then suddenly making £13 million?' Certainly many agreed with Robinson's assessment that television was one division that was being run rather too independently of head office - indeed there is a convincing argument that Granada group chairman Alex Bernstein wanted a tough outsider purely to bring everything back into line - but the speed with which change was pushed through was tactless, to say the least, and bound to create strain. Many of the board directors who helped Granada TV win its franchise back in 1991 have left as profit has boomed. Robinson shrugs. 'We would never have had that kind of dramatic turnaround if we had done everything slower. If you are running something, and you are paid very well to do it - and people are - you have a respon-sibility to do that correctly. And there is nothing worse than a sort of patient acceptance that you will need a bit of time to sort things out ... I have every sympathy with how difficult it was for David but that is not enough, we still had to have the thing run properly.' Ironically it did Robinson's business reputation no harm at all - indeed it earned him extra Brownie points in the City for standing up to the luvvy barrage - but clearly it coloured people's perception of him outside the Square Mile too. Robinson the Philistine, perhaps; Robinson the 'upstart caterer', certainly. 'It could well be I am upset that people see me as that. I'm trying to work it out in my own mind why I think of it as such a failure in the way it happened. It was the beginning of an awful lot of criticism of me and people hate being criticised in public. It isn't much fun.' Ironically, points out one of his friends, Robinson was peculiarly vulnerable to scorn from the arts establishment. Your average Home-Counties-living, gardening-and-golfing boss would have shrugged it off easily. Robinson, however, lives a stone's throw from Cleese in west London and lists opera, chess, reading, music and painting among his hobbies. The criticism really did hurt, and it is completely in character that he should have pursued and lunched Cleese after the famous fax. 'We have met up a couple of times and I like him. I think he understands that it just wasn't as simple as it looks.' Nothing is with Robinson, you suspect. He is so different from the mould of the average plc boss that you would be hard pushed to know what to emphasise as the determining factors in his biography. Born in Ireland, one of 10 children, brought up in London, sent to a Lancashire seminary, dropped out at 16 (with four A levels), started as a cashier at Lesney Toys in the East End, jumped to Lex, then Grand Met, led the management buy-out of Compass in 1987, and all that money in the bank by the age of 40. He has a son and a daughter by his first marriage, and now another son and a daughter from his second.

Friends say that the big family gave him his easy-going geniality, the seminary his disciplined tenacity, Lex and GrandMet his management nous. Eric Walters, another old GrandMet hand, now at Schroder Ventures, says it was obvious right from his early years that Robinson was a star in the making. It was Walters who took Robinson with him from Lex Services to GrandMet in 1980, and who provided the reference when Bernstein asked him about the Compass boss four years ago. Many were surprised that Robinson was prepared to leave the company that had made his fortune but Walters knew that he was ambitious. 'He's got great business acumen and a nice easy-going style, but underneath he is very sharp and not afraid to get to grips with issues. He is just so persistent and tenacious.' obinson says he fell into business by chance, after he had fallen out of love with religion. As the bright boy in the family the young Gerrard Jude had been marked out for the priesthood, but the idea palled. Why? 'By the age of 16 I just ...' he stops and laughs. 'Well, you weren't allowed to chase women and it seemed a pretty bad idea to me, and in the end I went completely off the whole exercise.' Back at home in London's Bethnal Green, he went straight to the local job centre and was sent to Lesney in Hackney. He remembers it as a bit of a culture shock. 'It employed 3,500 women making toys. You can imagine coming from a seminary into that ...' A dream come true, you might have thought.

He never really wanted to train as an accountant, but he started as a cost clerk and one thing led to another. Of course the tag has always stayed with him but attempts to stereotype him as a cost-cutter or a turnaround specialist - or even, dare it be said, just a caterer - seem to fall pretty wide of the mark. Indeed there is now evidence he has been bitten by the tele-vision bug.

He is already chairman of both ITN and BSkyB, in which Granada owns stakes, and talks proudly of the audiences and awards Granada has won since he took over. He freely admits to reading a number of scripts in advance, in particular Cracker, a favourite, and Band Of Gold. 'I love the television side,' he says. 'It's a wonderful feeling to make programmes.' Any danger of going native? 'Ha,' he laughs, 'no, I don't know enough about it.' Which is disingenuous as, according to Allen, Robinson's strength is the speed with which he can understand a business, and he certainly knows enough to plot Granada's future. Now so much cash is rolling in, there is enormous pressure on Robinson to spend it, or give it back to shareholders. Many of Granada's City investors would rather he spent it, and expect him to target media and catering, but what can he buy? British television is hemmed in by strict ownership laws which prevent him bidding for another ITV station, and Granada is already committed to selling its 11% stake in BSkyB when it can get a fair return for it (worth about £500 million and rising when we met).

t the time of writing the ownership laws are due to be relaxed, but not by much. Likewise in motorway service stations, another lucrative area for Granada, there are only so many stations you can build. Overseas then? New areas? 'I have a very simple view of how we take it forward,' says Robinson. 'We do not add to the sectors we are in. I am very clear on that. We are very active in terms of looking for opportunities within the fields we are in, primarily in catering and television. And I think it is likely in the next couple of years that we will find acquisitions that fit very well. And if we do, fine, we hope to make as much out of them as we can, and if we don't, we will give the money back to the shareholders.' Yet would that be popular? 'People see it as some kind of wall that you run into,' he agrees, 'but I don't think of it as a wall. It is quite important to know what the ownership of the company is. And it isn't us, it is the shareholders. And if we cannot use the money the company generates then we should give it back - either in the form of buying back some of the shares or an enhanced dividend or other ways of doing it.' So Granada will keep on feeding and entertaining Britain, if not yet the world. There are still those who wonder if Robinson is in there for the long haul. Some of his fans in the City - and there are now many brokers who will simply invest in anything that he is involved with - think he may have his eye on a glorious return to GrandMet after Lord Sheppard's retirement. That, they say, is why Allen has been all over Granada's various different businesses in his role as heir to the throne. No, retorts Robinson. 'The idea that I am going to flit through this is just not right.' He doesn't have to work, point out his friends. The challenge of expanding Granada will keep him, for there is far more to do there than at somewhere like Grand Met.

Anyway, he points out, it is not a one-man show. Those keen to lionise him should remember that the person who deserves the real credit for Granada's revival is Alex Bernstein (son of Sidney) who stood by his new chief executive throughout his very tricky start when many of his father's ideals appeared torn to shreds. According to Robinson, Bernstein, who was in hospital recovering from a triple heart by-pass operation when we met, has never got the credit he deserves for tackling Granada's problems. 'He would have got plenty of stick had it gone wrong, and in fact got very little praise for it when it worked,' says Robinson. 'At the end of the day he went out and brought somebody in and made it happen, not me.' Even so, Robinson now has a lot of expectations to live up to.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES

1948: Born 23 October; Educated St Mary's College, Castlehead;

1965: Cost clerk, Lesney Toys;

1970: Works accountant, Lesney Toys;

1974: Financial controller, Lex Industrial Distribution and Hire;

1980: Finance director, Coca-Cola Southern Bottlers, subsidiary of GrandMet plc and franchisee of US Coca-Cola;

1981: Sales and marketing director, Coca-Cola SB;

1983: Managing director, Coca-Cola SB;

1984: Managing director, GrandMet Contract Services;

1987: Chief executive, Compass Group;

1991: Chief executive, Granada Group plc; This year Gerry Robinson also became chairman of BSkyB and ITN.

WHAT PEOPLE SAY

'He is the only man who has ever worked for me who made me think: "One day, I could work for him". ' Eric Walters, Schroder Ventures, once Robinson's boss at Lex.

'He has got tremendous warmth and honesty in dealing with people; possibly because of his background and upbringing he is able to operate at any level with anyone. There's no stuffiness at all.' Charles Allen, chief executive of Granada's television division.

'Let's be blunt. Granada's following in the City is not to do with the business. It's Robinson. And a lot of us feel his game plan must be to go back to GrandMet eventually.' An analyst.

'The great thing about Gerry is that he never overcomplicates things.' John Nelson, Lazards.

'This is a story of boardroom savagery, the like of which British television has never seen.' Ann Clwyd, Labour's shadow heritage secretary, on the effect of Robinson's reorganisation of Granada TV, 1993.

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