His latest achievement - getting the Channel Tunnel built in spite of everything - is renowned. So is his temper. Andrew Davidson digs a little deeper.
Sir Alastair Morton groans in mock weariness at the hoary old epithet: 'Abrasive? Me? If I was really as abrasive as everyone says I would have been fully abraded by now, wouldn't I?'
And he laughs. Morton, 56, his blue eyes twinkling, is in a good mood this morning. After months of appearing drained and exhausted, he is, according to his friends, back to his bouncy, combative best. Thirteen floors up, in Eurotunnel's newish offices in London's Adelphi, off the Strand, he is busy with his usual panoply of interview tricks. Pacing the room, shuffling in his files for letters, moaning about the media, giving long, painstakingly detailed answers to even the simplest questions. Then suddenly he will surprise with a joke, or an insult, and a flicker of a mischievous smile.
Tall, balding, by turns courteous and curt, the Eurotunnel chairman has borne the burden of a vast and sceptical press interest for seven years now. In that time the company, supervising the biggest engineering project in the world, has lurched from row to rights issue to impending collapse, every time popping back up again like one of those inflatable life rafts that never quite sinks, but always looks as if it is about to. If, finally, Morton gets the whole operation going successfully - and he has already got it built, which is amazing enough - it will be an extraordinary achievement. Whether he will still be around to see it recover its vast costs is another matter.
This month, possibly, will see the long-awaited start of the company's Le Shuttle turn-up drive-on train services, another landmark for the Eurotunnel operation. You have to say 'possibly' because just about everything associated with the project, from the debt to the train services, has been dogged by delays and rescheduling. The only thing running ahead of it all is the cost. Over £10 billion, according to press estimates; rather less, according to Morton, who is, not surprisingly, a bit touchy on the subject.
'The tunnel up to opening cost £8.6 billion including rolled-up interest,' explains the Eurotunnel chairman with a kind of wearied resilience. 'But when BP or Exxon talk about major capital projects they don't usually put in the rolled-up interest. We had to do that from day one and also put in the corporate overheads because we have nowhere else to put them. The actual cost overrun of the construction and equipment is just under 70%. Yes, that is more than originally budgeted but nothing like the figures bandied around by the media.' The £10.4 billion figure that is often cited is the total amount raised to cover the interest payments to 1998. How much are they? Some £600 million a year? 'No,' says Morton. 'Work them out for yourself.'
Ah, the famous Morton charm (the payments are around £700 million a year). Even in a good mood, he can be surprisingly unyielding, a factor which employees at Eurotunnel have found can make life quite interesting. But in his defence, Morton frankly has grown tired of all the carping. As if getting the Channel Tunnel built and the services running were not enough, he has also had to suffer the nation's general scepticism about the project. That, you sense in talking to him, is what hurts the most: the fact that many, especially in the media, have made it plain that they feel his best efforts stem from some sort of folie de grandeur.
'Have we got a fair press?' says Morton. 'I don't complain about it because the only time you should complain is when they invade your personal life, which they very seldom do with me. No, I just object to the way that over eight years, the media in Britain have been unable to raise their sights and comprehend the events and socioeconomic changes of which the tunnel is the largest single symbol.'
Which are what? 'We are part of Europe, this is the main link in the chain. Our trade is changing, our lives are changing, the south-east is changing, our transport routes are changing, our skill requirements are changing, the location requirements of industry and employment are changing. There is very little comprehension of the significance of the tunnel to that, and very little appreciation of the tunnel as a financial and technological achievement.'
'Basically, one editor put it to me perfectly. "Alastair, you don't understand. The press are your opposition. There has to be an opposition to your project. We are it." I said: "But I don't understand. I thought you were supposed to cover those for and against?" Then they say that personally they are very impressed by it, but professionally they have to criticise ...'
Morton pauses, looking across the Thames at the Festival Hall opposite, and realises it is probably no good going on. One who has worked closely with him in the past says that he has allowed it all to become an unhealthy obsession - Morton frequently sounds off on 'the British psyche' and what he calls the British national motto: 'There will be trouble if you do that' - but maybe he has a point. As with compact discs or mobile phones, the British are only likely to embrace the tunnel properly when it looks as if it is safely out of date.
The other side of the coin is that it can at times make Morton seem as if he has a rather bad case of tunnel vision. No sooner have I made the point about compact discs and mobile phones than he is in like lightning. 'Now, you have told me that. You explain to me how Britain is going to cope with the newly industrialised countries west of Japan who are investing giant sums in applied or technical education of their children?'
Well, perhaps Britain won't? Morton's face clouds momentarily, then he ploughs on. 'So do you characterise the English attitudes to the tunnel as being a subconscious recognition that they have no future and therefore the country should be cast adrift and just become a tourist resort?' No, it is just that as a nation we do not like change. 'Ah,' cries Morton. 'But what is the use of being frightened? How will we get out of this?'
And so on. It is intriguing that a conversation with Morton, certainly as a journalist, only really lights up when two criteria have been met. One, you tell him that you think the tunnel is a splendid idea - he relaxes visibly - and two, you talk about something else. Then he really gets going: transport infrastructure, British character, education and training, politics and politicians, the challenge from overseas. He is constantly trying to widen the conversation to take in a broader picture, but always, as it were, viewed from a hole in Shakespeare Cliff, Folkestone. The same point is made again and again: Britain's apathy to the tunnel is part of a wider malaise.
As if to twist the knife, the reaction to the project in France, of course, has been rather different. Eurotunnel is really twin companies, with another half over the Channel run, until recently, by Morton's co-chairman, the Frenchman Andre Benard, now retired. It is amusing - for us, if not for Morton - to consider the two views: in France, the delight in a Big Project, the enjoyment of the grand gesture that brings much needed work and industry to a deprived area (the Pas de Calais); in Britain, the grouching at the delays and horror at the ambitious nature of the operation, the outrage that it might mean bigger roads and more rail tracks through the mainly affluent south-east. It's reflected in the financing, where there are four small French shareholders in the project for every British one, almost the exact inverse of the projections as to who will use the tunnel once it is up and running. (Britain, the land of 'rain and tea', as Le Monde recently put it, is not exactly a popular holiday destination for the French.)
Morton, therefore, may feel he got the fuzzy end of the lollipop. The other theory, of course, is that he has brought a fair proportion of the problems on himself with his belligerent approach. Yet it was probably that approach which encouraged the Bank of England's Sir David Walker, now deputy chairman of Lloyds, to hand-pick him for the job in the first place. Born in South Africa to a Scottish father and Afrikaans mother, with a tough reputation from his years in oil (British National Oil Corporation) and banking (Guinness Peat), Morton certainly appeared to have the right pedigree for what by anyone's estimation was going to be a daunting project. No one, however, expected quite so many sparks to fly in the seemingly never-ending battles that have gone on between Eurotunnel, its contractors and its financiers.
To be fair to Morton, the set-up was always going to cause trouble. The whole idea of a tunnel - chosen, as people tend to forget, from a range of wacky schemes that included tubes and bridges and islands - came from the contractors themselves, who treated it all as a rather nifty job-creation scheme. Once given the go-ahead, they then set up the company to suck in and pay out the huge sums of money they were anticipating for the biggest construction project in the world. Somehow, it wasn't quite so simple. 'We were literally just a blank piece of paper in an empty room with one word on it: Eurotunnel,' explains Morton. 'Out of that grew this organisation portrayed as bullying and strong, leaning on everyone in sight, beating up the poor contractors to have its way.' Morton arches his eyebrows. 'That's quite a transformation.'
The well-documented arguments over cost overruns and delays reached a climax in 1990, when, according to Morton, the whole enterprise was 12 hours from liquidation as bankers demanded that the feuding stop. The contractors wanted Morton's head, but didn't get it. Instead, he took on the chief executive role as well as that of chairman at Eurotunnel, and hired a new project director. The bad feeling continued until last year with the arrival of Tarmac's Neville Simms as head of TML, the contractors' organisation. Simms' softly softly approach to separating the rows over costs from actually getting the thing built has won universal praise, especially from Morton. 'It's regrettable he did not become UK chairman of TML some years ago,' he adds, acidly.
Simms says he has always enjoyed his dealings with the mercurial Morton. 'He's a man who does like to win on the day and has an enormous capacity for the game both intellectually and through the power of his personality,' says Simms, choosing his words carefully. He laughs loudly when I tell him that Morton is claiming credit for inviting the Bank of England in to supervise their recent rapprochement. The important point is that they get on. Morton makes no secret of the fact that he loathed TML's previous frontman, Jack Lemley, a hard-nosed American brought in as chief executive.
'Lemley played a good role in finishing the tunnelling and an extremely destructive role thereafter when he found he couldn't break a fixed-price contract that he simply couldn't live with, so his sole priority became to break it open and charge cost-plus,' says Morton. 'The way he set it up and conducted it was not admirable and led to immense friction.' Insiders say Lemley, who had to report to his own board and operated one level below the Eurotunnel chairman, was in an impossible position.
Others have long maintained, however, that Morton's fierce temper and often arrogant aggressiveness can make a crisis out of a drama, whether it is dealing with contractors who want more money or simply asking bankers for more time. Is he really that bad? Or maybe, as friends suggest, he just plays up to the abrasive tag because he enjoys it? Simms, for one, declares that he has always been mystified by Morton's reputation, as he is certainly not half as abrasive as some of the characters he habitually comes across in the construction industry.
'You're right,' concedes Morton disarmingly, 'I rarely lose my temper, but the reputation is a very useful asset. I don't have to lose my temper. I haven't lost it more than two or three times throughout the whole project. Can I specify when?' he laughs at the question. 'No, I can't, but, well, I remember one occasion, a breach of trust, a breach of faith, a breach of everything by the contractors over something they had promised to do in the middle of the project. Then I really got annoyed.'
Perhaps surprisingly, few of the disputes have been between the two sets of national interests involved. Morton accedes that it is no coincidence that neither he nor Benard, the two men who have really shoved the project through, are typical representatives of their home teams. 'What has been important in this project has been the partnership between Andre and myself. He's a Frenchman who has worked all his life for Shell - that makes him a Royal Dutch Frenchman. I am South African born, with American experience and a Scottish father. So neither by birth nor inheritance nor education am I Anglo-English, nor is Benard Franco-French.' That, he says, has made it far easier to work together and always back each other up.
But now Benard has retired, and another Frenchman, Georges-Christian Chazot, has been recruited to fill the chief executive's slot, leaving some to wonder how long Morton will stick it out. But can he ever walk away from what has occupied his every waking moment for the past seven and half years? Sure, he says, he announced long ago that he wanted to hand over the day-to-day running of the company when it became a consumer service company, and he has done that. He will bow out of the chairmanship when the company is cruising - if not into the black, then at least on its way there. Perhaps in 1996, or 1997.
And then what? Not another huge project, that's for certain. 'I've no regrets,' says Morton. 'I wouldn't have missed this for the world, but I won't take on another one.' Now he is broadening out. Already a non-executive director of National Power and Lucas and a founding chairman of the Kent Training and Enterprise Council, he has also just become chairman of the National Youth Orchestra. Others have tried to interest him in the new-look South Africa - his wife Sara returns there every year, and he will be going back with her next spring - but his heart is in Europe. Most specifically, he wants to play a part in the rebuilding of Britain.
'I think,' he says, 'my generation has a job to do to give a good account of itself before the end of the century, so we don't leave too much of a mess for the next generation. The physical infrastructure and the people infrastructure are the two great tasks of the next five years.' With that in mind, he readily accepted the Chancellor of the Exchequer's invitation to head the Government's new private finance initiative last year. Kenneth Clarke, explaining his choice, described Morton as a man 'with a private finance pedigree second to none'. In fact, those who know Morton well have asked whether the Treasury really knew what it was taking on.
The private finance initiative stands in the long line of Government Big Ideas, after privatisation and contracting out. The theory is that the capital investment required to create or modernise public services could, if handled correctly, be privately managed and financed. The benefits would be threefold: you transfer the risk of earning a return to the private sector, and get private-sector control on capital spend, operating methods and costs. And you lower the Public Sector Borrowing Rate. In theory, you can apply it to anything, from getting new rolling stock for British Rail or the Northern Line to providing new info-tech capabilities for government departments, and making use of the enormous government portfolio of unused land and buildings.
So much for the theory. Its application is fraught with difficulties. Morton set up a panel of private-sector bosses and top civil servants last year to work out what to do next. The problem in Whitehall, they found, was that while everyone paid lip service to the initiative and said what a jolly good idea it was, no one really knew how to go about it. Morton went first to Clarke, and then to the Prime Minister and told him, in his own words, 'either the private finance initiative is a central strategy of this Government or we can all go home'. Every Cabinet minister should have its pursuit as a central policy objective, coupled with dedicated staff located close to each Secretary of State. By July he had got the answer he wanted, and the Prime Minister had lined up behind him announcing his support.
Will it get any further? Morton is adamant, but picks his words with care. 'I am absolutely convinced it could happen and can happen. It remains to be seen whether there is the determination in government, and particularly the Treasury, to make it happen. The private finance panel is not owner or operator or financier or financial engineer for any of these schemes. All that happens elsewhere. We are the people who tell people what is needed to make it happen.' Morton will stay involved, he says, till it is done or he gets the feeling it is not going to get done.
By which time we may all be a little nearer to knowing whether Eurotunnel, that private finance initiative par excellence, is a hit or a miss. Morton, who, ahead of the opening of full services, already regularly pootles off through the tunnel to his office in Calais, has no doubts, but then he is paid (£306,703 a year) not to have. When he does stand down, most expect him to be warmly pressed to a peerage by a grateful Government, of whatever political hue. Lord Morton of Folkestone? Le Marquis de la Manche?
Others would prefer some life-size statuary. I would suggest the following: on the French side perhaps one of Andre Benard, baguette and vin rouge, chatting amiably to enthusiastic co-workers. And on Shakespeare Cliff, one of Morton, shouting and gesticulating, surrounded by a grumpy bunch of diggers, bankers and hacks. After all, it takes all sorts.
Born South Africa
Educated St Johns College and Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, Worcester College, Oxford, and MIT (1964)
Anglo-American Corporation in London and Central Africa
International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group), Washington
Industrial Reorganisation Corporation
Executive director, Drayton Group and chairman, Draymont Securities (turnarounds and development capital in engineering sector)
Managing director, BNOC and international oil consultant
Chief executive, later chairman, Guinness Peat Group
Co-chairman (and group chief executive 1990-94) Eurotunnel
Chairman, Private Finance Panel (advising Chancellor of the Exchequer).
WHAT PEOPLE SAY
'Alastair is immensely able, and he has immense drive. He is probably the only man who could have got the project to where it is now'
'Alastair is determined the shareholders will not be betrayed. He is not going to roll over and sign blank cheques'
'The only thing you can guarantee will be open in December is Morton's mouth'
Construction boss, 1993
'He doesn't have any English hang-ups, and like so many foreigners in this country, the reason they are so successful is because they push a bit harder'
Sara Morton, his wife, 1990
'I remember I was warned even then that he was abrasive and should not be taken on. But I ignored that advice and I believe I was right'
Lord Kearton, 1990 on hiring Morton at bnoc in 1976.