What is it about post-war British entrepreneurs that makes them want to sell up as their interest in the business declines?
As Sir Donald Gosling and his partner, Ronald Hobson, contemplate offers of up to £1 billion for their National Car Parks (in which they have a 64% stake), the question is particularly pertinent. Not for them the desire to build a family business to hand on to the next generation, as is common on the Continent.
A glance at the listings of Britain's wealthiest entrepreneurs shows just what select company Gosling and Hobson are joining. In 1989 Jack Walker sold his steel stockholding business for £330 million and retired to Jersey (apart from regular forays to his native Blackburn to support the Rovers). David Thompson, founder of Hillsdown Holdings, sold his stake in the food business in the late '80s for £300 million and now concentrates on his Newmarket stud, leaving family investment strategy in the hands of his son. Graham Kirkham, meanwhile, realised £130 million by virtually halving his stake in the DFS furniture chain when he floated the company last year.
Indeed, of Britain's richest, first-generation entrepreneurs, Richard Branson, stands out as one who has not yet sold out to enjoy his wealth (but he, of course, is still fairly young). And of those who favour continuity, only the Sainsbury family and Garfield Weston at Associated British Foods stand out as models of the successful transition of a large, family-dominated business from one generation to the next. If the current trend continues, we are unlikely to see their kind again.