John Apthorp was always one of the '80s more able entrepreneurs. Indeed, at the start of that decade his company, Bejam, the frozen food retailer, figured second in Management Today's annual profitability league (and, on its own reckoning, should have come still higher). Then, in 1989, Apthorp disappeared from the public arena when Bejam was absorbed by Malcolm Walker's Iceland Group after a £238 million contested bid - leaving the Apthorp family to net an estimated £45 million for its 30% stake.
Now 59, Apthorp appears to be staging a comeback through his latest venture, Majestic Wine Warehouses. He admits, with a reluctance in keeping with his aversion to publicity, that he is now about a year away from getting to a position 'where we could think about floating the company on the stock market'. His sure touch in niche retailing has obviously not escaped him. He bought Majestic only two and a half years ago when it was 'literally one step away from receivership'. Last year, it underwent a £1 million turn-around from loss into profit and is now pursuing its expansion with plans to open its 50th store.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Apthorp admits to a greater affinity for wine than for frozen chickens. When, aged 20, he left the Navy, he spent a vintage working for one of the leading Margaux growers in Bordeaux. 'Wine entered the blood at that point and I've been buying it ever since,' he says.
Typically, the affable Apthorp struck up a rapport with Iceland's Malcolm Walker after hostilities of the bid battle abated. 'I still invite Malcolm shooting,' he says (which, along with wine, is a major Apthorp preoccupation). 'We're friends, though at the time of the bid for Bejam it might not have appeared so.' He admits now that he is glad to be out of the business, which he felt - somewhat presciently - was increasingly threatened by the major supermarket chains. He recalls how five years ago he was approached by James Millar, chairman of William Low, with a proposal of merger. 'Even then I could not see it working as they were losing market share and it did not seem worth turning their stores into freezer food centres.' Following the attentions of Tesco's Sir Ian McLaurin, Millar, of course, is now considering his future.