Sir Peter Parker, gambolling entrepreneur and arts enthusiast, was recently musing over a suitable epitaph for his tombstone. Finally, he tells us, he settled on one: "He died of sprawling." And not a bad summation either of a man with 13 chairmanships, ranging from quarrying group Evered Bardon to Friends of the Earth, plus some elastic attachments to politics and the arts.
In truth, the danger of Sir Peter killing himself from taking work in "smaller, sweeter lumps", as he put it in his autobiography, is probably small. However, after one recent big win and (in ego terms) one big loss, it is interesting to see that for once he is saying "enough is enough". His two interests to pass on recently were Rockware, the glassware group, and First National Radio. Yet he claims that that has not left him looking to fill the gap.
Indeed, he informs us, "What I'm not suffering from is gaps in my life." Even should a fresh opportunity present itself, his first reaction is: "I think not for the moment, thank you."
The £19 million sale of Rockware to BTR was nothing less than a coup. As chairman, Sir Peter took Rockware's shares from 12p in 1984 to the 103p that BTR paid in its August cash bid (a 75% premium to the market). The Office of Fair Trading had earlier blocked Rockware's attempt to expand in Europe by buying the rival Redfearn National Glass, and as far as Sir Peter was concerned there were few options for growth left.
First National Radio, with its planned easy listening "Showtime" station, suffered the ignominious fate of winning Britain's first national commercial radio licence, only to find that it could not scramble together the financing for its £1.75 million bid by the deadline. No extension of time was allowed and the franchise was lost. "I feel a fury that bureaucracy struck," Sir Peter says. "But that doesn't matter. I've got a full load for the moment."
Sir Peter is now finding his satisfaction "at the sharp end" of business as chairman of Evered Bardon. His interest in people resources is satisfied as chairman of headhunter and PR firm Whitehead Mann. His love for international affairs is fulfilled as head of Mitsubishi Electric, of the environment through Friends of the Earth, of the arts as head of the Japan Festival and of politics as chairman of the trustees of the Liberal Democrats.
His ambition to see politics, business and the community all more responsible to each other perhaps suggests that Sir Peter should focus where the real power lies - in the political sphere. But singularity is not in this pluralist's vocabulary. He pounds his fist for a minute: "Constitutional reform with me is a great deal," he elaborates. "We must move out of this two-party system that has had its day. We need more flexibility and we won't get that without electoral reform." Hence his interest in the Liberal Democrats.
But a minute later his evangelism has turned to lessons from his role at Mitsubishi Electric. The Japanese, he admits, are not perfect - while they are doing tremendous things with their marketing and technology from their home base, "in business terms they are still trying to find a way of running international firms". What they have still got on us is, to quote, "a tremendously careful concern for all the priorities that have had a terrible bashing in recent years here. They spend their time communicating - keeping the working community informed and participating - in direct contrast to some of the gospels we have lived by in the last decade." Hence his distaste for some things Conservative.
Sir Peter sprawls all right. But he takes his ambassadorship of human virtues as seriously as anyone ought to. (He was off to rehearse for a festival meeting with Japan's Crown Prince as we spoke.) And he is the first to admit, with perhaps more humility than some might give him credit for: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him of your plans."