UK: Profile - Sir Desmond Pitcher.

UK: Profile - Sir Desmond Pitcher. - Chris Blackhurst talks to a man who deserves his Mister Merseyside nickname.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Chris Blackhurst talks to a man who deserves his Mister Merseyside nickname.

1935: Born Liverpool. Educated Liverpool College of Technology. Joined AV Roe and Co as apprentice technician. Became systems engineer for Sperry

1976: Left Sperry as vice-president. "The chairman said to me: 'You're going to have to take out American citizenship' because the next step was executive vice-president, and then chairman." Instead accepted offer of managing-director of Leyland Truck and Bus in Lancashire

1978: After rows with new Leyland boss, Sir Michael Edwardes, went to Plessey and persuaded the company to build its new System X manufacturing plant in Liverpool. "We proved you could build a major technology facility in a place like Liverpool, in spite of its long-standing history of traditional union practices"

1983: Appointed chief executive of Littlewoods. He found the company suffering from "lack of knowledge of modern business practice"

1991: Chairman of Merseyside Development Corporation

1992: Moves from chief executive to become non-executive vice-chairman of Littlewoods, and chairman of North West Water. Stays in Liverpool. "I love this place. I have been offered lots of things in London, non-executive directorships, but I've turned them all down"

Mention Sir Desmond Pitcher's name in London and the chances are the response will be, "Who?" Mention his name on Merseyside and it's very likely to be, "What's he doing now?" For if anyone has earned his nickname of Mister Merseyside, it is Des Pitcher. Born and bred in Liverpool, he has devoted a large chunk of his working life to trying to re-establish the former great seaport as a commercial force.

He chairs the Merseyside Development Corporation, the main body charged with regenerating the area, and oversees the Mersey barrage project, a vast scheme to tap the power of the local river to produce electricity. He runs Littlewoods - the locally-based football pools, mail-order and stores group and the area's largest private employer - and is deputy chairman of Everton, one of Liverpool's two major soccer clubs. He was knighted in 1992, for services to Merseyside.

Next April, when he hands over the reins at Littlewoods - he will become its non-executive vice-chairman - Pitcher will take the chair of another organisation trying to breathe life into the area, North West Water, which is planning to spend £500 million cleaning up the Mersey estuary.

The contrast between Pitcher and Derek Hatton, his predecessor as the area's uncrowned king, could not be greater. Pitcher is sober-suited, softly-spoken - he sometimes speaks in a whisper that is barely audible - with a bone-dry, razor-sharp wit. Hatton was a classic politician: a snappy dresser with a big smile, a fast-talker with the gift of the gab.

Today, though, Pitcher, the tortoise, is doing more for the people of Merseyside than Hatton, the hare, ever did. This is, he says, because he likes "fighting unfair causes". It also helps that he was born and bred there.

He was born in 1935. George, his father, was a one-time purser in the merchant navy and was rarely around. He was brought up by Marion, his mother, in a council house in Knotty Ash in the heart of the city. When his father left for London, to pursue a new career in the movie industry (he went on to produce the '50s hit film, Genevieve), she stayed put. She worked in a bakery to support the family. His mother died recently, having spent 53 years living in the same council house.

From school at Liverpool Tech, he began work as an apprentice technician at A V Roe and Co, working on the electrical systems for Vulcan bombers. Then he joined Automatic Telephone, later part of Plessey, as a systems engineer. His love of systems took him to Sperry, the US defence contractor, in 1961. He stayed there for 17 years, working in Continental Europe and the US. In 1974, aged 39, he was the youngest and first foreign vice-president the company had ever had. His scouse accent has been replaced by an American one and he was one step away from being made executive vice-president and then chairman. But he was told that if he was to go any higher he would need US citizenship. "You can't be chairman of a major American company, particularly the second largest defence contractor without being American."

It was a turning point in his life. His rise at Sperry had not been without its cost. While he worked abroad, his wife and children - he has twin daughters - remained on Merseyside. And, by the time he had got to the point where he had to make up his mind whether to stay in the US, his marriage was on the rocks.

Coincidentally, he had been offered a job in the North-West, as head of British Leyland's Truck and Bus division based in Lancashire. But, he says, it was the prospect of seeing his daughters only on the occasional holiday and losing contact with them, that clinched the decision. "I was very torn. But if you've got children and you're divorced, you've got less mobility than if you're married. A married man can take his family with him. If you're divorced, you have to leave them behind."

In his second year in charge, Leyland Bus and Truck achieved its highest ever profit - £65 milion out of a group total of £100 million - and exported 70,000 trucks. Then the Government replaced the chairman, Alex Park, with Sir Michael Edwardes. Pitcher did not see eye to eye with Edwardes - he was not prepared to take on the unions, with whom he enjoyed a good relationship - and after rows with the new Leyland boss, he quit.

He went straight to Plessey, to run the telecommunications side under Sir John Clark. Plessey provided him with the first opportunity to help the city of his birth. When the electronics company was casting around for somewhere to produce its new, revolutionary System X switchboard equipment, he persuaded Clark to choose Merseyside.

It was a symbolic gesture: in a period when other companies were pulling out of Liverpool. Plessey, which already had one factory in the area, was making a firm commitment to stay. In a city desperately short of good news, Pitcher was hailed as something of a saviour. "We proved you could build a major technology facility in a place like Liverpool, in spite of its long-standing history of traditional union practices."

His efforts did not go unnoticed at Littlewoods, which was going through its own turmoil trying to find a successor to Sir John Moores, the privately-owned group's legendary founder. Sir John and Pitcher kept bumping in to each other at local business functions and got on well together. When the offer of chief executive came, he didn't hesitate. At Plessey, he says, while he was making all the profits from his base on Merseyside, he knew he was never going to make chief executive.

At Littlewoods, he inherited three strong core businesses and an outmoded style of management. "It led to a lot of earnest endeavour which was not always effective because they did not have the tools of the trade," Pitcher says. For too long, Littlewoods and its Moores family shareholders had relied on Sir John to see the company right. The company was stultified, content to sit back while a new breed of retailers - Next, Habitat and Burton - swept all before them. At Littlewoods, nobody was looking at the bottom line: turnover was £1.5 billion but profits were negligible. It certainly didn't help that the company was riddled with feuds and in-fighting among the shareholders, some of whom thought they knew how to run the family firm better than its professional managers.

Pitcher removed the inertia. Modern methods were introduced and proven talent was drafted in. Staff were encouraged to regard the company as if it were publicly-owned and to compare it with the best performers on the stock market. Stores were updated and new chains - Inside Story and Index catalogue shops - established.

Success did not come overnight. But in the recession, Littlewoods, with its emphasis on budget shopping and value for money, has come into its own. Last year, while others on the high street were wilting, it was making record profits of almost £100 million.

Through a combination of natural authority, better results and diplomacy, Pitcher managed to keep the 34 family shareholders at bay and happy. Moves to have the company floated were roundly defeated and the various suggestions put forward by the family as to how the business could be improved were politely listened to - but not always acted upon.

The Moores compensated him generously, awarding him a salary in excess of £800,000 a year. But he also knew his place. When asked if it felt like being "below stairs", he chuckles, "Not quite, more like being at the other end of the ground."

He knows that if he had been running a comparable publicly-quoted company he would have received far more City and press attention. As it is, he says, people in London imagine there is something wrong with him. "When you're buried in the north-west of England they don't really take much interest in you. There's a question-mark over you because you're buried up there. It's a 'what the hell's wrong with him?' type thing."

He married in 1991 for the third time - his second marriage had also fallen victim to his career - to Norma, 17 years his junior."She's a Liverpool girl through and through. She was just going to discos when I was about old enough to get chucked out of them for being too old."

He has moved to a new house, a renovated Georgian mansion near Runcorn, at the Merseyside end of Cheshire. For years he has kept a house in Surrey, for meeting friends and business contacts in the South. But, he says, a funny thing has happened, "people come to see me now." He puts their desire to travel north down to an improvement in Merseyside. People, he believes, really do want to go there.

To listen to Pitcher on Liverpool is to hear a man possessed. His speech suddenly has a messianic quality about it. He was, he says, "deeply hurt" when he finally returned from working overseas "to find what a shambles the place had become. The biggest single shock I ever experienced was the rapid degeneration of Merseyside. I've never seen anything go to pieces so quickly."

His love for Liverpool runs deep. He was born there, he loves the place, its people and their humour. But his passion has also instilled in him a fierce anger. Liverpool's decline, he says, began in the '50s when the planners were let loose on a city ravaged by the Luftwaffe. Instead of rebuilding, they moved the people out to satellite new towns like Kirkby and Skelmersdale.

The result was a city left with its heart torn out and tens of thousands of people living miles away from the centre, with no jobs to go to. "It is like Canary Wharf," he says. "They build a bloody great office block and nothing else, then think it strange that nobody wants to go there. People need everything about them." It was, he says, "an economic blunder of enormous proportions, something which must never happen again. The people create the economy. If you take people out of the economy, you destroy it automatically."

Whole areas of the city became derelict and hundreds of small businesses closed because there was no one to work in them. That, coupled with the waves of takeovers and mergers that saw many of the major companies in the city disappear or scale down their operations, led, he argues, to Liverpool's economic collapse.

The strikes in the 1970s and the rise of Hatton in the '80s only served to highlight Liverpool's problems. Sir Desmond's task at the Development Corporation is to bring the people back to live and work. Good housing and new small businesses are, he says, the keys to Merseyside's future.

He rattles off a list of attractions - art galleries, orchestra, football clubs, parks, beaches, golf courses, the nearby mountains of North Wales and the Lake District - like a tourist guide. But unlike a guide going through the motions, he genuinely cares. Curiously, though, he is not a professional scouser. He does not eulogise about the city at every opportunity or lace his conversation with anecdotes about the place.

He has even said he could happily go and live in Scotland or America. But the truth of it is that Liverpool fills his time and thoughts. "I love this place. I have been offered lots of things in London, non-executive director ships, but I've turned them all down." It is almost as if he feels guilty for having left all those years ago. When he left, the city was bomb-damaged but its spirit was intact. By the time he returned, that spirit - and his first marriage - no longer existed.

Then, from his position at Littlewoods, he watched the best part of a decade pass Liverpool by. While the rest of the country was revelling in Thatcherite consumerism, Liverpool was tearing itself apart. While that has been to Liverpool's advantage in the recession - the city's commercial property market remains relatively buoyant with few empty shops and restaurants - Pitcher is determined that the city will not miss out again.

His plan is to create a dynamic, self-sufficient city that is not reliant on one particular industry or employer - or government hand-outs. "We want a mixed economy of light industry and commerce," he says. "That is the only way to avoid the axe. And the axe must be avoided, because once a place is struck, it is very hard to get back."

He is not interested in acclaim and if he were, he would soon be finished. "People don't have any false sense of their own importance here. You don't come across snobs in Liverpool." Having travelled the world and worked at the top of major companies, that is an all too rare virtue he has grown to value and wants to preserve.

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