UK: Regional barons.

UK: Regional barons. - A new aristocracy has replaced the landed gentry as the powerhouse of the local economy. Often a force for good - they make things happen - but it's usually only on their own terms.

by Chris Blackhurst.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A new aristocracy has replaced the landed gentry as the powerhouse of the local economy. Often a force for good - they make things happen - but it's usually only on their own terms.

In 1876, almost half the land in Britain, around 24 million acres, was owned by 1,200 aristocrats. Today, the estates of peers account for just 4.4 million acres or under 10% of the UK's land mass.

But while the landed gentry has gradually faded as great estates have gradually broken up, a new aristocracy has emerged which is modern, commercial, flexible, dynamic and no less economically influential.

Like their historic predecessors, the power-base of this new breed of baron is in the regions, often far away from London and the South East, the traditional hub of the economy.

These modern regional barons have supplanted the lord of the manor as the powerhouse of the local economy, as well as the dominant figure in the community. In some cases, this supplanting is literal. Sir John Hall, a miner's son responsible for revitalising the North East, first through building the huge Metro shopping centre, then by transforming the fortunes of Newcastle United football team, lives in the palladian splendour of Wynyard Hall, once the home of a previous local Mr Big, the Marquess of Londonderry. In Birmingham, the Richardson twins, Don and Roy, were born within sight of the old Dudley steelworks on land belonging to the Earl of Dudley. Today, the steelworks has been replaced by the giant Merry Hill shopping centre, built by the Richardsons, and they are worth an estimated £110 million, earning them the local nickname, 'the new Earls of Dudley'.

In Yorkshire, Paul Sykes, another son of a miner, lives in Studley Royal House near Fountains Abbey. When the noise from a Civil War re-enactment in the grounds of the abbey disturbed his Bank Holiday weekend, Sykes offered to buy the whole of Fountains Abbey from its owner, the National Trust. He could afford to: Sykes has amassed a £250 million fortune, mainly from building the Meadowhall shopping centre, again on disused industrial land, in Sheffield.

Mainly, but not exclusively, in keeping with fellow members of the new baronage, Sykes has his fingers in many pies, all of them local, all of them employing local people and driving the local economy. As well as Meadowhall he has other property developments across the region and runs Planet Online, Britain's biggest commercial Internet provider and a supplier of computer hardware to banks and building societies.

Also, typical of his kind, despite his considerable success, Sykes has remained loyal to his roots, never once tempted to move away or to relocate his head office in London.

In fact, as a breed these new lords tend to despise London, preferring to stay at home, to raise money locally, to deal with people they know, rather than with the alien accents of the City. The stock market, too, is something they view with suspicion. They may raise money that way but it is often as a last resort. They prefer to stick with the regional office of the merchant bank or auditor. They are used to calling a spade a spade, often in broad tones - not always an attribute appreciated in London boardrooms.

The new regional barons are not motivated purely by profit. They believe in giving something back. In their case, though, their chosen vehicle is not the meaningless monuments or ridiculous follies so beloved of their aristocratic forebears but frequently, the talisman of ordinary people: sport.

Partly as a sop to their working-class origins, partly because football can bring with it glamour and partly because people ask and even expect them to, they often end up rescuing the local club. It is easy to be cynical, to put their generosity down as another form of exploitative investment, but there are easier ways of making money than funding soccer or rugby.

When Wigan wanted a new stadium, Dave Whelan, known in the North West as Mr Wigan, sold £17 million worth of shares in his JJB Sports retail empire to finance the development - something he did not need to do.

At Cardiff, Peter Thomas could not bear to see the once-proud rugby club for which he had once played fall on hard times, so he became its main benefactor, by pumping in cash and underwriting bank guarantees.

Once it was the church, but these days, soccer or rugby is the community's linchpin. The barons' involvement in their towns' focal pastime reinforces their position as the pivotal figure in the area, more powerful than the mayor, more important than the elected head of the Round Table or the Rotary, the traditional backbones of the small business sector.

That pre-eminence is also enhanced by their involvement on regional official bodies, usually quangos designed to attract inward investment. While nobody doubts their qualifications or willingness to serve, it is here, sometimes, that their power and reach can have a downside. Usually the richest person for miles around, they have branched out in many cases into property and other interests. Such is their range, almost everything that is of a commercial nature in some way impinges upon them. If someone wants to open a new retail park, the chances are the local baron will have to be consulted.

They might own the land on which the new centre is to be built, or have an alternative plot available, they might sit on the body which determines if it can go-ahead, or have the ready-cash to back the project.

In this sense, as facilitators, they can be a good thing: people who can make it happen, whose reach means those in high places must sit up and listen. But their strength can also be their weakness. Their 'fix-it' role is often only on their terms. Sykes, who was already a multi-millionaire, battled ferociously for the right to build his shopping centre in Sheffield; Hall secured a new Samsung plant for the North East - on his own land.

Competition is stifled, not encouraged. Often, nothing major can be built without their say-so, without them having a share. The community always comes a poor third after themselves and their families. For them, being a big fish in a little pool has its attractions; for us, such a stranglehold is not always healthy.

In that sense they are little different from the aristocrats of old.

So, here they are: Britain's leading regional barons. In compiling this list we spoke to experts on wealth, local newspaper editors and representatives from official bodies, including DTI regional councils and chambers of commerce. It is not, though, an official list. If some areas are missing, it is because they lack an obvious dominant personality. One - Liverpool - has two. And there is a clear gap, for example, in East Anglia, where Cambridge has the fastest-growing local economy in the country. Two leading Cambridge figures, Chris Evans, who founded a string of biotechnology companies, and Hermann Hauser, largely responsible for the rise of the science park, were considered. In the end, though, it was felt Cambridge's growth and their own role was too recent. Perhaps next time.

Chris Blackhurst is Assistant Editor of the Independent on Sunday.

Usually the wealthiest person for miles around, almost everything of a commercial nature impinges upon them

Aberdeen - Stewart Milne

Worth £45 million, Stewart Milne has made his money from creating a construction empire in the North East of Scotland. Together with his family, Milne, aged 46, owns 86% of Stewart Milne Group, whose name appears everywhere in the region. The corporate headquarters, nicknamed South Fork because of its grandeur, is something of an Aberdeen landmark, adding to his lustre. Another is the stadium of Aberdeen Football Club, the main football team, and after North Sea oil, the area's most conspicuous symbol. A director of Aberdeen FC, Milne is credited as being the financial brains behind the club. Milne also sits on the board of the Scottish Advisory Council for Education and Training, and he is vice-chairman of Grampian Enterprise, charged with trying to attract new industry for when the oil runs out.

Birmingham - Don and Roy Richardson

It is impossible to drive through Britain's second city and miss one of the Richardson twins' huge developments, like Fort Dunlop on the M6 or the giant Merry Hill shopping centre. Their latest project is a £50 milion leisure complex, next to Spaghetti Junction. They believe central government is not interested in places like the West Midlands. This was evident when the Millennium Exhibition went to south London and not Birmingham as they had hoped. Their response was to put the money together for an alternative event promoting Birmingham at the nearby NEC. They are probably the nearest thing the city has to royalty.

Cardiff - Stanley and Peter Thomas

The Thomas brothers have had their fingers in virtually every pie in Wales, literally. After selling their family bakery in 1966, they formed their own business, Peter's Savoury Products. In 1988, they sold it to Grand Metropolitan for £75 million and moved into property development and management. Their new business, TBI, owns Cardiff Airport.

They also own Atlantic Property Developments, responsible for redeveloping the Atlantic Wharf docks area. Then there is Cardiff Rugby Club. In a region where rugby is a religion, being the owner of Cardiff brings God-like devotion. Peter endeared himself by recruiting Gareth Davies, the former Cardiff and Wales player, as chief executive and persuading Jonathan Davies to return home from rugby league.

Devon and Cornwall - Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson runs Trago Mills, the most successful locally-based retailer. Trago, which operates discount warehouses across the region, is worth £60 million. Robertson is an arch-critic of the EU, and has become something of a local prophet of doom in this area. He writes a syndicated column in no less than 17 local papers. In the past he has plastered the road to his head office at Newton Abbot with posters denouncing EU bureaucracy. His stamping-ground is the South West where fisheries, farming and tourism all claim to have suffered at the hands of Brussels. As a result, Robertson is popularly revered by fishermen and farmers alike.

East Midlands - Martin George

In an area dependent on agriculture and making foodstuffs, Martin George is the undisputed heavyweight. His family has major stakes in food group Whitworth Holdings, and Weetabix, maker of the famous breakfast cereal. George, 55, is also a past-president of the UK Agriculture Supply Association, and used to run Mid Anglia Radio. These days, his attentions are devoted to the fortunes of Leicester City Football Club, which he chairs.

Edinburgh - Sir Tom Farmer

Shares in Kwik-Fit have been racing ahead recently, adding to the millions of the group's founder, Sir Tom Farmer.

This gregarious, doughty Scot is easily the Edinburgh's best-known businessman. Something of a media personality, Farmer is a local hero, a salesman who built a £45 million fortune from his tyre and exhaust centres. After Kwik-Fit, Farmer's passion is good works. He chairs Scottish Business In The Community and Investors In People, Scotland. He also heads Scotland Against Drugs which always guarantees him an audience in Edinburgh. He stepped in to bail out Hibernian, the local football team, to prevent it being absorbed by arch-rival, Hearts. When a Dutch company threatened to redevelop a 65-acre island in the Firth of Forth, he came to the rescue again, buying the property and planning to turn it into a charitable outdoor activity centre for local people.

Glasgow - David Murray

It is true that David Murray's empire also extends to Edinburgh, where his main operating company, Murray International Holdings is based.

But in football-crazy Scotland it is Glasgow where Murray's power lies.

He is chairman of the mighty Glasgow Rangers and controls the club, sitting on a stake worth, conservatively, £100 million. His Murray International business is into everything: electronics, electrical retailing, steel stockholding and sports management. He has a reputation for toughness, not least because he lost both legs in a car crash at 24 and went on to build a hugely successful business.

Lancashire - Dave Whelan

Just as Steve Gibson built a new sports stadium for Middlesbrough, Dave Whelan is erecting a new temple for sport in Wigan.

A former professional footballer, Whelan started out with a market stall before building a chain of grocery shops which he sold in 1978 to William Morrison. He then moved into sports retailing, creating a £190 million fortune from his JJB Sports chain. Not content with controlling Wigan Athletic, the professional soccer club, he has set his sights on taking over the famous rugby league club as well. His plan is to unite them both at one new stadium, soccer in winter, rugby in summer. Deeply proud of his Lancashire origins, Whelan will not move to London. He recently sold his London shops, in the Strand and Kensington High Street, which traded as Alpine Sports, because stock was being pilfered by staff.

Liverpool - John Moores

It is a mark of the muscle of the Moores family that they could employ a man like Desmond Pitcher to run Littlewoods, their private retail and football pools empire. The eldest son of Sir John, the firm's late, legendary founder, John Moores, 69, is still known as John Junior. Mild-mannered and softly-spoken, his clout comes from speaking for one of Britain's richest families, who own every share in what is still the country's largest private company. Together with his wife, Moores is a keen supporter of Labour and has thrown himself into community work in Liverpool, financing projects for youth and the under-privileged The Moores have a massive influence on the life of the city, sponsoring art exhibitions at the prestigious Walker Art Gallery and controlling Liverpool Football Club. John Moores University, one of two universities on Merseyside, was named after Littlewoods' founder.

Merseyside - Sir Desmond Pitcher

Des Pitcher has two nicknames, one he is proud of and the other he loathes: Mr Merseyside and King of the Fat Cats. A varied business career has seen him hold many important posts, notably chief executive of Littlewoods and head of the local privatised water and electricity utility, United Utilities. Educated locally, Pitcher has remained resolutely loyal to his native city, sitting on the boards of numerous bodies including the Mersey Barrage scheme and Everton Football Club. The sheer breadth of his experience, allied to at times combative mananer, have made him a powerful voice of business in the region. A measure of his power is that when unions objected to Pitcher, then boss of North-West Water, merging the firm with Norweb, the local electricity supplier, he brushed their concerns aside with ease. He has recently come under pressure to retire two years early because of his role in the departure of chief executive Brian Staples.

Middlesbrough - Steve Gibson

If Sir John Hall has a young pretender in the North East, it is Steve Gibson, 39, in Middlesbrough. The youngest Labour councillor on Teesside at 21, he worked for ICI before starting his own road haulage business. Today, his company, Bulkhaul, is worth £80 million. In 1986, he put together a consortium to save Middlesbrough Football Club, the team he once wanted to play for. Like Hall, Gibson has worked wonders, persuading foreign superstars to join from Brazil and Italy, and hiring Bryan Robson, the former England captain, as manager.

A new £17million state-of-the-art stadium is pointed to locally as the mark of a new era of confidence. His profile is probably the highest among all the regional barons. When government agencies and the council contemplate schemes for Middlesbrough, they talk to Gibson.

ICI talks to Gibson. Still young, he has this part of Britain eating out of his hand.

Newcastle - Sir John Hall

Like a colossus, Sir John Hall towers over anyone else in Newcastle.

Even without his natural physical height, he would be the biggest man around. Outspoken, direct, occasionally brusque, he has taken the city by the scruff of the neck and turned it upside down. It is easy to forget that even before he built the giant Metro Centre on the edge of the city, he was the area's most successful property developer. He has gone from being a miner to property millionaire and is now far and away the most influential figure economically in the North East. He turned 120 acres of derelict land into Europe's largest retail and leisure complex. But he grows bored easily and sold out of the Metro Centre, ploughing his money into Newcastle United, then in the doldrums. Within two years, the fortunes of the club were reborn - and the team's success came to represent the renaissance of a once great industrial city. Through his Cameron Hall company, Hall is worth around £220 million. A superb deal-maker, he was responsible for persuading Samsung, the Far East computer manufacturer, to build a £450 million plant in the North East - on land on his Wynyard Hall estate.

Northamptonshire - Max Griggs

In a region that prides itself on shoe-making, Max Griggs has risen to become not only the major figure in the area but in the industry as well.

He is head of the family that makes Doc Martens, which has gone from industrial workwear to essential fashion item around the world. Max's revitalisation of the family company, R Griggs Group - it is now worth £220 million - has rubbed off on Northamptonshire, creating jobs galore and maintaining its reputation as a centre for shoe-making. Griggs has become the unofficial spokesman for the area and defender of its traditions.

Admired for his unextravagant lifestyle - he wears Marks & Spencer suits and lives in a four-bedroomed house - one grand gesture showed his determination to put the area on the map, and won him local support: he put £10 million into Rushden and Diamonds, a Beazer Homes League soccer team.

Thames Valley - John Madejski

The nearest regional baron on our list to London, John Madejski is a dominant figure west of Heathrow, along the M4 corridor. He is a major employer, philanthropist and owner of the local football club.

A familiar sight on the streets of his native Reading in his Rolls-Royce, registration 1 JM, he made his money from the Auto Trader series of magazines.

Worth around £200 million, he has ploughed some of that money into Reading Football Club which he chairs. A new £37 million stadium will offer more than just a football pitch and seating: he plans a state-of-the-art conference centre next door, just half an hour from Heathrow, to be used by all the high-tech growth businesses along the M4. A keen supporter of the Conservatives, Madejski has ambitions to represent the area at Westminster.

Yorkshire - Paul Sykes

Only one thing is more important in Paul Sykes' life at the moment than Yorkshire and that is the single currency. Even his championing of the opposition to the euro, however, reflects a passionate feeling that Westminster is out of touch, that if it was left to the people of the North - especially Yorkshire - there would be no question of our adopting the euro. Nobody has worked harder to promote their home turf, to sell it to the world and to bring jobs and prosperity than Sykes. He positively oozes good feelings about Yorkshire. He wants the region to provide a lead in Internet technology so he created his own high-tech firm. Planet Online is now the largest commercial Internet provider in Britain and employs 350 people. Overall, he claims to have created 30,000 local jobs, most of them in the once run-down Don Valley, which he redeveloped, beginning with the Meadowhall shopping centre. Sykes claims he built the centre to provide work for local people - certainly he didn't need the money, having already made millions from scrap metal and exporting bus kits to Asia. Immersed in local politics, Sykes has broken bread with all the national Tory figures, bringing them to his county, acting as a self-appointed £250 million super-salesman. Now distant from the party because he feels it is not anti-EU enough, he will never cease to fight for his region.

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