UK: Succession - Who will inherit the mantle when the last of Britain's grey-headed gang are all gone? (3 of 7)

UK: Succession - Who will inherit the mantle when the last of Britain's grey-headed gang are all gone? (3 of 7) - Lord Hanson also has a son in the wings, though he is more circumspect about any hopes which he may harbour. Robert Hanson would in any case

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Lord Hanson also has a son in the wings, though he is more circumspect about any hopes which he may harbour. Robert Hanson would in any case have to win his own business spurs - Lord Hanson's shareholding is too small to influence the succession.

Moreover, if we are to believe the official Hanson line, such speculation is irrelevant. Though Lord Hanson is reported to have said earlier that he would retire at 70 - in one year's time - Martin Taylor, vice-chairman and Hanson's principal spokesman, confirms what many City followers already suspected: that he plans on staying a little big longer. Nor does he have any intention of establishing an heir apparent. "We have a number of competent younger men within Hanson," says Taylor, "and the appointment of an heir would remove the spur to competition."

One such "competent younger" candidate is Tony Alexander, Hanson's chief UK operating officer. But even if no internal successor were forthcoming, the group's choice remains wider than most - Hanson's acquisitive style of management has itself been acquired. Greg Hutchings, head of Tomkins, is proof that, in the words of one City analyst, "a Hanson training and instincts can provide a successful Hanson clone". And if Hutchings does not want the job, there is always the ex-Hanson duo who took over Wassall.

In fact buyouts by middle management may prove increasingly useful as a means of identifying potential successors. If the buyout fails, the parent company loses nothing. If it succeeds, it may just have produced a future chairman.

The MBO may never replace the MBA as the high flyer's route to the top, but it does herald a kind of corporate succession that is preferable to nepotism, being based on merit. It is also a reflection of the social and economic developments which have inevitably left their mark on the case of big business. Our new ecological awareness brings wind of another change in the credentials for a job as the boss.

The greening of the giants could be said to have started in the late 1980s, when Tesco launched a range of products that would not "cost the earth". But now the message seems to have moved on from the high street and penetrated the more often unfriendly environment of Hanson. Ironically, it was Sir James Goldsmith, long a self-appointed Jonathon Porritt, who took Hanson's gold off his hands in return for 1.7 million acres of American forest.

Conglomerates analyst Fiona Humphries points to the fate of the American Norton group as further evidence that in coming years "a more caring image" will determine corporate success. The BTR battle for Norton was among the most bitter that the City has seen. But Norton's subsequent acquisition by another foreign company proved that xenophobia was not the real issue. With its guarantee of job security and payment of the full asking price, the French Saint-Gobain was a white knight in more than name.

BTR may have read the runes incorrectly in this respect, but the one thing which it has indisputably got right is the handling of its own succession. It is a far cry from the prospect which faces other conglomerates contemplating the loss of their leader. Often only the personality and skills of the man at the top hold them together.

Lonrho is a typical instance of the one-man-band with a finger in all sorts of pies and all sorts of places. When it attracted the unwanted attentions of Alan Bond it claimed assets above £8 a share. However, analysts reckoned that Lonrho sans Rowland was not Lonrho any more and knocked pounds off its break-up value.

In fact, if there is any single concern which the problem of the succession brings to light, it is the vulnerability of the diversified group. Without an intrinsic commercial logic and without the presence of the puppet master who pulls the strings, there may be many a conglomerate whose centre cannot hold.

So do the 1990s herald the end of the big is beautiful? If Management Today has got it anywhere near right, perhaps the answer is a qualified "yes". Big companies and ideas will always have a place in our business cosmography. But though entrepreneurs will continue to thrive, the days of the conglomerateur may be numbered. And if we need to invest in new myths, who knows? The rise of the Green Man seems better than most.

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