The American comedian George Burns once remarked: "Retirement at 65 is ridiculous. When I was 65 I still had pimples." It is a view that some of Britain's leading businessmen seem to share. This January Lord Hanson is 69; his partner, Sir Gordon White, is nearly 68. Lord Sainsbury is coming up for 64, Lord Weinstock for 67, Robert Maxwell for 68 and Tiny Rowland for 73. At 82 Lord Forte, still chairman of Trusthouse Forte, is the grandee of all, unless you include the 94-year-old Sir John Moores. Though officially retired from Littlewoods, he is nonetheless reckoned by sources close to the company to be its "really dominant" personality. Age, it appears, cannot wither them.
The senior citizens of commerce are a force to be reckoned with. It is not just their years which make for big figures. Take market capitalisation as a rough guide to value, and Hanson heads the pack at almost £9 billion. GEC is worth some £5 billion, Sainsbury £4.5 billion, Trusthouse Forte £2 billion, Littlewoods over £1.6 billion and Lonrho £1.2 billion. At a mere £900 million Maxwell Communication looks modest.
Clearly the success of the grey-headed gang is no longer in question. But, with few exceptions, the one question which they continue to duck is who will succeed them. It is no idle issue, for the generation of entrepreneurs which has fashioned Britain's current economic structure has as much to do with creating its future prosperity.
Cultural historian Martin Wiener suggests that Britain has already confronted such a moment and is still paying for its failure to promote the values of the business community. In "English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980" he argues that the great businessmen who pioneered the industrial and economic advances of the mid-Victorian age were ultimately subverted in their aims by assimilation into the aristocracy. Though they themselves were excluded from this social set, their children were educated at public schools and "admitted to full membership of the upper classes, at the price of discarding the distinctive production-oriented culture" of their parents.
If the process of gentrification has indeed crippled England's capitalist ethos, as Wiener claims, then today's corporate giants cannot afford to re-enact history. Instead they must ensure a line of succession which promulgates the values that have made them triumphant.
Of course, nobody likes to confront his end, least of all a vigorous septuagenarian. One City analyst jokes that Maxwell has "done a deal with God. He'll keep off God's patch as long as God keeps off his"; another, that Sir John Moores "may be immortal". But triumph as they may in the marketplace, neither they nor anyone else can fend off the ultimate hostile bid. The sudden death of Robert Holmes a Court and the heart attack which smote down Kerry Packer should be powerful arguments in favour of planned obsolescence.
The recent troubles of the Tory Party are a lesson even closer to home in the value of nominating a clear successor. With the toppling of She Who Must Be Obeyed, the gloves were off between the favoured sons of Thatcherism and the Great Pretender. This little episode of hand-to-hand combat in the Conservative ranks shows that accidents and ill health are not the only precipitating factors. As Fiona Humphries, conglomerates analyst at James Capel, points out: "Changing market conditions may also dictate a change of management."
The bull market of the 1980s spawned a lot of lone rangers whose skills are either inadequate or, at best, inappropriate for the more difficult climate prevailing today. George Davies, Sophie Mirman and Sir Ralph Halpern - to name but a few - were by-products of a decade-long love affair with the City. Elevated for their success in selling a particular concept, they plummeted together with their stock.
The analogy with Margaret Thatcher is obvious. Though no shooting star herself, she fostered the cultural shift which allowed for such a phenomenon, and when the Conservative Party decided that her undeniable skills as a lone ranger would be less useful than those of a team player, she too was replaced.