Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Business leaders - the long and the short and the gross


We shall not see their like again – James Hanson, Arnold Weinstock, James Goldsmith, Tiny Rowland - kings of the business jungle who never blinked when eye-to-eye with City investors let alone their own boardrooms.
And probably a good thing too. They were indivisible from the British companies they ran and like politicians their careers, for the most part, ended in failure. They have all gone to face that Great Audit in the sky.
As a financial journalist for more than 30 years I got to meet these men when they were at the peaks of their empire building power. But none I could say was good company – they were too convinced of their own infallibility to engage with mere City reporters beyond the barest minimum.
Strangely I found the shorter the business leader the more fun he was.
Perhaps I’m biased not being a giant among men myself. I had the misfortune to wear a red flannel shirt to a comedy club once and was questioned by the stand-up whether I was a lumberjack in a mushroom farm.
But what hotelier Charles Forte, Tesco founder Jack Cohen, and impresario Lew Grade lacked in stature they more than made up in dynamism and personality.
There was a chairman of a Footsie company whose rotten teeth didn’t make him an ideal lunch host. But the most repellent - on every dimension - was the grossly overweight Mirror media tycoon, bully, and fraudster Robert Maxwell.
It was 1991, and I well remember the stunned silence of the news editor when I relayed a City rumour that Maxwell was missing from his luxury yacht.
To redress the balance I’ll finish with a recollection of a chairman, although half Maxwell’s size, would still test a bathroom scales. He combined financial nous with charm and good humour – and an appetite for limericks.
In private he told me the following off-colour example that still makes me chuckle decades later. He’ll remain anonymous out of respect to his family who must miss him still.
“My dear Mrs. Ormsby-Gore,
I simply can’t try any more.
I’m covered in sweat
and you haven’t cum yet
And it’s almost a quarter to four.”

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