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A soling and heeling for Boots, or just another round of hunt the thimble?

A soling and heeling for Boots, or just another round of hunt the thimble?

8 October 2005

12:00 AM

8 October 2005

12:00 AM

Boots, Boots, Boots, Boots, moving up and down again — no discharge in the war …. Just another change of strategy and an alliance with Alliance. Perhaps it will work better than in-store chiropody. Salients have come and gone, casualties mount, the line is rectified, and commanders succeed one another like British generals in the Western desert. The new plan is to merge with Alliance UniChem, thus giving Boots even more chemists’ shops. Until now, armchair strategists — the High Street is full of them — have assumed that Boots has quite enough shops. Its trouble has been to know what to do with them. What would people rather buy from Boots than from Tesco? Sandwiches? Something for the weekend? Put like that, you might have expected a line of thought to suggest itself. Health has pushed its way up our list of obsessions and up our shopping lists, too. Have we ever spent so much time and money in pursuit of it, leaving aside the incredible sums that the National Health Service spends on our behalf and out of our pockets? How much of this money is now spent in Boots, and how much might be, given all Boots’ advantages — its trusted name, its battalions of pharmacists, its own brands, its own plant, its own laboratories? Surely Boots should be riding the boom? What prevents it? A refusal to play to its strengths, or something simpler — the hunt-the-thimble experience of shopping there? No other retailer goes to such trouble to keep its customers guessing. Is soap a bathtime accessory? Can we be tempted to buy a hot-water bottle on our way round? Nice try.

Good spot

Already Boots has chosen to discard from its strong suit. Boots Healthcare International, the manufacturing base, is up for sale, not as being surplus to requirements but as the easiest way of putting money into the disheartened shareholders’ pockets. They must hope that, if this alliance is sealed, the new ally will come up with some better ideas. Alliance UniChem is not exactly a household name, but I recall that when Kenneth Clarke stopped being chancellor, he found a new job as chairman of an obscure chain of chemists in the Midlands: this one. That was a good spot of his, and better than those of other Conservative chancellors: an aircraft leasing company — it crashed on the runway — or an investment trust specialising in the Philippines, or the little pot of poison mistaken by Reggie Maudling for a pot of money. Business is not as simple as chancellors think.

Carbon black

I am not sure that I would recognise an industrial carbon product if I met one, but Ian Norris presumably would, since he used to run Morgan Crucible, which made them. Now he is accused of fixing their prices and faces extradition, under a law rushed through Parliament after 9/11 to let American prosecutors get their hands on suspected terrorists. The law allows it, says the Home Secretary, and the court awards. It just shows how careful we all have to be to put our tick in the right box when asked if we plan to overthrow the government of the United States by force. Mr Norris must be especially careful not to heckle the Home Secretary. That, too, could get him into trouble with the Terrorism Act. There was a precedent only the other day, in Brighton. Such are the perils of the industrial carbon business, and of legislation enacted in haste and abused at leisure.

Ken Ukridge

Vision and the big, broad flexible outlook were the watchwords of Ukridge, and he would have deployed them more freely — or so P.G. Wodehouse tells us — if he did not keep finding himself, by the strangest coincidence, short of money. Someone in the Treasury must have spotted the Ukridgian streak in London’s visionary mayor, Ken Livingstone: a popular choice but not, on all previous form, the man to let loose with your own or someone else’s cheque book. So the mayor’s scope for raising more money was, by another coincidence, limited. Since transport was within his remit, he could draw on a traffic tax or he could put up fares. So he imposed his tax and called it a congestion charge and then raised it and now plans to widen its scope. Give him time, and he will tax traffic all over London. Meanwhile he is hoisting the fares. It just goes to show where a flexible outlook can get you.

Towers? No takers

Working high in the air above Houndsditch would not be for me or, apparently, for anybody else. Minerva’s plans for a 50-storey tower have gone back to Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s drawing-board and, unless a tenant can be found, will stay there. It just goes to show that the City does not have much luck with its towers. Everyone tells its planners, and they tell each other, that a financial centre must reach for the sky. The Swiss Re said that it would come to London if it got a swagger office. It got the Gherkin, and now the Swiss, who are in the bottom half, need takers for the top half: would ideally suit tenant with quadrant-shaped carpets and furniture, to fit the floor-plan. There is a bar in the cone at the top, the view is panoramic, and you can look down, glass in hand, on the towers built and then abandoned by NatWest, Barclays and the Stock Exchange. More towers are on the planners’ horizon, but the tenants may not be, Minerva seems to have noticed.

Venetian banker

Assiduous as ever, I have been toiling in Venice, checking up on the negroni index (steady) and testing the water (brackish) for Project Rubicon, my plan to refinance Italy by way of a management buy-in and break-up. Please do not call it a takeover. That kind of thing goes down badly. The Prime Minister’s economic spokesman, or one of them, says that Italian banks make tempting targets for Jewish and American freemasons. The Governor of the Bank of Italy has been keeping the raiders at bay, and a bugged telephone call has got him into trouble. More research must be needed, but I can at least throw new light on the plot of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock was really a freemason. Spot that rolled-up trouser-leg.

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