Skip to Content

Any other business

What makes a great businessman: a silver tongue or a killer instinct?

‘Who’s the most impressive business leader you’ve ever met?’

8 November 2006

5:15 PM

8 November 2006

5:15 PM

‘Who’s the most impressive business leader you’ve ever met?’

‘Who’s the most impressive business leader you’ve ever met?’ I asked a group of senior executives the other night. I confess I interjected the question (as I do here) to enable me to mention that I have just edited a book of business obituaries. But it provoked a lively debate about the qualities that make great entrepreneurs and industrialists.

Among living candidates, no one voted for any of the current crop of buccaneers: Sir Philip Green in retailing, Michael O’Leary in the air, Michael Spencer in the City. Instead, there was strong support for 80-year-old Sir Ernest Harrison — visionary founder-chairman of the electronics group Racal and its offspring Vodafone, which was the runaway leader of the British mobile phone market while other potential players were still saying ‘It’ll never catch on’. Also praised was Sir Martin Sorrell, long-serving chief executive of the advertising group WPP, for the relentlessness of his business appetite; and more to my surprise, Sir Gerry Robinson for his silver-tongued salesmanship as chairman of Granada. ‘He could persuade you of absolutely anything,’ said Sir Gerry’s fan, but the rest of the group was not persuaded that this was a winning attribute.

As for those who have passed on, Closing Balances: Business Obituaries from The Daily Telegraph (Aurum Press) offers 100 to choose from. Some, like Forrest Mars of the eponymous confectionery group, who was in the habit of ordering his grown-up son to kneel and pray during business meetings, were avaricious, egotistical monsters. But most deserve admiration, even when (like the airline entrepreneurs Sir Adam Thomson of British Caledonian and Freddie Laker) their ventures eventually came to grief.


The obituary subjects whom I actually met offer a catalogue of useful traits for would-be tycoons. My principal memory of Lord Hanson, for example, was of iron-clad self-confidence: arrogance would have been another word for it, except that it came with film-star charm as well. ‘I rang Downing Street the other day and said I’d be happy to come round and tell John Major where his government’s going wrong,’ Hanson once told me. ‘Stupid man sent a message that he’s too busy to see me!’ Sir Michael Richardson, often described as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite banker, was poured from a similar mould: ineffable self-belief and suavity enabled him to sail through countless City deals and scrapes (including being one of Robert Maxwell’s closest advisers) until his career finally hit the rocks in old age.

Neither of them claims a niche in my pantheon of business heroes. One who does, however, was Sir Alastair Morton, the financier who completed the Channel Tunnel project against all the odds. Morton possessed what my father used to call (usually in the context of telling me in my youth that he did not think I had it) ‘the killer instinct’, meaning the willpower to face down every last obstacle and confrontation in the way of success. Some of Morton’s negotiating opponents found him too adversarial, too swift to anger, but the Tunnel could never have been achieved without the knocking together of heads that was his personal speciality. I found him the opposite of Hanson: thin-skinned, troubled by a certain lack of social confidence. I wrote an admiring profile of him in these pages, but he wrote to me at length afterwards agonising over my description of him as ‘an outsider’.

Another implacably tough manager who turned out to be likeable — even avuncular — was Sir Ian MacGregor, the National Coal Board chairman who faced down the striking miners. Once described as ‘an armadillo with the jaws of a Staffordshire bull terrier’, he was really a modest man who stuck doggedly to his task until he delivered a result. His secret of survival, he told me, was ‘a high threshold of concern and an ability to catnap’.

Doggedness is one thing, flair is another. Jennifer D’Abo, one of the few women in the book, was a perpetual optimist with a flair for rescuing unpromising businesses such as Ryman, the stationery chain; I remember her sweeping into the bank where I worked to plead for more finance, and usually sweeping out again with a cheque in her hand. One man who in his heyday combined flair, doggedness and perhaps a little too much of the killer instinct was Lord King, the self-made ball-bearing millionaire of humble origins who turned British Airways, for a while, into ‘the world’s favourite airline’. Sadly I knew him only when he was past his prime and very deaf; after one dinner conversation he turned to his other neighbour, jabbed a thumb at me, and shouted, ‘Who’s he?’ But still I admired him — landowner and master of hounds as well as lordly industrialist — if only for the fact that he once told an interviewer, ‘I am now what I always imagined myself to be.’ Extravagant ambition is another prerequisite of business greatness, and nothing to be ashamed of.

Don’t mention the euro

We don’t seem to hear much about the euro these days. Supporters of the idea that Britain should join the single currency soon, sometime or ever seem to have been struck dumb — perhaps by reading a report from the Conseil d’Analyse Economique, a think-tank of top French economists chaired by prime minister Dominique de Villepin. This weighty body finds that the euro has failed to boost trade in goods and services, and has created stagnation and complacency where it was expected to drive market reform and fiscal discipline. In fact, the new currency has done pretty much the opposite of what it said on the tin, and there must now be a higher probability of the euro disintegrating — beginning with the departure of Italy or Greece — than there is of any British government reopening the debate about scrapping the pound. That view was confirmed to me recently by my first City boss, a native of Alsace now happily retired to Provence, whom I would never have picked as a natural Eurosceptic. He made his name in the banking world as an exceptionally clever reader of foreign exchange markets. I asked him what odds he would give on the euro remaining intact. ‘Fifty per cent chance of surviving five years,’ was his swift answer. Would you bet against him?


Show comments
Close