Quite ruthless - until it's time to go home

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Indy Lifestyle Online
He spilt blood when he arrived at Granada and may be about to do the same at the Arts Council. Gerry Robinson is used to playing the shark ... but come 5 o'clock it's hat on and back to the wife and his other, more sedate, life.

There are two Gerry Robinsons. One is the head of two major British companies who is respected and feared in equally large measure by all who work with him. The other is a man who likes to leave work at 5pm for his wife and children and who dreams of retiring to his birthplace in Donegal.

Gerry Robinson, perhaps best known as chairman of Granada, Britain's biggest television programme maker, this week came under fire from shareholders for receiving pounds 374,000 in a service contract deal. It cannot be a sum that matters much to him, since he also happens to be chairman of BSkyB and sits on the board of The Savoy. Until last year he was chairman of ITN. In May, he takes up a fourth executive position, as chairman of the Arts Council.

With so much work on his hands, colleagues and onlookers often ask how he manages to keep his personal life high on his list of priorities.

"He has made no secret that he values his family life," an insider at Granada said. "He is champion of the sensible work ethic. He says he makes 30 vital decisions a year and if he can get those right then that's what really matters. He is the strategic thinker - he doesn't get involved in the minutiae of Granada.

"The story about him putting his top hat and tails on at 5pm every day is a bit of an urban myth that he is happy to have passed about. If the hours have to be put in then he will do it. But his view is that it isn't the hours you spend in a job but the worth of those hours. You have to strike a balance. He is very much wedded to his family."

The Granada chief, who is 49, has always said he will retire at 55 and return to his birthplace in Ireland. He grew up in Dunfanaghy in Donegal, the ninth of 10 children to a village carpenter. He was christened Gerrard Jude Robinson because he was born on 23 October 1948, between St Gerrard's and St Jude's days.

He now has a house in Donegal, living there for up to eight weeks a year, whiling away the days oil painting. He spends his money on what is important to him: a year ago while holidaying in Ireland, he was swamped with inquiries from Irish roofers after cashing in pounds 525,000 worth of shares, explaining that he needed the money for repairs to his Donegal home.

Robinson has come a long way since he and his family moved across the Irish Sea. His family settled in the East End of London and the young Robinson entered the seminary of St Mary's College in Lancashire. He left with eight O-levels and four A-levels but had lost the urge to join the priesthood: instead, he got a job sticking pictures of Matchbox toys into a catalogue. Ten years later he was taken on by the entrepreneurial group Lex Service before joining Grand Met. By the age of 35, he was head of Coca Cola (UK).

He made his own, multi-million-pound fortune in catering (which later earned him the slur "ignorant upstart caterer" from the comedian John Cleese when he entered the TV business) following a management buy-out in 1988 of Grand Met's contract catering division.

His charm has not always worked. There have been a few notable stand- offs. Perhaps the biggest was after his arrival at Granada as chief executive in 1991, having been recruited over breakfast at Claridge's by Alex Bernstein, then executive chairman. Among the prominent people to fall swiftly on their swords were David Plowright, the distinguished programme-maker and Lord Olivier's brother-in-law. "I asked people what they did, and they kept going on about The Jewel in the Crown. But that had been made 10 years ago," Robinson said. Other redundancies followed, prompting Labour, then in opposition, to call for Granada's franchise to be withheld.

Granada's takeover of the Forte hotels empire in 1996 also required the stomach for a battle, prompting Olga Polizzi, Lord Forte's daughter, to call Robinson and his colleagues "bastards". It was to no avail: Granada took Forte, and with it every Little Chef in the UK, as well as the George V hotel in Paris.

For the present, Robinson lives in a luxurious detached Victorian house in Addison Road, in Holland Park, an exclusive part of west London where the seriously rich rub shoulders and a number of embassies also have their homes. The house, which contains seven bedrooms, six bathrooms and four reception rooms, also offers an "in and out" carriage drive, indoor swimming pool, a staff flat and a west-facing 100ft garden, where Robinson also pursues his painting passion. Neighbours include Paul Allen, a partner in Microsoft, Sir Elton John and the Virgin chief Richard Branson.

He shares the house with his second wife and former secretary Heather and their children, April and Tim. The house is on the market for pounds 8m.

A spokesman for Mr Robinson, who also has two grown-up children, Samantha and Jonathan, by his first marriage to Maria, said: "I have heard him talk within the last six months about scaling down and moving to a smaller place.

"Basically two of his children have left home and he feels he doesn't need as much space." The spokesman added that selling the house would not be a precursor to Robinson scaling down his involvement in Granada and fulfilling his long-heralded intention of returning to Ireland.

His other interests, apart from his family, are the theatre and the opera. He enjoys performances at Covent Garden - though he has been accused of being "a lover of opera highlights" - and has sat on the council of the Royal Court Theatre. He takes up his post as chairman of the Arts Council in May. The job is for one-and-a-half days a week and unpaid.

The Arts Council may be in for a culture shock from the man described by a close work associate as "a shark in a Val Doonican pullover". His appointment followed the observation from a Commons Select Committee in December that it would be better to "recruit a philistine with financial acumen" to run the Royal Opera House than another "creative" type. Some would say the same criterion is being applied to the Arts Council.

People who work with Robinson rarely have a bad word to say about their boss, despite his ability to be ruthless when necessary. "He charms the pants off everyone at Granada and people like working with him," said a colleague. "We know he can be nice but if you're not doing your job then you get called in for what he describes as a fireside chat, which is not a pleasant experience.

"He's respected for being honest. He's not the smiling assassin who knifes you in the back. If you've screwed up, he will tell you to your face."