Bomb-site likely lads make pounds 580m fortune from sale of car parks

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FOR MANY, there is little to be gained from the nation's car parks. But for one pair of likely lads, there are, in fact, 580 million reasons to be interested - and they all have the Queen's head on them.

Former leading seaman Sir Donald Gosling and ex-soldier Ronald Hobson have long been trailed as the "car-park kings of Britain". Yesterday's pounds 800m buy-out of their NPC empire, saw them not just relinquish the throne, but abolish the monarchy.

The founders of the company - with more than 500 sites in Britain and owner of the breakdown service Green Flag - pocketed pounds 580m after selling the business to an American company. Mr Hobson, Sir Donald and their family trusts, between them own 72.5 per cent of the group, which has been sold to Cendant Corporation for pounds 800m.

Their story is the stuff that post-war British films were made of. Ron Hobson, a demobbed former seamen with a brain for business and nose for money-making ventures, saw the potential for developing bomb-stricken sites in London which led to a chance meeting with Don Gosling, in 1948 a trainee surveyor with Westminster City Council. After a dinner, the pair bought a bomb site in Red Lion Square, Holborn, for pounds 200 and converted it to a car park.

The business started trading as Central Car Parks and within a decade the two founders had built up a chain of a dozen city-centre car parks. They took over National Car Parks from the family of a Colonel Lucas in 1958 and began their rapid expansion.

Whether the two knew that the motor-car would become of the cylinders in society's engine or property prices would go sky high is not clear. What is not difficult to say is that the duo's remarkable rise places them among of the best British business-people of their generation.

Today NCP runs 500 car parks, while the company's other main business, the roadside breakdown and recovery service Green Flag, has 3.5 million members.

But whereas Sir Donald plays the flashy, jack-the-lad, Mr Hobson - widely regarded as the brains - is the quiet, reclusive partner. Mr Hobson even turned down a knighthood in Harold Wilson's "lavender list" because he feared it would attract too much attention.

Sir Donald, meanwhile, has never been far the pages of the nation's newspapers. His friends include Mrs Thatcher and veteran journalist Chapman Pincher. He also pledged pounds 5m towards a Royal yacht to replace Britannia - wittily remarking "that it should come to HM being bailed out by a glorified parking attendant".

One piece of publicity neither pair wanted was the messy take-over of a smaller rival Europarks. NCP did swallow up its smaller competitor - but not before the company and some senior managers were accused of a spying campaign against Europarks.

The episode left the company with a disregard for many journalists - to the point where the enmity saw the company refuse basic information to Parking Review - the industry's trade paper.

Now it appears, it is NCP's turn to be gobbled up. Cendant, the new owners, is one of America's biggest corporations, with a stockmarket value of $30bn.

The American giant said it planned to invest heavily in IT systems for the NCP network so that customers could in future pay by credit card at automatic booths. It also aims to move further into management of local authority-owned car parks.

Business Outlook, page 25

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