Deputy City Editor
Friends and colleagues of Lord White were unanimous in their praise yesterday of the flambuoyant financier described by many as the guiding force of the Hanson conglomerate. He died on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, three weeks after collapsing on a flight from London to New York.
Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in awe of his hard-nosed approach to business, seeing him as a true capitalist, and knighted him in 1979. Yesterday she said: "I am deeply saddened by the death of Lord White, whose vision, energy and skill contributed so much to the creation of one of Britain's greatest companies."
Lord White had lived in the US for more than 20 years, masterminding the American side of Hanson's operations. Although nominally chairman of Hanson Industries (the US arm), he felt the demerger earlier this year of 34 smaller subsidiaries marked the completion of his work there and he had handed over the day-to-day running of the American businesses to William Landuyt, his 40-year old protege.
The successful transfer of power, and the fact that Lord White's death had been expected for some time, was reflected in Hanson's share price which closed just 1.75p lower yesterday at 216p.
Lord Hanson, who had worked with Gordon White for 35 years, described him as "the architect of the success of Hanson. His unlimited creative ideas and his persistence drove us all forward. He was the leading takeover expert in the world and I met no businessman, in the US or UK, with his instinct for opportunity."
Jim Slater, the former financier who knew Lord White well in the 1960s before he moved to the US, described him as a very able businessman with a real sense of fun. The Slater years coincided with the hey-day of White's and Hanson's headline grabbing socialising. White escorted a succession of actresses including Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.
Together White, who left school at the age of 16, and Hanson pursued a ruthless but highly profitable strategy, buying up low-technology companies at a cut price and restructuring them by slashing the workforce and turning the management upside down.
It was a strategy that worked with unrivalled success in the 1970s and 1980s as Hanson snapped up London Brick,Imperial Group and others, but the system lost steam in the 1990s as questioned started to be asked about the company's use of offshore companies for tax purposes and the secretive role of Lord White who, by keeping off Hanson's main board, avoided the normal disclosures of salary and interests required of directors.
Arguably the turning point both for Hanson and Lord White was the unsuccessful attempt to take over ICI in 1991 after araid on the chemicals giant's shares, masterminded by Smith New Court chairman Sir Michael Richardson.
Sir Michael said of Lord White: "He was the most exciting man to work with. When he walked in the room, there was a buzz of excitement. He had a clear decisive brain and a remarkable ability to look forward 5 or 10 years and be right."
Highly successful in an era when there was less scrutiny of company boardrooms, Lord White found it difficult to come to terms with modern corporate mores. He once said: "Power doesn't excite me. I've got a bloody good life over there and I don't want to come back here for board meetings."