A 'yes' man but nobody's nark: Graeme Odgers is slowly introducing his own hands-on style at the MMC. William Kay reports

Click to follow
ICE-CREAM and contraceptive sheaths could be the bizarre combination that holds the key to unlocking the enigma of Graeme Odgers after his first year as chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

They are at the head of the modest queue of inquiries awaiting publication or under investigation by the commission - along with on-line databases and residential mortgage valuations.

Their tone will give illuminating clues to the style of Mr Odgers, who has so far made few public pronouncements but is clearly developing a strong corporate culture at the MMC.

That culture, now emerging from lengthy discussions with the 35 part-time commissioners, is designed to iron out inconsistencies. It appears strikingly at odds with the more hands-off style of Sir Godfray Le Quesne, the Channel Islands judge who presided over the MMC from 1975 to 1987.

This shift is in keeping with the apparent - though denied - politicisation of the commission. When the Conservatives came to power in 1979, the commission contained three trade unionists and a sprinkling of left-leaning economists and businessmen.

The Left's representation has gradually dwindled to the point at which its two remaining flag- wavers - Alex Ferry, general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, and the general secretary of Wales TUC, David Jenkins - admit to feelings of isolation.

The chairman of the MMC and the other commissioners are appointed by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade. On his appointment, Mr Odgers, an industrialist and the first non-lawyer to head the MMC, was seen by many as very much someone in the Heseltine mould - pro-competition, pro-intervention, pro-industry. So he soon turned out to be, rashly describing the president as 'a great champion and advocate of British industry'.

In an interview with the Independent, Mr Odgers recalls: 'When I joined the MMC, people inevitably said, 'He's a person from industry. Is he Mr Heseltine's nark? Is he going to simply follow Heseltine's line?'.

'I would say that we're independent of government: we make our own minds up. But I will also say that I felt comfortable with Mr Heseltine's expressed viewpoint about competition when he thought it proper to offer me the job.'

Mr Odgers was 16 when his father died. He read mechanical sciences at Cambridge and joined Anglo- American, his father's employer, but left South Africa for political reasons 32 years ago and settled with his wife Diana in the UK.

He became a management consultant and was briefly an investment manager with Hambros Bank, before joining GEC and climbing the management ladder.

Mr Odgers had plenty of outside experience of the MMC as a director of Tarmac and also of BT, and has been an industrial adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry and head of its industrial development unit. 'It helps to know how ministers think and how the official machine behaves.'

Yet last November he was widely criticised after nodding through the big perfume makers' refusal to supply supermarkets and other allegedly undesirable outlets.

He justified this restriction on full-blooded competition by arguing that fine fragrances were 'products of the imagination' and that if he had found against the manufacturers, 'the industry might have died'.

That case also demonstrated the difficulty that the MMC faces in operating within the ambit of an increasingly interventionist European Commission competition policy.

Brussels has already approved the distribution arrangements of two manufacturers, Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy.

Mr Odgers concedes: 'If we had found that fine fragrances distribution was against the public interest, then - in terms of framing our recommendation - we would have had to be careful not to encourage our own secretary of state to break the European law. You couldn't do that.'

So he is hardly the type to kick over the traces. Despite his mild public claim to be adopting a 'collegiate approach' within the commission, hinting at the relaxed conversation and varied views of a senior common room, there are signs that he expects everyone to march in step once they get down to business.

'I've got to make sure the members, who are in a sense given to me by the Department of Trade and Industry, are up to speed in terms of their induction, their training, their updating,' he explains.

'I've also got to make sure the groups investigating each monopoly or merger are the right kind of groups, and that they attack their problems in a consistent way. I need to know what's going on across the whole MMC.'

Central to this intelligencegathering process is a new group, the deputy chairmen's committee, consisting of Mr Odgers, his three deputy chairmen, and Tony Nieduszynski, the commission's secretary.

'We meet every fortnight to go through everything that has been happening at the MMC,' says Mr Odgers. 'In particular we talk about what's been happening in the individual inquiries and at the key stages - when the inquiry comes in, when the issues are identified, and when the conclusions are being worked towards.

'We feed into each other, and we feed off each other.'

Their views are then passed on to rank-and-file MMC members, who include such oracles as Sir Ronald Halstead, deputy chairman of British Steel, and Patrick Minford, professor of applied economics at Liverpool University and one of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's six wise men.

Mr Odgers sees his collegiate approach as being an attempt to ensure that, although the individual members have their own particular backgrounds, experience, perceptions and predilections, when it comes to making decisions on an individual inquiry, they approach the problem very much as members of the group and of the commission.

He says: 'There is a sort of internal discipline that each member has to abide by, exerting his or her individuality, but also the collegiate approach.'

The full impact of this tighter discipline has yet to be seen. But there may be fewer of the dissenting minority reports that have enlivened many of the commission's previous investigations.

'From time to time we do have minority reports and I don't think the commission is any the worse for that,' he says. 'But one doesn't want to have too many of those.'

(Photographs omitted)