How the many facets of Keith Harris have turned him into the City's Mr Fixit

Business Profile: The former head of HSBC's investment bank is now running Seymour Pierce
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The Independent Online

When Keith Harris, the engaging chairman of the stockbroker Seymour Pierce, turned 50 on 11 April this year, his friend Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers, give him silver replicas of the three trophies Mr Harris's beloved Manchester United won in 1999 - the European Champion's League, the Premiership and the FA Cup.

Slightly more embarrassingly, Mr Desmond also had a pile of first editions of The Sunday Express on a table at the party in Mayfair's Langan's brasserie, where guests included Adam Crozier, former boss of the Football Association.

The episode demonstrated aspects of Mr Harris's many-faceted character. His famous love of football, his high-profile alliance with Mr Desmond, whom he helped buy The Express, came together with his penchant for a good party - which, friends say, Mr Harris regarded with some apprehension because of the milestone nature of the birthday.

Mr Harris has tried his hand at being professionally involved with football - doing a stint as chairman of the Football League - as well as watching it since he was a no doubt rather precocious four-year-old growing up in Stockport, outside Manchester. He is now in charge of Seymour Pierce, a brokerage with about 120 corporate clients, most of whom are listed on the Alternative Investment Market.

The football job was an interlude in a long career in investment banking, in which the self-proclaimed working-class Mr Harris pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become chief executive of the investment bank at HSBC. He held the post for six years until 1999, with most involved saying he left by mutual consent.

Just as some may have liked to see Mr Harris go, the man himself seems more than happy to have left the high-octane world of working at the world's second biggest bank after Citigroup.

Even in the good times, when stock markets were booming and Mr Harris's team grew profits at the investment bank from £40m to £400m, it was on his account: "Eighteen hours a day, at least six days a week. Dealing with people who were very demanding and got used to having very high bonuses and internal politics, which were a blight."

Seymour Pierce, with a workforce of 60 compared to the 7,000 he was in charge of by the time he left HSBC, seems to have breathed new life into Mr Harris. He looks in rude health after the grinding time at HSBC and the roller-coaster ride that was the Football League, when his tenure coincided with the collapse of ITV Digital and the ensuing unravelling of its sponsorship deal with the 72 Nationwide League football clubs.

That episode is still raw. Mr Harris hopes Michael Green, chairman of Carlton, and Charles Allen, his counterpart at Granada, who set up the doomed venture, will get their "come-uppance". He thinks they might, in the form of shareholder wrath surrounding the proposed merger of the two companies.

In contrast, life at Seymour Pierce seems much happier. "I like being able to choose people to work with, and it is nice to want to come into work in the morning. We have a very good young team and I enjoy being able to spend time with them," says Mr Harris.

While he got fed up of the politics involved in being at the top of the tree at HSBC, it seems to be agreeable for him to be a big fish in a small pool.

He has been chairman of Seymour Pierce for three years, but it was earlier this year that things started to get exciting, when Mr Harris led a management buyout of the investment banking and broking part of the group. He holds a 20 per cent stake and the rest of the management control 40 per cent, with the remainder held by Jon Moulton's Alchemy Partners and the entrepreneur Nigel Wray.

Seymour Pierce has been doing quite respectably. Clients have grown by 40 per cent under Mr Harris and it is now broker or adviser to many companies listed on Aim, the company's main area of focus and a sector that has been griping for ages that the big banks have been ripping them off in massive fees while under-delivering on service.

The whole broking sector is under the microscope, thanks to the supposed goings-on at Collins Stewart Tullett, one of Seymour Pierce's main rivals. The episode - involving allegations of insider dealing, share ramping and biased research - has led to plenty of opportunities for rivals to make holier than thou comments about Terry Smith, chief executive of Collins Stewart.

Mr Harris, for whom pomposity does not seem a natural mode, said that, whatever the truth of the situation, it ought not to hurt the reputation of others because "this is not a case of the ripples going far and wide". Seymour Pierce has not gone down the path of being purely a corporate finance house. Mr Harris explained: "Clients want more than just advice. They want you to be able to raise money. But we do not do market-making, which can lead to conflicts of interest and where it is difficult to get the balance right."

While Seymour Pierce concentrates on smaller companies - he says he "understands the entrepreneurial mind" - some of Mr Harris's deals have not been that small - the Express deal was worth £125m and two months ago he advised Chelsea Village on its £140m sale to the Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich.

Both clients have landed Mr Harris, whose northern roots are hidden underneath a surprisingly cut-glass accent, firmly in the spotlight. Ken Bates makes the "occasional crisp comment which does not make the job easier", Mr Harris remarked of the outspoken Chelsea chairman, who recently called the Financial Services Authority "worms" and the Takeover Panel "plonkers".

Chelsea is being investigated by both over allegations that the share ownership of the group was deceptive, and over suspicious trades in its shares ahead of the announcement of the sale. Seymour Pierce has not been contacted over the share ownership issue and, Mr Harris says, on the share dealing the brokerage does not know what went on, but the amount of gain was "only enough for a cup of tea".

Mr Desmond also "has his own style", Mr Harris concedes of the man who cut swaths through the Express workforce, scrapped its liberal editorial stance and, in many people's minds, is using the paper to wage a campaign against rivals such as Viscount Rothermere, chairman of Daily Mail and General Trust.

Yet Mr Harris describes Mr Desmond as a "soul mate". "We come from very different backgrounds. But, as you become senior in an organisation you become unapproachable. We became close friends."

With some justification, Mr Harris decries the "hypocrisy" of the City. Some corners showed disdain for Mr Desmond's company - Northern & Shell - becoming a publicly quoted entity because it produces pornographic magazines, while fund managers are happy to invest pension funds in companies making weapons or cigarettes.

But the image of the two of them is forever tarnished for some by the way Mr Desmond sacked 50 or so journalists working on the internet arm of The Express. The group - some who had worked there for many years - was told one day that their services were no longer required and were asked to leave the building. Mr Harris says of the episode: "Everybody who left got better terms than statutory redundancy. In the end, they were a cash drain and you should have the right to close a business."

He says he "likes, not loves, cricket but I have a passion for football". While he grew up watching Manchester United from the terraces, he is more keen on the directors' box and, as someone who has himself played semi-professionally while at university in Bradford, enjoys "being with people who know a lot about the sport".

There was speculation that he tried - and failed - to put a bid together for Sir Alex Ferguson's team, something he dismisses. There were also rumours that he has for a long time had his eye on becoming chairman of the club.

On both counts, the final whistle is still a long way off.

KEITH HARRIS: TEAM PLAYER

Title: Executive chairman, Seymour Pierce group

Age: 50

Career: Orion Bank, Morgan Grenfell, Drexel Burnham Lambert in US, Apax Partners, chief executive of HSBC investment bank, Football League chairman, Seymour Pierce chairman

Interests: Manchester United, playing tennis, doing newspaper crosswords. Married twice and is now separated. Three children

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