The Interview: Lord of the dance moves into the last act of his career

Sir Gerry Robinson Chairman of Allied Domecq
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The Independent Online

Are we seeing the last of Sir Gerry Robinson, one of Britain's best-known and most successful businessmen, whose career has included running Granada and the Arts Council and starring in his own successful BBC television show?

Are we seeing the last of Sir Gerry Robinson, one of Britain's best-known and most successful businessmen, whose career has included running Granada and the Arts Council and starring in his own successful BBC television show?

Now 56, the Labour Party donor's last remaining job - chairman of Allied Domecq - is about to come to an end. The Beefeater gin drinks giant faces an almost certain takeover by either Pernod Ricard or an Amercian consortium of drinks companies and private equity funds. The deal is exactly the sort of swashbuckling mega-merger that Sir Gerry so loved at Granada, where he forced Sir Rocco Forte to surrender his hotel empire, and Grand Metropolitan before that where, in 1988, he masterminded what was then the biggest management buyout in UK history to form Compass Group, the caterer.

"I would much rather have been at the other end of this," Sir Gerry says about Allied, reflecting the frustration of his chief executive, Philip Bowman, at being unable to buy Pernod Ricard or any other of the remaining drinks companies of any size. "One has to be realistic and pragmatic. Those companies worth buying are not available, they are family owned or controlled. But the logic of consolidation behind the formation of Diageo [the merger of Guinness and Grand Metropolitan in 1997] is inescapable and totally logical."

That said, the existing £7.4bn offer from Pernod and the plans for a rival offer being led by America's Constellation Brands will not be the only bids in the Allied auction. "My own view is that we will get another one, at least," Sir Gerry says. He admits the process of deciding to raise the white flag over Allied's HQ was not an easy one with the final board meeting that recommended Pernod's offer a particularly difficult time.

"There are a good collection of people on that board. There was a lot of sadness, particularly among the executives themselves who had pulled the company around. But in the end no one was disagreeing that this made sense."

Whatever the identity of the eventual buyer, a deal should be done and dusted by late summer or early autumn at the latest.

So what then for Sir Gerry? Delighted by Thursday's election result - although he thinks Tony Blair should hand over to Gordon Brown in two to three years - he is a man who has famously believed in standing back and taking the broad view of life. He took the Allied job three years ago to maintain his contacts with the London corporate scene but finds coming back to the front line gets harder each time.

Born in Dunfanaghy in Donegal, the ninth of 10 children, Sir Gerry lives back in his favourite bit of Ireland in a 330-year-old house on a 100-acre estate that he and his wife, Heather, have painstakingly restored.

"It makes me a very happy man. I'm not very keen to get something corporate at all costs. I wouldn't want to do another public service job like the Arts Council because those roles, while very fulfilling, are very time consuming. I'm still working away here. I've finished the boathouse. I've got a new piece of land that I'm planting with trees. I paint and play a bit of golf, and my children, the young ones [he has four children from two marriages] are 11 and 14 and I'm looking at the last couple of years when you get a lot of fun with them."

There is another non-executive role in him but only at a stable company that is not going to spring nasty surprises.

"I always have this Marconi-type fear in the back of my mind. I would consider another one but, to be honest, I'm not that fussed."

So what about private equity, where so much maturing management talent ends up? "I could be attracted by some major last job in which I owned a fair chunk of it but I'm not prepared to put myself out to get it and things don't happen like that. You have to go and make it happen and I'm not doing that."

One thing he is going to do is another series for the BBC but not I'll Show Them Who's Boss, the Mr Fix-it programme where he put ailing family companies to rights. Although successful it has been overshadowed by Sir Alan Sugar's The Apprentice, another BBC show. Instead the new series, which starts filming in August, will be about trying to solve the long-term problems of delinquent organisations such as the railways.

It was at Granada, where he became chief executive in 1991, that he started specialising in remedial work. He fired David Plowright as head of television, upsetting the luvvie brigade resulting in an infamous fax from John Cleese saying "Why don't you fuck off, you jumped-up caterer".

Granada has now slimmed down and metamorphosed into ITV, where Sir Gerry's great friend and acolyte, Charles Allen, still presides. But to survive, ITV needs to heed the lessons of Allied Domecq, Sir Gerry reckons, the lessons of scale.

"The players who will survive in commercial television will be the ones who own both ends of the spectrum, production and the networks, but only on a grand scale. You can't just be in the UK any more. The advertising model still works but it is not the monopoly it used to be. That's effectively the story; there's serious competition out there that wasn't there before both for advertising and for eyeballs."

He predicts consolidation involving European and US media groups but is non-committal about when and how ITV will fit in. Perhaps that is the private equity-backed deal he could be persuaded to do, the buyout of ITV, maybe alongside his friend, the former BBC director general Greg Dyke.

"What I do know is that it's a huge shame that Greg went [in the post-Hutton BBC bloodletting]. He'd only just really started to get things in order. The big picture I had was that at long last, after a long time of misery and uncertainty, here was an organisation that was excited about itself."

Being excited about business is something Sir Gerry has always tried to engender in people but his style is also to be tough when it matters. In William Kay's illuminating biography of Sir Gerry, Lord of the Dance, the last chairman of Allied Domecq neatly sums up his approach to life.

"I often think of the philosophy expressed in Milan Kundera's book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which says nothing matters very much and yet, because it is all we have, everything matters greatly. I have never taken life that seriously, because I have the sense of it not mattering that much.

"But whatever you do, you must really go for it. No half measures. If that is what we are going to do, let's have a crack at it. You are going to do a couple of big things in your life and you had just better get them right."

Stepping up

Pay: £200,000.

Age: 56.

Education: Dunfanaghy village school and St Mary's seminary in Lancashire.

Career: Started in 1965 at Matchbox Toys' London factory before joining Lex Service in 1974. Left to become sales and marketing director for Grand Met's UK Coca-Cola franchise age 35. Led the £160m management buyout of Compass in 1988, leaving to run Granada in 1991. Became chairman of Allied Domecq in 2002.

Personal: Twice married with four children.

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