Thought <i>you </i>had a heavy workload? We present Allan: portrait of a serial director

He's chairman of Royal Mail, a white knight at Leeds Utd and a potential successor to Murdoch at BSkyB (among other things). Abigail Townsend is worn out just writing about the amazing Mr Leighton
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The Independent Online

In this 24-7 world, everyone is busy, and none more so than those in the City. After all, that one small Square Mile is responsible for millions of pounds worth of business every day.

Yet even among that busy lot, one man redefines the term "overflowing in-tray". Just listing all of Allan Leighton's jobs is exhausting and would leave a lesser man needing to sit down. He is chairman of the Royal Mail; deputy chairman of the vastly indebted football club Leeds United; chairman of department store chain Bhs, and chairman of online bucket shop lastminute.com. He also sits on the board of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, vacuum cleaner company Dyson, Cannons healthclubs and George Weston, the Canadian food distributor which is part of the Weston family empire, owner of the Queen's grocer, Fortnum & Mason, and of Selfridges, the London department store.

He is also chairman of Race for Opportunity, an organisation dedicated to promoting ethnic diversity in business, while his website practically invites trouble: "If you have a question for me, or would like any advice regarding your company/business, then simply let me know" reads the altruistic blurb beside his email address. And until its recent sale to Taylor Woodrow, he also sat on the board of homebuilder Wilson Connelly. Shame on any one of you moaning about the stresses and strains of your one job this weekend.

Yet after the week Mr Leighton and his portfolio of businesses have just had, it could be argued that he has taken on too much. After all, when does he have time for his favourite hobby, morris dancing?

Last Monday saw him make an unscheduled stop at a meeting of disgruntled postal workers in Greenford, west London, in an effort to halt wildcat strikes. He failed, and postal services across the capital were disrupted throughout the week. The day after, Leeds United unveiled debts to the tune of £78m and full-year losses of £50m, and the generous Mr Leighton committed a large share of his fortune to helping the club out, despite actually supporting Nottingham Forest.

Meanwhile, worries continue over the BSkyB succession. A shareholder action group, Pirc, has voiced concerns that James Murdoch, son of Rupert, is being lined up to take over as chief executive. Should that happen, there will be pressure on Mr Murdoch Snr to step down as chairman of BSkyB, and Mr Leighton has already been rumoured as a possible replacement.

Mr Leighton insists he is not over-stretched and says last week was "no more manic than normal. I go where the issues are and I manage by issues, not by time. It's very straightforward". He points out that his roles are non-executive and that he leaves the actual running of the companies to others. The companies certainly appear relaxed about their busy director. A Royal Mail spokesman says: "Allan has made his presence felt as chairman in an extremely active way. He's in touch on a continuous basis. He's approachable and aware of what's happening, and can take decisions and influence what happens here."

In fact, Mr Leighton's name crops up again and again in association with his stable of companies, far more so than most other non-executives and, indeed, many chief executives. The Royal Mail has a chief executive, appointed by Mr Leighton, in Adam Crozier, formerly of the Football Association. But it was Mr Leighton who made the unscheduled stop at Greenford last week, a move the spokesman says is "absolutely typical ... On a daily basis he gets emails from members of the company and he replies to them. He needs to know what's going on to run the company."

Mr Leighton's juggling of so many directorships has also caught the eye of Pirc. Last year it questioned how much time he could devote to lastminute.com as chairman, and the issue has raised its head again now BSkyB, Royal Mail and Leeds are all in the news. "We would have to say it's a concern," says corporate governance policy manager David Somerlinck. "It's always a risk, when you have all these positions, that everything comes up at the same time. It's not going to happen very often, but when it does, what gets priority? You can go round spinning the plates on the poles, but when push comes to shove, which ones are you going to save when it all starts to fall?" The Higgs report recommended directors should not chair more than one FTSE 100 company, and Mr Leighton does not. But as Mr Somerlinck points out, the Philip Green-owned Bhs and the Royal Mail are certainly of comparable size to most blue-chip public businesses.

Mr Leighton swiftly dismisses most of these concerns (as is to be expected from a man with so many things to do). "These companies are owned by shareholders and probably, with one exception, the companies would be pretty pleased with my involvement. Out of the nine, there are eight ticks and one cross and that's not bad."

Leeds is, of course, the black spot and some commentators are none too positive about Mr Leighton's contribution to the state the club is in. As a non-executive director of a plc, they say, surely he should have been watching out for and addressing the excesses of Peter Ridsdale's reign? There have also been concerns that the Leeds chairman, John McKenzie, a university professor by trade, was not the right choice to sort out the mess.

Yet Mr Leighton insists everyone is focused on turning the club round, citing the recent appointment of Chelsea's former boss, Trevor Birch, as chief executive. He is also helping the cause along by injecting around £4m into the club.

"Everything doesn't go right all the time and at Leeds we've got stuck in to sort it out," he says. "I wouldn't still be there if I thought it was in terminal decline." And in case you think postal strikes should, technically, deserve a cross, Mr Leighton argues that the action is un-official and that it is currently centred on London. He concedes that strikes hurt profitability but believes the Royal Mail - which two years ago reported a £1.2bn loss - will still make a profit in 2003.

With the Higgs recommendations being incorporated this week into the listing rules for UK public companies, holding multiple directorships (or "going plural", as Mr Leighton's website refers to it) is likely to become a thing of the past. Yet he is adamant he will remain a serial director and has by and large staked his reputation on it. He had a distinguished career at Asda, where he was made chief executive in 1996, and was one of a group of directors who turned round the supermarket chain before its sale to Wal-Mart. But he has no desire to return to such a role, preferring, somewhat ironically given his high profile, to "help where I can behind the scenes".

History is littered with examples of those who managed multiple roles well and others who did not. Those who have been less lucky include Lord Marshall. A boardroom junkie, now aged 70 and pushing retirement, his CV includes companies such as British Airways and the engineering firm Invensys. He stepped down as chairman of Invensys in the summer, and earlier this year admitted senior managers had been at fault for many of the problems after the BTR/Siebe merger (shares have slumped 95 per cent since the creation of Invensys).

And that, ultimately, is what Mr Leighton - and his reputation - will be judged on: the companies themselves. Which in turn goes some way to explaining why, despite his protestations of being "behind the scenes", he is not giving up the multiple reins just yet.

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