WHEREVER the Prince of Wales turns up to talk about industrial matters, you'll find a young, stocky, blond-mopped fellow at his side.
This is Matthew Butler, the prince's assistant private secretary and adviser on commerce, innovation, housing and the homeless.
Butler's rise has been swift. After spells as a PR man at the Industrial Society, the tank- maker Vickers and the insurance firm Allied Dunbar, he was last June seconded on to the inner coterie of advisers trying to repackage Charles in a more statesmanlike light, post- Camillagate.
That has meant shaping the prince's various crusades into a consistent, coherent programme and working on his interests in worthy causes such as Business in the Community and Prince's Trusts.
You might expect Millwall- supporting Butler, 34, to share his boss's liberal, interventionist views on business and the need for industrialists to be more caring about the communities they operate in.
He may well do, but I seem to recall a rather different Butler when he was a fresh-faced undergraduate at St John's College, Cambridge, in the early 1980s. There he was best known for his extreme right-wing views and his fuzzy understanding of the democratic process.
He was kicked out of the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) for electoral malpractice - along with Simon Heffer, who is now deputy editor of the Spectator and still a friend.
He also caused a bit of a rumpus by inviting the Chilean ambassador to give a speech at the college at the height of General Pinochet's dictatorship. Outraged demonstrators broke down the door of the Wordsworth Room, upon which the ambassador beat a hasty retreat.
Butler was also a member of the ultra-right Monday Club and the Curzon League - a society at least one of whose dinners, I'm told, descended into a series of toasts to increasingly unsavoury leaders, dead and alive. A year after his expulsion from CUCA, Butler held a 'Bring Back Hanging Party' to celebrate the anniversary. After rummaging in the capacious Bunhill archives, I am able to reproduce the party invitation. Make what you will of it.
When I rang Butler at Buckingham Palace to ask about his university days and his views on hanging and flogging, he told me he couldn't remember the party. 'I don't want to talk about things 13 years ago. Frankly, I'm surprised you haven't got more important things to write about.
'My politics are my business, frankly. People's political persuasions are not a factor in appointments here.' Evidently.
BILL DEEKER was 18 when he took time off as a beach bum to help his father organise one the biggest firework displays in Britain this century - the display on the eve of the Royal Wedding in 1981. 'I was chief hole-digger. It was the hardest piece of ground I've ever dug. It's concrete, Hyde Park.'
He caught the gunpowder bug and 12 years on, he is managing director of the family firm, Pains Fireworks, and has just concluded an acquisition that makes Pains the biggest display company in the country. It has bought rival Nationwide Fireworks, boosting its pounds 1.5m turnover by another pounds 300,000.
Deeker, now 30, organises firework displays any time and anywhere: he's shortly off to Saudi Arabia, which hosts displays that dwarf anything seen in the UK. Based in Whiteparish, Wiltshire, he can call on 150 trained operators across the country.
Pains, which traces its roots to a 16th century gunpowder maker in Bow, East London, started making fireworks in the late 1700s. It did the displays for Queen Victoria's coronation and jubilees. It has arranged the finale to every Cowes Week regatta since 1872.
Demand for displays is growing fast and the industry is worth about pounds 25m a year, of which pounds 10m is done by 'cowboy outfits'. Accidents have been increasing. Deeker is lobbying for a national licensing of display companies.
Stressing the point
A press release and checklist arrives in the post. Does this sound a familiar description of your workplace?
1. People are secretive and not honest with one another.
2. Decisions on projects are either delayed or just not made.
3. There is an increase in the number of accidents at work.
4. People are frequently late for meetings.
5. Stomach pains, headaches and flu become common reasons for time off.
6. People actively promote a negative attitude in others; whingeing becomes the norm.
7. People start to blame and bad- mouth their boss.
8. Resignations increase.
9. Conflict among fellow workers is obvious.
10. Marriages and family life suffer as people take out work frustrations at home.
All sounds perfectly normal, I hear you say. There can be few companies where 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10 are not the norm. As for 7, it is surely one of the great pleasures of going to work.
But wait. The compilers of the checklist, the consultants Coopers & Lybrand, are worried. They say these are the 10 most common signs that employees are suffering stress from poor management of change.
Sally Aylard, the partner in charge of the change management practice (whatever that might be), warns that companies are increasingly likely to be sued in future by employees because of the stress they have suffered.
Sounds interesting. Alas, when I try to find out more from C&L, I rapidly became . . . well, for want of a better word, stressed. They don't know whether any British employee has successfully sued for stress and if so, for how much; they think there may be some cases going through the courts but they're not sure what they are or what stage they've reached.
Nice to see another bunch of highly paid management consultants on top of their subject.
I SEEM to be the only one applauding the pounds 24m fine slapped on British Steel last week by the European Commission. It did after all rip off its customers, but everyone prefers to see the fine as a snub to Britain. The sound of MPs of all persuasions protesting was as furious as a blast furnace - and as full of hot air.
The bad news is that the construction firms and other British Steel customers who overpaid for steel beams because of the price-fixing cartel won't see any of the pounds 24m, which goes straight into the maw of Brussels. Karel Van Miert, the competition commissioner who administered the Schwarzenegger-esque punishment, puts our own wimpish British watchdogs to shame.
Most have the power to exact unlimited fines. None that I can find has ever gone even as far as a paltry pounds 1m. When Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, breached industry rules over the Maxwell scandal, the Securities and Futures Authority administered a record pounds 160,000 fine.
To Goldmanites, who are accustomed to pounds 1m annual bonuses, this was roughly equivalent to a slap over the wrist with a specially softened feather.
Lautro, the watchdog for life assurers and unit trusts, has managed a record fine of pounds 160,000 - against Interlife, a Romford-based insurer, while Imro, which oversees investment managers, fined Noble Lowndes pounds 740,000 in December for four breaches of its rules. They included systematic churning - doing unnecessary deals for clients.
Fimbra's record was a pounds 60,000 penalty levied on DBS Management of Huddersfield for failing to ensure one of its reps was fit and proper and other failings.
As for beancounters, their regulator, the Institute of Chartered Accountants, has only managed a measly pounds 10,000 fine - and then the the guilty man was bankrupted and never paid up.
Solicitors? The Law Society tribunal can fine up to pounds 5,000 per allegation, but no one at Chancery Lane was able to tell me what the actual record stands at.
Shell out on roses
TO PAY pounds 29.99 for a bunch of roses is not excessive. You have Shell's word for that. One of its petrol stations was charging that price for 12 red roses on St Valentine's Day last week.
An ashen-faced Bunhill rang Shell the next day for an explanation. Apparently Red Baroness roses sell for pounds 2 a stem at wholesale, said a spokeswoman. And anyway the managers and franchisees of Shell's 2,355 garage shops can charge any price they please.
Sjaak Van Der Vyver, one of Britain's biggest rose importers, doesn't quite agree. Wholesale prices do double in Valentine's week, but a top quality stem still only fetches pounds 1 wholesale.
Whisper it quietly, but Mrs B got the chrysanths at pounds 4.95. Who says romance is dead?