Bunhill: We should be so lucky

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The Independent Online
Some people have all the luck, but John Sclater, a serial chairman and fully paid-up member of the City's great and good, isn't one of them.

Mr Sclater has a string of directorships as long as an outsize arm, but that does not mean Dame Fortune has smiled on him because nearly every job seems to land him in a business battle zone.

Take his time at Berisford International, the acquisitive property and commodities group which he joined on 1 April, 1986. What an April Fool that turned out to be: it was not long before Berisford had been brought to the brink of closure by an ill- fated foray into the American property market. Made chairman at the start of the 1990s, Mr Sclater then presided over a bruising programme of disposals and job cuts before Berisford re-emerged as a kitchens and catering company.

Then there's Mr Sclater's presidency of Equitable Life, where he arrived as a director in 1985 and was appointed president in 1994. Equitable was one of the companies "named and shamed" for dragging its feet in investigating cases of pension mis-selling in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It also featured prominently in a summer survey of offshore investment funds: two of its products were in the bottom five of a performance league of 456 companies.

But luck hasn't totally deserted Mr Sclater as he's also made a slot in his busy schedule to chair Foreign & Colonial, regarded as a strong performer among fund managers. This, though, has been the exception that proves the rule.

In August 1996 Mr Sclater found he had more time to spend with his other directorships when he relinquished the chairmanship of Hill Samuel. The investment bank's lending arm had become over-stretched after its takeover by the TSB in 1987, and the losses could not be staunched. Then Mr Sclater was gone, and so was Hill Samuel.

It was also his singular good fortune to have had a long-standing directorship with Union Discount, the money market and derivatives group which came close to bankruptcy in 1991 before cleaning up its act and returning to profit. Mr Sclater was made chairman in April 1996, but this turned out to be one of his shorter tenures. As Union tried to pull out of the discount market, where it had once reigned supreme but was now losing out to bigger banking rivals, Mr Sclater moved on to pursue "responsibilities elsewhere".

Where was that? Think of the corporate giant that collapsed last month with debts of pounds 15bn, heightened the crisis in the world's financial markets and nearly broke investor confidence in Japan. In the right place at the right time, as ever, Mr Sclater was chairman of Yamaichi International, the Japanese bank's London arm. He's not there any more, of course - along with 300 other staff in London, he's lost his job. Yamaichi couldn't confirm whether he would be receiving a big pay-off because it isn't talking much to the press: after all, "this isn't a launch".

Following such a battle-scarred career, however, surely Mr Sclater deserves an even break ... the chairmanship of the British beef industry beckons.

IT WAS not so long ago that shares were riding high on Wall Street and the chairman of the US Federal Reserve sounded a warning about the "irrational exuberance of the markets".

Well, now we know why the traders were exuberant and it wasn't irrational: they were looking forward to bonus time. Just like their counterparts in London, some elite investment bankers and traders are to receive record payouts worth around pounds 1m. And this from the country that panics about economic overheating every time someone gets a job. There are those in the US who swear allegiance to "truth, justice and the American way". They probably work for Goldman Sachs.

Mob tactics

Worse things happen at sea, it's said, but try telling that to an Italian advertiser who was made an offer he couldn't refuse after messing with the boys at Ocean Press.

Ocean, a publisher of industrial reference books, started out in 1989 with the acquisition of a struggling title called Ship Manager's Register for pounds 45,000. Since then, says founder Salim Bhimji, it has established both a strong presence in the market and a turnover of pounds 500,000 a year.

It hasn't been easy. For a start Ocean's titles, which also include Shipbuilder's Register and Marine Oil Directory, are up against such leviathans of maritime publishing as Lloyd's List and Lloyd's Register of Shipping. Meanwhile, 80 to 90 per cent of the company's revenue comes through adverts which are booked from outside the UK. This can make it hard to chase late payers.

Ocean has had to live on its wits in dealing with these problems, and nowhere has the company been wittier than in its credit-control methods. A bad-debt ratio of 1.25 per cent is not at all bad for a small firm, reasons Mr Bhimji, when you consider that this kind of percentage will generally account for debtors that have gone under. So what's the secret of its success?

Well, just ask the Italian, who had persistently refused to pay for the adverts he'd placed with Ocean - until one day Mr Bhimji lost his patience. His firm was owned by the Mafia, he told the advertiser, and now he was washing his hands of the debt and passing it on to Ocean's parent. In the meantime, Mr Bhimji had asked a friend who was on holiday in Italy, and who also has Mediterranean features, to pay a visit to the victim.

The message, though, had already made its mark. When Mr Bhimji's friend arrived, he found a banker's draft on the table and a private jet waiting outside the house; the horse's head wasn't required, the debt was satisfied and everyone felt relieved. Especially the horse.

But what if the advertiser had been a member of the mob? I asked Mr Bhimji. "We'd have given him a discount on the ads," he replied. Firm but fair, that's Ocean Press ... I just hope I haven't said too much.