Bunhill: What is it about Leeds?

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The Independent Online
WHAT is it about Leeds? I only ask because businesses based in the West Yorkshire city seem to have trouble persuading executives to move there. You may recall how Asda, the supermarkets group, took seven months to fill its empty chief executive's office in 1991.

Eventually it lured Kingfisher's Archie Norman, but only with the promise of a pounds 400,000 pay cheque and absurd numbers of share options.

Now another of the city's biggest employers - the Leeds Permanent building society - is coming up for a faintly embarrassing anniversary: come next month it will have been leaderless for a full year. Mike Blackburn left last February to head the rival Halifax. So far the pounds 215,000 pay packet (and cheapo mortgage) has not been sufficient inducement to obtain a successor.

The vacancy appeared to be filled last summer, when the Leeds agreed to merge with the National & Provincial. The idea then was that the N&P's chief, David O'Brien, would head the enlarged group. But the marriage broke up before it was consummated.

O'Brien was sent packing, which was good news for all lovers of plain speaking; he, you may recall, being the one who likes to call his managers 'process leaders', the staff 'players' and their meetings 'direction events'.

Contenders now said to be in the frame include Mike Jackson of the Birmingham Midshires, Ken Culley of the Portman, Chris Sharp of the Northern Rock and Derek Roberts of the Bradford-based Yorkshire.

However, I understand that the headhunters, Russell Reynolds, are now casting their net wider than the building society profession and seriously considering business leaders from other disciplines.

Malcolm Barr, the non-executive chairman, insists that 11 months without a chief executive has done no harm:

'We said at the outset that the search would be extensive and would take as long as required. In the meantime the business is being more than capably run by the society's executive management group.'

Meanwhile I learn that, to some at least, Yorkshire is downright irresistible. Newton Fund Managers, the London- based investment group, is about to open a Leeds office, from which its pounds 200m Income Fund will be managed.

The official reason is that, stuck in the soft South, it feels too distant from its wealthy northern clients.

The unofficial reason is that Robert Shelton, the company's star investment manager - and a passionate Yorkshireman - is homesick.