Here is the news: from skyscrapers to the Stock Exchange, we’re on the up

My Week

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The Independent Online

A week that began with me appearing on a panel to discuss “The Future of Newspapers” could only get better.

Boom, boom! And before you say it: yes, it was a short conference. Boom, boom!

Actually, it was a good session with plenty of positives. Newspaper sales may be declining, albeit slowly, but their journalism is reaching more people than ever, via PC, tablet and mobile.

In America, the signs of financial health for newspapers are encouraging, with even the likes of Warren Buffett climbing aboard. As Mr Buffett says: “In Grand Island, Nebraska, everyone is interested in how the football team does. They’re interested in who got married. They’re maybe even more interested in who got divorced.”

A magical evening with the Shard’s maestro

To the Shard, and an “Evening of Magic” with Dynamo. The event is in aid of Patrons of Variety, the new arm of Variety, the children’s charity, and organised by the fashion retailer Harold Tillman.

There’s a good turnout of City and business faces. But the star among them is Irvine Sellar, developer of the Shard, the EU’s tallest building. Few of us can have any real idea what it takes to build such a tower. The planning, detail, logistics, the sheer financial gamble of creating so much space and not knowing if the demand will still exist by the time it’s finished – it’s mind-boggling.

That’s why, when Sellar gives the welcome address, there is silence – the audience is awestruck. More so, when he says the idea was conceived over a lunch in Berlin with the architect Renzo Piano in early 2000. Piano told him how much he loathed that era’s crop of skyscrapers, flipped over the menu, and on the back, sketched out a design for a shard pointing to the sky.

“It’s been a 14-year journey,” says Sellar. “I told a sceptical industry about the Shard and no one believed me. I said I’d get it financed and no one thought I’d get it financed. I said I’d build it and no one thought I’d build it.

“Here we are; it’s built and attracting one million visitors a year. Dynamo, you’re not the only magician in this building tonight.”

Looking round the room, at the slicked-back hedge-fund managers and private equity managers, I wonder how many of them can even conceive of any business proposition taking 14 years.

What French polish did for the LSE

Over breakfast, Xavier Rolet, the chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, is an intellectual live-wire. Plans for how the UK can boost small and medium-sized companies pour out of him.

It was not that long ago that Aim, the junior market for smaller firms, was regarded with disdain by the LSE hierarchy. Now, says the LSE chief, it should be seen as a prime source of capital for SMEs.

Rolet is on a mission to restore the LSE’s lustre. When he took over, the famous exchange, which dates back to the 17th century, had slumped to 17th in the world. Now it’s up to fourth.

That fall, he stresses, was due in no small part to the LSE’s thwarted bid for Liffe, which meant it struggled to get into the booming derivatives market. His predecessor, Dame Clara Furse, did well to keep the LSE independent at all, fighting off takeover attempts from Deutsche Börse, Euronext and Nasdaq.

Towards the end, we leave the subject of the UK and touch upon Rolet’s native France. He’s virtually choking on his toast, such is his fury at the moribund state of François Hollande’s nation.

A sure sign that UK plc is buzzing again

Waiting to meet Simon Walker, director-general of the Institute of Directors at his offices in Pall Mall, I realise I’ve discovered a new bellwether for the UK economy. The IoD headquarters is a veritable hive of activity.

I’ve never been to a building where so many people are coming and going at once. A glance at the noticeboard shows they’re here for meetings with members who have hired rooms, and for business self-improvement seminars. There are literally tens of power-dressed men and women arriving and leaving.

Everyone looks so earnest and in a hurry. Judging by this lot, UK plc is definitely buzzing again.

Bell’s memoir rings the changes

Best read of the week was Lord Bell’s serialised memoir, Right or Wrong: a trip down memory lane, to an age where inhibitors such as “compliance” and “corporate governance” had not been invented.

He tells how officials unwittingly contributed to a run on sterling by offending the Sultan of Brunei. They issued him with a passport marked HRH when his title was His Majesty. His response was to sell billions of pounds. The Sultan’s then financial adviser, Mohamed al Fayed, was asked how the damage could be repaired. So a strange ceremony took place at Downing Street. During tea, Mrs Thatcher handed the Sultan a passport with the correct description. Crisis solved. The irony, of course, is that Fayed famously never got the passport he so craved.

Another Bell tale concerns the Saatchi brothers, Charles and Maurice. Bell worked for them until he left to form his own agency. Saatchi & Saatchi had the Tory advertising account but was struggling for a slogan. Bell was brought in by Mrs Thatcher and suggested: “Life’s better with the Conservatives. Don’t let Labour ruin it.”

She loved it. The Saatchis, Charles especially, were livid. In revenge they mounted a bear raid on his new agency’s shares, wiping £12m off their value. Mrs Thatcher’s response was to reach for James Hanson, the industrialist.

Hanson told the brothers straight: unless they backed off he would destroy their share price. They duly climbed down.

Later, when they tried to buy the Midland Bank, the Saatchis were refused permission. According to Bell, the Prime Minister, who had taken against them, told him she’d spoken to the Governor of the Bank of England and got the bid stopped.

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