Cost-cutting 'caterer' challenges ex-playboy

NIGEL COPE

Granada's hostile bid for Forte pitches two sharply contrasting businessmen into battle. In the Granada corner is Gerry Robinson. He is 47, the ninth of a Donegal carpenter's 10 children, who was once described by the comedian John Cleese as an "ignorant upstart caterer".

In the Forte corner is Sir Rocco Forte, the smooth, polished scion of the Forte dynasty, who speaks like Prince Charles and dresses in the best Savile Row suits. Known as a former playboy, he once squired glamorous women such as Bianca Jagger. Now 50, he married the equally glamorous Aliai Ricci in 1986.

Their management styles are very different. Mr Robinson is a fervent believer in delegating and describes most work is a "waste of time". He works a strict nine-hour day and even takes Fridays off.

Sir Rocco regularly puts in a 12-hour stint in the office - in addition to business dinners. "It's hard to be a playboy when you work as hard as I do," he said recently.

Mr Robinson has developed the reputation of a ruthless cost-cutter which has made him popular with City analysts. He frowns upon unnecessary expense and runs Granada from a unimpressive office block in London's Soho. The management structure is pruned to speed up decisions. Managers are given responsibility and made accountable.

By contrast, Forte has a more remote style of management. At the London head office Sir Rocco only recently moved his office down from the penthouse suite to the same floor as the rest of the board. Decisions are said to be slow and the directors of the two main divisions - hotels and restaurants - do not even sit on the main board.

The HQ has four lifts and it is said that when a Forte family member is present one is reserved for their private use. In the City Sir Rocco has been criticised for combining the roles of chairman and chief executive and running the company like a private family concern. "It is not seen as a dynamic business," one observer said.

Socially the two are poles apart. While Mr Robinson is a quiet family man, Sir Rocco is a member of the upper crust social whirl. When he was knighted, congratulations poured in from royalty, Baroness Thatcher and half the current cabinet. Even his chauffeur has an MBE.

The background of both is fairly humble. Mr Robinson's family left Ireland when he was 11 and he initially studied to be a priest. But he left the seminary at 16 for a career in industry. In 1987 he led the management buy-out of Grand Metropolitan's catering division to form Compass. He was appointed head of Granada in 1991 when John Cleese made his "upstart caterer" remark.

Sir Rocco had a swifter ascent. After leaving Oxford he joined Trusthouse Forte in 1970, becoming deputy chief executive eight years later.

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