East End boy prepares for toughest fight: Theft charges are the latest trough in George Walker's mixed career, says John Willcock

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The Independent Online
GEORGE WALKER is perhaps the perfect example of a man who has come from a tough background in London's East End, scaled the heights of society and then fallen back again.

He left school at 14 to become a Billingsgate porter. He gradually built a business empire that encompassed marinas, William Hill betting shops and 1,200 pubs. At the height of the 1980s boom he was one of Britain's richest men. But like so many other success stories of the time, his business was built on a mountain of debt, totalling pounds 1.6bn. When interest rates went up the company came crashing down.

Brent Walker's 46 banks wanted a massive restructuring that would have left Mr Walker out in the cold, and although he fought their proposals he was deposed first as chairman and then as chief executive.

Mr Walker's involvement with the company he created was finally severed last year, as the company emerged from the lengthy restructuring process. But the banks continued to pursue him over personal debts totalling pounds 150m. The banks, led by TSB and Credit Suisse, tried to make him bankrupt, but he managed to fight them off by reaching an alternative pay-off arrangement with his creditors. The banks are currently appealing against this individual voluntary arrangement.

Mr Walker originally left Billingsgate market to become a light-heavyweight boxer. He held the Southern Area title but his career ended in 1953 when he was badly injured in a British title fight against Denis Powell.

He then managed his brother, Billy 'the blond bomber', a heavyweight who fought from 1962 until 1968, contesting the British and British Empire titles against Henry Cooper and the European title.

Billy lost both bouts, but his brother had accumulated enough wealth to set up one of Britain's first fast-food chains, a forerunner of Spud-U-Like called Billy's Baked Potato.

Mr Walker took his business interests public in 1974, when he reversed into a quoted company, Hackney & Hendon Greyhounds. The great success of that era was the Brent Cross shopping centre, co-developed with Hammerson, the first urban shopping centre designed for people to drive to.

The company, renamed Brent Walker, made a pounds 5m profit on the venture. Brent Walker has gone public twice and private once. It either owns or has owned some of the premier names in the British leisure industry - including Goldcrest films, Whyte & Mackay whisky, William Hill betting shops, the Trocadero, Brighton Marina and Elstree film studios.

It revolutionised urban shopping centres, relaunched Joan Collins' film career and developed Spanish holiday villas for Spaniards.

Brent Walker was at first interested in property development and film-making, and remained fairly small-scale until the early 1980s. A disastrous venture developing a shopping arcade on Oxford Street brought a collapse in the company's fortunes. Worried about possible takeovers, Mr Walker took the company private in 1982.

Brent Walker re-emerged as a public company in 1985, with a market value of pounds 33.7m. The group had been burdened by debts, but the purchase of the abandoned Brighton Marina saved it.

Brent Walker bought the site for pounds 13m, recouped pounds 10m of that through the sale of a site for a Gateway supermarket and then struck a deal with Barratt Developments that gave the company pounds 17.5m for the land and a share of future profits.

The deal set the tone for a series of ambitious projects that finally came unstuck in the late 1980s.

(Photograph omitted)

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