Talking about his school days at Stowe, he commented: 'Great men, when they die in service or when they retire, generally leave behind a vacuum.' And, in a portent of recent events at his firm, he added: 'Trafalgar repeatedly took over good businesses that were enfeebled at a comparable moment in their histories.'
Sir Nigel, of course, has not left Trafalgar - although, as honorary president, his role will be greatly reduced. Nor, so far, has Trafalgar been taken over - indeed, the tender offer for 15 per cent of its shares by Hongkong Land was comprehensively rejected by shareholders. But Sir Nigel can take little comfort from that. Shareholders gave their support only because Trafalgar had agreed to fill what many regard as a vacuum at the helm of Trafalgar: the price was Sir Nigel's head.
There is no doubt that Sir Nigel was a great man, with an impressive record in building Trafalgar, and many will regret that he has been forced into such an ignominious exit. Born in Yorkshire in 1934, he left school at 16, and by the time he was 23 he had lost most of a pounds 30,000 inheritance on two disastrous business ventures.
Undaunted, he embarked on a property deal, converting seven flats in London's West End, which became the foundation for Trafalgar. By 1958, he was managing director and went on to float it on the stock market six years later - making himself a millionaire in the process.
While there is little doubt that he devoted considerable energy to building the group in the early days, his role has for years been much more hands-off. 'He was always the ideas man, the judicial counsellor,' a Trafalgar insider said. 'When he cared to exercise it, he could be a very powerful member of the board. But there is no doubt that Sir Eric Parker (chief executive) was the day-to- day operations man.'
He did, however, enjoy the trappings his position brought him, including houses in Chelsea, Oxfordshire and the south of France, and a yacht anchored in Cannes. But it was perhaps the political and social connections it brought which pleased him most - and the more senior the person he was dealing with, the more relaxed he became.
'He would have been a superb politician,' said one long-standing business associate. 'But his ambitions were never there, he wanted to make money.' He has said, however, that one of the most exciting and rewarding periods in his life was as chairman of London Docklands Development Corporation between 1979 and 1984, which earned him his knighthood.
Despite that, he did not manage to establish himself as a permanent member of the great and good. That may be partly because of his slightly reclusive, unclubbable style. He does not sit on any other corporate boards, nor does he participate in visits to institutional shareholders, preferring to delegate that to Sir Eric and to John Ansdell, finance director. In his spare time, he is content to pursue his rather solutary hobby as a silversmith - at which, friends say, he has considerable skill.
That does not mean he is shy. Indeed, his gravelly baritone and his height mean his presence is felt immediately he walks into the room. 'He should not be underestimated,' said an analyst who has followed the company for some time. 'There is no doubt that he has an able intellect, even a touch of genius. Not many people really know what he thinks, or can predict his actions.'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content