How Brown was transfigured from swan to fall guy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
They called him a pig, sneered at his mock-Georgian home and his lifestyle and held him up as the archetype of a greedy capitalist. But despite the constant vilification, Cedric Brown made a dignified exit on Tuesday, his last British Gas annual meeting.

The cynical explanation would of course be that a pounds 247,000-a-year pension is cushion enough against the public pain. But there is another rather older-fashioned reason that may be nearer the truth.

Gas men of his generation felt they had a vocation, even a mission, to fulfil, and it was never primarily to make money. Mr Brown was part of that tradition and it may have helped him survive a notoriety few businessmen can have been forced to experience.

Furthermore, the pay rise that led to his public disgrace may well have been a by-product of badly thought-through boardroom manoeuvrings to get rid of him, rather than the result of aggressive personal avarice.

The gas men's tradition to which Mr Brown belongs is closer to public service than private sector business. His colleagues say that one reason for his relative calm in the face of such hostility is that he has drawn comfort from belonging to a professional community of gas engineers, whose solidarity was a barrier to the cruel media and political world.

It is hard to remember now, but the gas industry and the managers who ran its entrenched regional baronies were the butt of many a bad joke until the late 1960s, for reasons entirely other than greed.

Those great grimy iron gasholders, occasionally preserved now as monuments to a sulphurous past, were the symbol of all that was nastiest in industry - plants that gobbled coal and spewed out fumes, smoke and horrible smells that disfigured whole neighbourhoods on the fringes of large towns. That was the generation to which Mr Brown belonged.

In the 1960s, when men such as Mr Brown were rising through the ranks, came natural gas, a clean, cheap fuel that - as well as displacing the old eyesores - turned those running the coal-gas industry into visionaries, of a kind. A huge opportunity presented itself to transform the industry, and with it the reputations of those who worked in it. One of Mr Brown's most celebrated predecessors at the helm of British Gas in the nationalised industry days, Sir Denis Rooke, found it hard to conceal the fact that the most exciting event in his professional life had been crossing the Atlantic on the first natural gas carrier, the Methane Pioneer, delivering an experimental cargo of clean fuel to the UK. He talked like an evangelical preacher who has found energy instead of God, pounding the country selling the concept of a cleaned-up economical gas supply system as a public service. With the discovery of gas in the North Sea that could be piped ashore rather than carried in ships, the ugly ducklings of British industry became swans. Gas men are not the only industrialists with a special tradition that continues to dominate their behaviour, often leaving money in second place as a motivation. The nuclear industry had even odder characteristics, bred, it is said, in the forcing houses of the Windscale (now Sellafield) and Harwell research centres.

One alumnus of Windscale in the 1950s describes it vividly as an isolated camp on the wrong side of the Lake District containing hundreds of male scientists and engineers and hardly a woman, stressed by social isolation and sexual frustration.

In those days, nuclear power was emerging from the intense secrecy of weapons research into the visionary "swords into ploughshares" era of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the men who led the burgeoning nuclear industry, and whose influence still hangs over it, spent their formative adult years locked up in what was almost a monastery devoted to the mysteries of the atom.

Such zealotry about the product rather than the business was to be found in varying degrees in many other nationalised industries. To be a real railwayman is to be an enthusiast about engines, trains and tracks. No wonder rail privatisation has been attacked by the old guard at British Rail. To be a coal or steel man or electricity engineer carried much the same sense of mission.

This public service attitude should certainly never be sneered at. But its deficiencies have been brutally exposed by 15 years of privatisation. Industries run by engineers who were enthusiasts about their products tended to be dreadfully inefficient. BR built its own engines, even cut and creosoted its own sleepers, in an attempt to control the system from beginning to end that led to inefficient over-manning.

Sir Denis Rooke at British Gas fought to ensure that that the industry was privatised as a monolith, preserving the nationalised industry structure, and Cedric Brown carried on the fight as chief executive. This policy proved to be a strategic error, and is to be reversed by a demerger planned for next year.

One plausible theory about the events of the last year is that only when the old guard of gas men on the board was reduced to the single lonely figure of Mr Brown did it become possible for the chairman, Richard Giordano, to announce the break-up of the company.

The seeds of Mr Brown's public ignominy probably lay somewhere in the machinations surrounding this change of strategy. Mr Giordano, recruited from BOC, gradually isolated and removed the old guard on the board and announced Mr Brown's early retirement the day he unveiled the demerger.

So how did that notorious pay rise come about? The likeliest explanation is that it was the beginning of a clumsily executed attempt to persuade Mr Brown to go quietly and early, while at the same time raising British Gas executive salary levels to the going rate needed to attract the outsiders Mr Giordano wanted to take over running the business. Mr Giordano, famous for years for Britain's highest management salary of more than pounds 1m at BOC, probably had trouble seeing Mr Brown's new pay as being on the high side.

It is certainly true that in the rarefied air of FT-SE 100 boardrooms, Mr Brown's 1993 salary and bonus of pounds 288,000 a year was low, and there was a case for raising it, though not by 75 per cent. Furthermore, the share price was declining and his options looked likely to be worthless.

The oldest trick in the book is to bump up a director's salary in his last years to give a decent pension - and an incentive to depart. This is a practice that new disclosure rules announced this week by the Stock Exchange are aimed at exposing. At the time of the increase, British Gas vehemently denied Mr Brown was on the way out, and indeed he appeared blithely unaware himself that he would be unable to stay until 65.

With hindsight it looks as if his departure was on the agenda of some of his colleagues all along, though exactly who was responsible for the idea of the pay and pension increase to smooth the path is hard to pin down. Perhaps they thought it would be less controversial than a big cash pay-off for Mr Brown this year.

Mr Brown, a committed and earnest executive left behind from a lost era of public service, had been brought late in life - at the time of privatisation - into close contact with the wildly overpaid world of investment bankers and mobile industrial chief executives. Who knows, perhaps it never occurred to him that the rest of us would see what he was offered as over the top. The reality is that as Mr Brown's career drew to a close it was his colleagues' manoeuvrings, not personal greed, that laid the groundwork for his notoriety as a fat cat. Mr Brown looks the fall guy rather than a greedy villain.