How Brown was transfigured from swan to fall guy

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

SThree: HR Benefits Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum + pro rata: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn