How can he lose? Ritblat keeps the City guessing: Tom Stevenson reviews the still-rising career of the British Land chief who outsmarted the recession

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JOHN RITBLAT was in expansive form last week. As well he might be. British Land had just produced results variously described as 'storming', 'spectacular' and 'sparkling'; the City was buzzing with his latest unexpected corporate move; and he was off to Lords for an afternoon at the Test Match.

British Land's success in increasing net assets by 46 per cent to 423p a share is testimony to the company's astuteness in calling the end of the property recession a full two years before its peers.

That gamble, which has involved spending pounds 1.6bn on property over the past four years, including pounds 600m through a joint venture with George Soros, the Wall Street speculator, has paid off spectacularly. The properties in the Soros venture rose by 17.5 per cent despite being in the books for less than five months on average.

One of the key features of the figures was a 33 per cent rise in the value of British Land's investments in superstores and supermarkets, a sector targeted by Mr Ritblat in 1990 when the rest of the property world was in hibernation.

Lack of competition for deals meant high-yielding sites could be picked up with highly secure tenants like J Sainsbury. Guaranteed rental rises have put British Land in the unusual position of enjoying growing income when most landlords are faced with stagnant turnover from properties rented above the market level.

Ten years ago retail accounted for less than 10 per cent of the company's assets against 80 per cent for offices. It is now the biggest element in British Land's portfolio - something not to be concealed even by Mr Ritblat's latest brainwave, the grandiose renaming of the Euston Centre, one of London's ugliest office giants, as 'Regent's Place'.

But then, John Ritblat's skill in reading cycles prompted one analyst to observe perspicaciously two years ago: 'We'll look back one day and see that he handled this slump better than anyone.'

John Ritblat is sometimes compared with David Goldstone of Regalian, both of whom came through the property recession of 1974 by the skin of their teeth. But their approach to the latest downturn was markedly different.

Unlike Regalian, which came within a whisker of going under a couple of years ago, British Land survived the recession almost unscathed.

The key is classic contra-cyclical investing. In the run-up to the bull run of the late 1980s British Land concentrated on buying property portfolios from institutions such as Legal & General and 3i.

The next three years saw the benefit of this strategy as net assets grew by 145 per cent to March 1989. During those heady days, however, the temptations of property development were firmly resisted, and properties were sold into a rising market. As a result the company entered the downturn relatively lowly geared, with limited development commitments and with the firepower to start buying once opportunities emerged.

It is not surprising that when George Soros turned his attention to UK property he chose John Ritblat as his bedfellow.

Skilful as British Land has been at managing its portfolio, however, the market is more concerned with what is happening on the periphery of John Ritblat's empire.

During the good years of the late 1980s a significant contributor to profits was its dealings in other companies' shares. In 1989, for example, the year after Mr Ritblat was cleared in a DTI inside dealing inquiry, pre-tax profits of pounds 69.7m were boosted by profits from securities dealings of pounds 8.4m.

Recent developments suggest a return to form. Picking up 29 per cent of Stanhope from bankers to the collapsed developers of Canary Wharf, Olympia & York, caught the market on the hop.

It also infuriated Stuart Lipton, Stanhope's chairman, who thought he had a pre-emption right over the stake. He was proved wrong in the courts at some expense and loss of face.

From the outset John Ritblat's clear motivation was the acquisition of the Broadgate Centre in the City. Broadgate was one of the most feted architectural office designs of the decade but a financial millstone for its co-developers, Stanhope and Rosehaugh.

Nevertherless, that ambition now seems to have been put on hold - scarcely surprisingly, given the way relations with Mr Lipton have soured. But for the moment Mr Ritblat seems to have found an even more intriguing project - last month he purchased a seemingly trivial stake in the small, struggling developer, Bredero, 49 per cent owned by the giant industrial landlord Slough Estates and under offer from it at 10p a share.

Analysts could not understand why British Land would want to acquire 7 per cent of a company whose sole assets following a rescue refinancing were two development sites in London and Glasgow. Did it presage a bid for Slough itself, they mused?

Definitely not, says Mr Ritblat. But Slough's dramatic proposal last week to delist Bredero's shares once it gained control suggested nervousness about the intentions of a man who is more respected than liked in the industry.

It has been said of John Ritblat: 'He is self-opinionated, conceited, arrogant and vain. He's also very, very good at his job.'

As usual Mr Ritblat is playing his cards close to his chest. The door is still open to Stanhope, he says, but the Bredero deal, which only cost pounds 270,000, remains a mystery.

It is not the first time that John Ritblat has caused waves in the City. During the property slump of 1974, National Westminster asked him if he agreed with its gloomy prognosis for British Land's prospects. He surprised his bankers by saying things were actually a lot worse.

That, he said, was a problem for British Land, but a bigger one for the bank. Unlike most of the sector's falling stars, he then pulled through the slump.

In 1989 his renowned cleverness was too much for institutional investors, who voted down a convoluted restructuring of British Land designed to narrow the gap between the company's net asset value and its share price.

Objectors said there was too much in the deal for the Ritblat family, which stood to acquire a substantial stake from the scheme.

They were probably right - whatever else John Ritblat is, he is an opportunist. But, as he said of the City in one of his less charming moments: 'If they had my talent they would be doing my job.'

(Photograph omitted)