Me And My Partner

Jack Morris wanted to be an impresario, but was persuaded to go into business by his father. Together they turned London's Royal Agricultural Hall into the Business Design Centre. Today Jack is chairman and his brother Andrew managing director
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JACK MORRIS: We're a second-generation family business. It was always part of our home life and we used to work there in the holidays - anything from labouring to answering the phones on Saturday mornings. Traditionally, it's the eldest son who becomes chairman, but it didn't work out that way for us. Andrew and I shared a bedroom as kids: there's four years' difference between us, but we pretty much had the same interests and even now we share our holidays.

I wanted to be a theatrical impresario, but my father sat me down, at the age of 18 or 19, and said: "Look, all the brothers have got various different skills but we really need someone to understand the figures." I was not interested; I hated maths. I agreed to work for a few months in an accountancy firm and see how it went. It wasn't the most glamorous job on earth but I could see the opportunities for developing a niche within the organisation and within the family.

City Industrial Ltd was founded by my father in 1954, and is 95 per cent owned by us and our three older brothers: Gerald, Philip and Paul. My brothers were either in technical and production, or in sales and marketing, but none of us had that financial strength. We were a property and shopfitting company: the business was unsophisticated in its financial strategy. With my outside experience, I was able to bring in new concepts. Our property investment had been bolted on, but never seen as a single entity. It wasn't run in a scientific way. I saw the opportunity to bring a much greater sense of discipline and strategy, as a counter-balance to the more entrepreneurial excesses.

In 1981, the derelict Royal Agricultural Hall was being sold by Islington borough council. My father fell in love with the building and wanted to do something with it as the crowning glory of his business career.There were about 50 expressions of interest in the site, but most were looking for the bits that could be demolished. Only one other looked at bringing the old hall into use. We wanted to create the ultimate trade centre in London. Now it is unique: we have 100 companies permanently based here, occupying showrooms, and week-by- week exhibition activity. It was a financial imperative, because we had to generate a permanent income stream.

Andrew came on board before we opened in October 1986, developing the sales and marketing strategy. He quickly became managing director, and he's been a guiding light, concentrating on developing the brands and sales culture, and positioning us as a landmark destination venue for London.

The family bond is very strong and we take a collective view. Whatever we do, it's for the benefit of the brothers as a whole, not personal satisfaction or gratification. That's very much the glue that holds us together. Doing it for yourself is not as attractive as doing it with other people. We are equal shareholders and we have a financial democracy: each of us is remunerated identically, irrespective of seniority, authority or responsibility. It's a balancing factor, and it exerts a peer pressure. If someone's performance is below par, it's a compelling argument to say: "How do you think I feel, working so hard?"

My father had the business under his captaincy, an extension of his personality, and more autocratic. We recognised it had to change. We don't argue. In the time I have chaired the company, I can't think of a single issue that went to the vote. It isn't like Dallas or Dynasty: it's always good intellectual debate. People find our partnership reassuring: we operate an open-door policy and there's huge interaction.

Andrew is very creative, with a thrusting approach, and huge enthusiasm. I am the handbrake, cautious and analytical. I approach everything from a 360-degree perspective before committing myself. He's more of a lateral thinker: my strength is in the detail. At the end of the day, anything we do has to be drawn up in a formal agreement. I often think in that context, rather than big-picture.

When we were kids, I was chubby and Andrew was fit. On the way home from school, I would like to take a gentle walk home, to relax after a day at school. Andrew always wanted to run home. He would say: "Come on, I'll race you. I'll give you a head start." He's always wanted to race ahead and to pull me forward. I've got a very take-it-easy approach, and that's like the way we do business.

ANDREW MORRIS: My first memory of Jack is of walking home from our Church of England primary school with him. He was a bit like Billy Bunter. I remember running home and trying to egg him on. I think I am still pushing him to his limits.

My first interest was in retail: I worked in shops from the age of 14, in Lilley & Skinner, opposite Bond Street station in London. It was terrific sales training, a high-pressure business in those days. I was academically lazy and went to work for a couturier. My father said: "If you want to get serious, you should educate yourself." So I did an HND, working for my older brother Gerald, who was doing a menswear show. My job was to sell stock. We sold pounds 10,000 of stuff that was going to go on the skip - it was a very good exercise in bringing together my skills: marketing, selling, organising - and I loved it. From there, I went into the business proper.

We'd got hold of an imitation fur coat company, but it had been over- expanded and lost a great deal of money. I was the nearest son suitable and my dad said: "Go in and sort it out." I ran it on my own for four years and it taught me the priorities. You learn virtually nothing when you are successful. When it's hard, you analyse everything you do and hold that in your memory. Cash flow is king, and little else matters.

I went through a rebellion in my late twenties: I felt the constraints of a family business, because it doesn't necessarily foster individuality or egos, although if you don't have it, you lack the cloak of security. If you get it right, family businesses are uniquely powerful.

I weighed up what the business brought me against the risk of flying solo. But Jewish family values are strong. I wasn't sufficiently ruthlessly ambitious, and as life goes on, you settle into your roles. We all respect what we are good at.

Fortunately, the business is big and it's divisionalised, so you can express yourself adequately. It works the same way with your managers: there's an element of control, while you want to give freedom of expression. I constantly strive for innovation in our business, and at home, for stability. That clearness of thought gives you the ability to be creative in a commercial environment.

My father invented the concept for the centre and the fact that it hasn't been compromised says a lot for his vision. What he wasn't able to do was to make it work. I believe I made the idea work by bold marketing initiatives in the early days. I did stunts in the late Eighties such as Top Office, where we designed offices for well-known figures. We did Design Sunday, a family day for architects in a design-led environment. I hoped for 2,000 people and we got 10,000. Things like that quickly helped establish our credibility.

Jack and I always had a kinship, and that grew when we worked together. I run the business and I needed to be an entrepreneur, taking over where my dad left off. I'm an ideas man: Jack's financial and legal. We're good at saying, "This is one for you", depending on the issue. We can both defer, and we tend to know what the other's thinking. The only rivalry is manifested in how you are portrayed externally. When one's achieved something good, a lot of people claim credit for it. One wants to be noticed fairly for one's achievements. In a family business, it's sometimes difficult to reconcile that with democratic values.

Jack's chairman of the group so he's my boss, but he never exerts that authority. That's one thing I respect and thank him for. He knows how I like to operate and provides me the space to do that - though he's prepared to close in if he thinks it necessary.