Mr Merseyside makes play for power source

DAVID HELLIER

Called "Mr Merseyside" in Liverpool, it is little surprise that Sir Desmond Pitcher is reportedly behind North West Water's approach for Norweb, the besieged electricity company.

As well as being chair of North West Water, Sir Desmond, who yesterday was determined not to comment on the approach, is chairman of the Merseyside Development Corporation and is deputy chairman of Everton Football Club. Until 1993 he was chief executive of the Liverpool-based Littlewoods organisation.

Born in the working-class Old Swan suburb of Liverpool, Sir Desmond's earlier worked lengthy spells at British Leyland and Plessey. He is now one of Britain's regional barons; these include Sir John Hall in the North East, the Richardson twins in the Midlands and Sir Owen Oyston, also in the North West. These men are omnipotent in their local business communities.

Sir Desmond's oft-stated passion for Merseyside has not stopped him accumulating a number of local critics.

Apart from the "fat cat businessman running a utility" type - he earns pounds 325,000 at North West Water and used to take home nearer pounds 1m at Littlewoods - he has also aroused criticism for the commercial failure of a 1992 Merseyside gala concert he helped to organise, which resulted in many local suppliers not being paid.

Asked whether he considered himself a committed Merseysider, Sir Desmond said: "I'm a bit surprised at so-called informed statements from some directions. I fought like hell to save the Leyland factory and I lost. I fought for the Plessey factory in Edge Lane and won. I think I can say that most people recognise me as the person who revived the fortunes of Littlewoods. I've created 14,5000 jobs with the Merseyside Development Corporation. I was born and bred within the sound of the cathedral bells."

However, Sir Desmond's no-nonsense approach - one source described him as a cold-hearted accountant - has made a name for himself in the local business community.

Those he has fallen out with include Sir Michael Edwardes at British Leyland, Michael Julien and John Clements at Littlewoods and Bob Thian, the former chief executive of North West Water who left the company six months after Sir Desmond became its chairman in April 1993.

At Littlewoods he fell out with a faction of the family that own the company, which felt he had not consulted them enough on executive decisions.

Sir Desmond was knighted in June 1992 for his efforts in regenerating Merseyside, though this has not stopped him being sensitive about his public image. Both at Littlewoods and at North West Water he has employed a public relations company, Lynne Franks, to look after his personal image.

It has been suggested that he sees the approach to Norweb as the obvious way for him to save a north-western utility company from falling into the hands of a foreign competitor. When he became chairman of North West Water in November 1993 he is reported to have said: "It's the largest company in the North West. It was a natural for me."

No doubt he assumes that it is natural for him to want his company to grow even more dominant in the local community.

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