News Analysis: Old feuds stoked up by MacLaurin's Tesco book

The history of one of Europe's most successful retailers makes a riveting read
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The Independent Online
IF HIGHLY publicised rows help to sell books, then Lord MacLaurin's memoirs of his years at Tesco, out today, should go like hot cakes.

The cause of the strife is "Tiger by the Tail - A Life in Business From Tesco to Test cricket" by the former Tesco chairman. It contains a series of scathing portraits of people he worked with, and describes Dame Shirley Porter, daughter of the supermarket chain's founder, as a "sorcerer's apprentice".

The book has already caused apoplexy among the family of Lady Porter and her husband Sir Leslie Porter, himself an ex-chairman of Tesco. The sight of the two former bosses trading blows in print has entertained the City and mystified some of Lord MacLaurin's friends.

Why would a sober, Malvern-educated member of the "great and the good" write such a sulphurous book, guaranteed to cause offence? It's not as if he needs the money. As well as a Tesco pension, Lord MacLaurin is chairman of Vodafone, vice-chairman of Whitbread and chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

The book fails to emulate other books by captains of industry; it is a riveting read. It tells the story of how a downmarket chain of London shops run by an East End barrow boy was transformed into one of Europe's best run and most successful retailers.

There are rows and coups and boardroom backstabbings. One of the main characters is Tesco's founder, Sir John "Jack" Cohen, who was nicknamed "Slasher" Cohen only partly because of his policy in the 1920s and 1930s of slashing prices according to his motto of "Pile Them High, Sell Them Cheap". The term "Slasher" was also linked to his autocratic treatment of staff.

The first chapter of Lord MacLaurin's book sets the tone. He describes how there was no love lost between Jack Cohen and his two sons-in-law Hyman Kreitman and Leslie Porter. Mr Krietman resigned from the chairmanship of Tesco in 1974, to be succeeded by Sir Leslie Porter.

Sir Jack had thought he had found his natural successor but he was wrong. Lord MacLaurin writes: "They were constantly at odds with each other to the point where, on one famous occasion, Leslie and Jack grabbed the Wilkinson swords that decorated the boardroom wall and clashed like duellists, Jack raging: `One more crack like that, and I'll kill him'."

Then there was the time when the chairman of Unilever, Len Hardy, presented Leslie with an ornamental clock at a formal presentation and lunch.

Lord MacLaurin writes: "Now Jack needed a clock like a hole in the head, but it was the principle of the thing that got to him, and when we got back to the car, smoke was coming out of his ears because Leslie had got the clock, and he had got nothing.

"He didn't say anything immediately, however, just sat beside Leslie chuntering to himself in the front seat. It was too good to last.

"Something had to give, and suddenly he turned to Leslie and said: `You're nothing but a thief and a crook,' and bam, gave him a whack on the shoulder.

"We were doing 60 or so at the time, and Leslie said: `Leave off Governor,' as the Rolls veered across the road.

"But Jack wasn't to be pacified and bam, he gave Leslie another whack, at which point Leslie said: `I've had enough of this', and punched the old man back. Mayhem on the A3 and while... I tried to intervene, Jack opened the passenger door shouting: `I know when I'm not wanted. I'm getting out'."

Thankfully the rest of the passengers were able to restrain him. The book is packed with such anecdotes, causing Sir Leslie to write to a newspaper complaining of the harsh treatment of Sir Jack.

Sir Leslie also claims that Lord MacLaurin promised to give his son John Porter, a successful businessman in his own right, a seat on the Tesco board. Lord MacLaurin had already resisted Lady Porter's determined attempts to get on the board - described in gory detail in the book - and Sir Leslie says they accepted that their son's appointment would be the next best thing. But Lord MacLaurin went back on this promise, they say.

Rubbish, sources close to Lord MacLaurin respond. There was no such promise. The book lays into David Sainsbury's reign at Sainsbury, "not altogether successful"; Ernest Saunders of Guinness, "whose word was worthless"; and the old culture at National Westminster Bank, "old bankers - completely out of touch with the world".

The tome also takes the reader through the boardroom coup that severed the company's link with Green Shield Stamps in 1977, a move Sir Jack saw as an anathema. Lord MacLaurin and fellow modernisers followed this up with "Operation Checkout", an attempt to relaunch the stores by cutting prices and bringing the shops up to date.

Which still begs the question; why would Lord MacLaurin, a man whose philosophy of life is based on teamwork and cricket, be interested in stoking such controversy?

The book was not, in fact, his idea at all. It was originally suggested by Ian Chapman, a publisher that Lord MacLaurin met when both were invited to join the board of Guinness by Ernest Saunders just before the distillers scandal broke in 1987.

Mr Saunders needed to recruit five Scottish directors as quickly as possible to placate his critics in the Department of Trade and Industry. The book describes how Lord MacLaurin, Mr Chapman and the other non-executive directors united to force the resignation of Mr Saunders as the full extent of the share support scandal emerged.

Mr Chapman was at that time chairman and chief executive of Collins. Lord MacLaurin describes him in the book as "a no-nonsense businessman, as Scottish and canny as they come. A brilliant publisher, whose lists have included a shelf-full of top-selling authors".

But it was Mr Chapman's son, also called Ian Chapman, who ressurected the idea for a book on Tesco and all those turbulent times. Chapman junior, the managing director of Macmillan, set the book in train a couple of years ago.

As soon as review copies of the book started appearing this month the Porter camp got wind of what was to come. Although, curiously, their own lawyers at Nicholson, Graham & Jones claim not to have received a copy - "despite asking for one".

Alan Langleben, Dame Shirley Porter's solicitor, says the book has "obviously been marketed as saying all sorts of unpleasant things about her".

She is working hard to rebuild her reputation after years of accusations over her time at Westminster Council. After the case of "gerrymandering" was overturned by the Court of Appeal last month, Mr Langleben says they have been on the lookout for anyone suggesting that she was, in fact, guilty of wrongdoing.

Lord MacLaurin studiously avoids this in his book. Despite being brought up south of the border, he obviously has some "Scottish canniness".

And the episode over the clock? "Great days, Great days," Lord MacLaurin wistfully recalls.