Doughty: the death of a progressive face for private equity

Business is the poorer for the passing of the Doughty Hanson boss, says Ben Chu
  • @Benchu_

Tributes to Nigel Doughty, who died suddenly on Saturday aged just 54, have focused on his role as the financial saviour of Nottingham Forest football club. There were also mentions of his large donations to the Labour Party. But relatively little attention was paid to Doughty's influential position in the world of private equity.

The buyout firm he founded, Doughty Hanson, was responsible for some of the most high-profile buyout deals of the past two decades, from the acquisition of Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer back in 1995, to the purchase of the giant food manufacturer Rank Hovis McDougall in 2000, right up to the seizure of Vue cinemas in 2010.

"Very few people know about Doughty Hanson but they will know abut the brands that have been through its doors," says the broadcaster James Max, who worked at the firm between 2001 and 2004.

"That's a testament to the way Nigel operated. It wasn't secret, it was private. He was extremely bright and a very talented operator. Although he was very low key and easy to get on with, he got what he wanted."

Working at Standard Chartered in the 1980s, Doughty met Richard Hanson when the pair were charged with putting together the bank's European management buyout unit. In 1995, they decided to strike out on their own, establishing Doughty Hanson.

A succession of successful buyout and flotation deals saw them become one of Europe's largest venture capital groups and private equity fund managers. To date Doughty Hanson has invested around €23bn across more than 100 investments. Unlike some private equity firms, Doughty Hanson does not have reputation for using excessive leverage in its buyout deals. And it has generally left the firms it acquired in a better financial position than it found them.

Doughty did not fit the stereotype of the tax-averse private equity mogul. He was perfectly happy to pay more tax on his estimated £130m fortune. Only last year he urged Labour to explore a more "progressive" tax system.

Doughty gave an indication of his approach to football and business management in an interview with the BBC about Nottingham Forest last October. "I am the owner of lots of businesses and I don't make operational decisions in those business," he said. "I make strategic decisions in terms of resource allocation and those sort of things. But I don't get involved in the operations day to day."

But Forest was an investment for love, not profit. Doughty is estimated to have sunk around £100m of his money into the club since saving it from administration in 1999, a commitment that won him the gratitude and respect of the majority of supporters.

"It's a day to look beyond football and mourn a man who has given so much to this city" wrote one fan, Richard Crouch, on Saturday. Indeed. And with his passing, many will say that not only football, but private equity too, has also lost one of its more progressive faces.