Millionaire boss who joked he couldn't make the tills balance counts the cost

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The Independent Online

When Adam Applegarth first started working at Northern Rock he was lousy at his job. "As a cashier I was particularly inept," he said, "because I could never get the till to balance."

Now, 24 years later, he is the chief executive of the company facing the worst crisis to hit a bank in a generation. Inept is a word many of the anxious and angry savers queuing outside branches yesterday might have used to his face.

The 45-year-old is tough and unemotional, but he's also "gobby" (to use his own word), fit and fast. All of which will be very useful if he tries to go out today. Many of his neighbours in the beautiful Northumberland village of Matfen will be worried.

The 18th-century planned community to the north-west of Newcastle has become a refuge for the wealthy, but so strong is the emotional pull of Northern Rock in these parts that even millionaires are calling their brokers as share prices plummet. Some of the locals play for Newcastle United, whose fans wonder what will happen to the big sponsorship deal with the Rock.

If he stays indoors there will be no escape from the crisis: the £2m mortgage on his home is with the company. And if Mr Applegarth and his wife Pat go for a drive in their Land Rover they will pass through villages and towns largely built on money lent or paid out by the Victorian building-society-turned-bank.

When the Rock went public a decade ago, one household in every three in the North-east made money out of the deal. Under his leadership Northern Rock became one of the biggest mortgage lenders in the country. "We're a bunch of quirky north-easterners," he once said, "lending people money to buy their homes." And telling them not to panic, now.

After giving countless interviews on Friday, Mr Applegarth was with staff at the modern, glass-fronted headquarters in Gosforth near Newcastle yesterday; and today he is likely to work from his home a short drive away. Born in Sunderland, educated at Durham University, he joined Northern Rock after graduating and has never worked for anyone else, or in any other part of the country. If he does get sacked by his own board, as seems increasingly likely, he probably won't cry. Last year he earned £1.3m and will get at least his annual salary of £690,000 if dismissed.

He also learned to keep a stiff upper lip in his childhood, as the seven-year-old son of a physics teacher, when he was sent away to boarding school. "It teaches you to be independent. It also teaches you not to show emotions."

That must have helped last week. The grandees in the court of the Bank of England were called together to hear from the governor, Mervyn King, that this regional upstart turned major lender now needed an emergency loan. "Nobody could [fore]see the squeeze on global liquidity," insisted Mr Applegarth flatly next day. It will have come as a blow to a man who once proudly described his bank's strategy as "boring... but it works".

Mr Applegarth had made a mistake in sticking largely to one kind of financial product – his big idea of recent times was to lend six times your salary for a mortgage – but he has had far more success from sticking to one part of the country. He travelled only as far as Durham to study maths and economics (also meeting Patricia, who was a classics undergraduate and became his wife). The couple have two sons. After college in 1983 he chose not to go to the City of London but to join the Rock, because it was the only job offer that didn't start until the autumn – so he could spend the summer playing cricket.

After that shaky start he was a fast learner. Within a decade Mr Applegarth was a general manager, then in 1996, executive director. His talent had been spotted by the head man, Christopher Sharp, who became his mentor but died suddenly just before the Rock was floated in 1997. He was working and playing hard, captaining Sunderland Cricket Club to the North East Premier League in 2000, and being named player of the year in the process. He still bowls for the seconds, while his son Greg, 20, plays for the first 11.

Mr Applegarth also plays squash and five-a-side football. "Taking part is important," he said, "but it's winning that counts." His combination of drive, ambition, club-room affability and conservatism took him to the top at the Rock in 2001, becoming the second youngest chief executive in the elite FTSE 100 list. But now his hostile rivals are hovering, ready to buy the Rock. "I love this company," Adam Applegarth said last week. "I'd love to be part of rebuilding it, if asked to." Instead the passionate cricketer may find himself declared out, and back in the winter nets preparing for a new season and any new challenge he can find.

Additional reporting by Kevin Dowling