People and Business: Mr Burke, the office clerk who got to the top

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The Independent Online
THE YORKSHIREMAN who steered Bristol & West out of its building society status and into the arms of Bank of Ireland two years ago is standing down as chief executive after 34 years with the same institution.

John Burke, 56, is one of a dying breed: a man who worked his way up from office clerk to boss of a financial institution with assets of over pounds 13bn. Mr Burke says this career path is "sadly not likely to happen too often in the future".

Yesterday he said he was standing down as chief executive to become vice- chairman of Bristol & West. It's a long way from Mr Burke's first job, in the Plymouth office he joined in November 1964. "There was a big gap in the office between the secretary at the back and the counter - they thought I was a big enough lad to fill it," he recalls.

When he became the society's youngest-ever branch manager at Truro, Cornwall, in 1968, the society had assets of just pounds 40m. Mr Burke moved to head office in 1978 and got the top job in 1993, steering the society through demutualisation and subsequent sale to the Bank of Ireland four years later. He will be succeeded by Jeff Warren, finance director of Bristol & West since 1992.

IN Great Railway Journeys on BBC2 on Tuesday night, presenter Michael Portillo returned to Spain - the land of his ancestors - and was the very picture of relaxation. He journeyed in great comfort, at speeds of 300kph, in modern, shiny trains, in a trip which took in Granada, Seville, Madrid and Salamanca. He told us, clearly proud of Spain, that if the TGV-type train was more than five minutes late at Madrid everyone got all their fare back. The train was, in the event, five minutes early.

In the UK, of course, we have learnt not to expect such speed, comfort or compensation from our privatised system. Who is to blame?

Ian Gilmour, the ex-Tory cabinet minister, had no doubts. He wrote in the Evening Standard in October 1995: "When he (Portillo) was a junior minister of transport he was the chief architect of the ridiculously complicated, hideously expensive and largely unworkable scheme for the privatisation of the railways."

MOHAMMED AL FAYED'S former spokesman Michael Cole has joined the board of a small London-based public relations outfit, Lehmann Communications, to help grow its presence in the luxury goods and services sector.

The bouffant-haired former BBC presenter told me yesterday that he remains on good terms with the Harrods boss, but resents being referred to by the media as simply "the press officer at Harrods".

"I was a director of the company and I was deeply involved in the company's business," he insists.

Mr Cole adds with typical modesty: "Obviously I know everyone worth knowing, really."

MICHAEL FOOT, former Labour leader, today opens the first Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee Shop, the progenitor of what is planned to be a 2,000- strong worldwide chain.

Although widely acknowledged as a top quality coffee, the Jamaican variety has been difficult to buy in the UK until now, says the chain's managing director, Geoffrey Holland.

The shop at 18 Maddox Street in London's Mayfair features Jamaican culture and lifestyle.

LORD SIMPSON, chief executive of GEC, was cock-a-hoop yesterday that an employee of the defence company has won the Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award for the second year running.

Lord Simpson took time off from merger talks with a host of other defence companies to praise this year's winner, Kim Dennis, 26, information technology specialist skill group manager with Marconi Communications of Coventry. He said Ms Dennis and the other finalists "make wonderful role models for many youngsters who may not otherwise realise the superb and exciting career opportunities which are available to them in engineering."