People & Business: A rattling good read, by the sound of it

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The Independent Online
The audio book market has come a long way in a short time since it started putting books on tape to help blind, elderly and very young people. It now offers a wide range of CD alternatives to the printed word, including poetry, sporting publications, Jilly Cooper romances and the James Bond books, all of which clearly benefit from the spoken word.

Turnover is set to top pounds 100m by the end of the century. Publishers and book retailers still tend to think of audio books as poor relations, however, which gives specialists such as ABM a chance to develop their own-label products as well as supply big retail chains such as Virgin/Our Price, Waterstones, Dillons and HMV with a range of products.

John Cooper, the 51-year-old managing director of ABM, has spent his entire career in the record and music industry, but he is nothing if not versatile. He started off at Transatlantic Records before joining EMI as general marketing manager. Via Motown Records he joined a company responsible for producing the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra in association with Anglia TV. He helped found Posh Entertainment which launched the Mills & Boon "Romance on Tape" label and sold 700,000 copies.

ABM is now raising pounds 1.5m to finance further expansion in this very fragmented market. Next step is a listing on Ofex, the bottom rung on the Stock Exchange ladder.

Christopher Haskins, the ebullient Northern Foods chairman, was mystified at the huge number of analysts who turned up at his company's results meetings yesterday. The bumper turnout - more than 50 made the trip - was especially surprising given the relatively sparse City presence at Unigate's meeting only the day before.

"It's the goodie bag," admitted one food analyst who preferred not to be named. He may well be right. Northern Foods regularly supplies analysts (and journalists) who attend its meetings with little bags of biscuits and cakes which it makes for the likes of Marks & Spencer. Unigate does not.

Pen Kent was well known to a generation of business journalists as the press spokesman for the Bank of England before he was diverted to more serious challenges such as head of the international division and associate director for finance and industry, which is Bank-speak for the man responsible for letting down gently such financial disasters as Eurotunnel and Canary Wharf project.

He became an executive director in 1994 and was responsible for Crestco, the settlement system which replaced the ill-fated Talisman. He has now retired and is being put out to grass at NatWest Bank, where he becomes one of 17 members on the full-time board from September 1. He will also be a member of the board of NatWest Markets and the audit and compliance committee.

He admits to being able and willing to deliver lectures in both French and German, although he prefers to negotiate in English. His interests include art, jazz and walking, and he is chairman of the trustees of Blind in Business and vice-patron of the Missing Persons Helpline. He is married to the former Jill George but he assures me she is no relation to the present Governor.

Books on the decline and fall of the Tory government are starting to spring up like mushrooms on a summer morning. The latest project, provisionally entitled Collapse of Stout Party, is a joint venture between Morrison Halcrow a former assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph who is now a consultant with Shandwick, the public relations empire, and retired Tory MP Sir Julian Critchley. Mr Halcrow is looking back at events since sterling fell out of the ERM. Sir Julian is covering the election campaign and the election of the new Conservative leader, and they hope to hit the bookstalls well in time for the Tory conference in October. Sir Julian is rooting for Kenneth Clarke as a one-nation Tory, but thinks Peter Lilley could snatch victory in a third ballot.

Among Kenneth Clarke's most enthusiastic backers are the members of classic car clubs who were given an unexpected windfall 18 months ago when the then Chancellor stood on its head a long-standing Treasury plan to make classic car owners tax their cars whether they were on the road or not. Since January last year the 160,000 cars that are still roadworthy after 25 years can be licensed free of charge.

Many owners initially suspected this would result in them being restricted to limited mileages, but so far the gift horse has withstood scrutiny. They now face an anxious wait until Gordon Brown has sat down on July 2 just in case he tries to reverse the concession. If so, I hope he feels the lash of Mr Clarke's tongue.