People & Business: Technical hitch gives Zeneca shambolic start

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The Independent Online
SIR DAVID BARNES, the Zeneca chief executive, an architect of the pounds 40bn megamerger with Astra, had strong views when two rivals plotted a similar deal. When the Smithkline-Glaxo merger fell apart earlier this year, he was asked if Zeneca might step in. Sir David's reported reply was: "I learned when I was very young not to get involved in a fight between two drunks."

But yesterday, as the merger announcement proceedings got underway with a briefing for analysts, Sir David must have wondered why he had not paid more attention to another golden rule of life - always assume that if the technology can screw you up it will.

Analysts were asked to listen in to a presentation on the merger by a tele-conference link-up between Sweden and the UK. Unfortunately for Sir David, there were a few technical hitches. First, Swedish voices, then confusion and interruption, followed by an English accent crying: "This is a f***ing shambles!" Inexplicably, this was followed by a request for some Earl Grey tea.

Describing the event as "a complete balls-up", analysts said the strange remarks were not from Sir David but from a lowly technician frustrated with his Swedish counterparts. Let's hope Sir David gets on better with Hakan Mogren, his opposite number at Astra.

NO-ONE EVER tires, it seems, of seeking the advice of George Soros, the market's favourite guru on everything. Mr Soros has already cashed in on the hype with a Marxist-sounding book, The Crisis of Global Capitalism, launched on Monday.

The latest signing was held yesterday at the Treasury select committee, where Mr Soros, coiffured, bespectacled and charming, was besieged by MPs and hacks scrambling to get the great man's autograph.

But even he could not have expected a request for free financial advice. Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Rochford and Southend East, asked: "If I won the Lottery tonight, what should I invest in - pounds, dollars, gold, yen or euro?"

"Well, I'm afraid that would be very expensive advice," the guru replied. Nice try, Teddy.

Undaunted, the MP pressed for a comment on Gordon Brown's plan to eliminate the whole cycle of boom and bust. Was it a desirable plan?

The omniscient Soros answered,"Well, you will have to tell me what the Chancellor's policies are."

GOOD TO see the European Commission is cracking down on anti-competitive practices. An invitation arrives to attend a lecture next year by Karel van Miert, a commissioner, on competition issues stemming from the euro. The invitation was sent by the director of development at the European Business School, one Kathryn van Miert - not such a common name. The school tells me there is no relation between the two.

RICHARD BRANSON'S financial services arm, Virgin Direct, is so fond of poaching staff from its financial services rivals that any vacancy at Virgin causes immediate anxiety at Norwich Union, its Norfolk neighbour.

In fact, Virgin nicked its entire marketing team from Norwich Union when it set up two years ago - including David Ramsbottom, Martin Campbell, Gordon Maw, Suriaj Kaur and Tony Wood.

Now Andrew Inwood, marketing director and one of few to come from Virgin Direct's partner, AMP is returning to Australia. Who will fill his key post? Mike Kirsch is marketing director of Norwich Union. Surely Virgin wouldn't dare.

A YULETIDE greeting from a celebrity drops into the pigeon hole. Joan Collins, no less, is wishing me a happy Christmas on behalf of the Royal Bank of Scotland. She says she enjoyed her spell in corporate banking but will soon leave - just to take some time out of work.

"I haven't had many jokes - people seem to think everyone else has already cracked them. But once I did live in a flat where my landlady was called Elizabeth Taylor."