Portrait of a predator as an artist

Profile: Gerry Robinson; Granada's chairman may appear as happy in front of an easel as in the boardroom, but he has a shark's instinct for corporate prey. Paul Rodgers reports
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GERRY ROBINSON did not win the Turner Prize this year - and will not in the future. He is destined to be remembered for mastering the art of the deal, not of landscape painting. But hearing him talk about the two subjects, you could be forgiven for thinking that dabbing oil on canvas is just as important in his life. Both his business empire and the colours he sees from behind his easel are treated to his favourite adjective - "vibrant". Forte, the hotel and restaurant chain for which he is currently bidding pounds 3.3bn, is not.

In a culture where only workaholics get to the top, the chairman of Granada is an oddity. He works about 30 hours a week, devoting most Fridays to golf with his eldest son. Weekends belong to his family, although he admits he will probably be making a few phone calls today in connection with the Forte bid. Running a business, even one that stretches from broadcasting to rentals with a stop en route at motorway service stations, is so simple that if he were to write a book on the subject, "it would only fill three pages", he said. "Most business books are full of gobbledygook." In his opinion, an executive who has made a dozen clear decisions has had a good week.

He is also remarkable for having attained so much while professing so little ambition. "My career was absolutely unplanned," he says, reeling off a list of other professions he could as easily have ended up in. At 47, he is already planning early retirement in eight years. Unlike many bosses, he does not mix up his role as manager with that of owner. "It's a perilous confusion," he said. "I really think you make a huge mistake if you exaggerate your place in things. Business is one of those things it's easy to be seduced by. I try, and I'm mostly successful, to separate business from home life."

Such humility sounds strange coming from a man who, later that evening, would meet Bill Clinton at a reception at 10 Downing Street. It is the type of humility one only finds in the supremely self-confident. For all his Irish charm, Robinson has a shark's instincts - all three of the hostile bids he has launched have been carefully planned ambushes.

In 1990, he was invited in by Sketchley, the dry cleaning company, as a white knight. The previous bid was abandoned, and two new managers were appointed at Sketchley. At that point, Robinson pounced with his own hostile bid, giving the new executives no notice of his intention. However, his bid failed, too. Two years later, the bosses at LWT were anticipating a bid because of the 20 per cent stake he had built up, but they only got to discuss it with him when they were summoned to his Soho office the weekend before his Monday morning assault. And Sir Rocco Forte was also caught unaware on a shooting trip in Yorkshire, where he got the news from his brother-in-law.

The question this time around is whether Robinson has bitten off more than he can chew. One otherwise admiring executive who has seen him in action noted that if it goes through, the Forte deal would virtually double Granada's size. "Apart from Gerry, it's not clear where the management talent at Granada is coming from," he said. "Nobody can do it on their own."

Robinson insists he is not alone. His last action before lunging for Forte was to reorganise Granada's board, moving himself up to chairman where he would have time to oversee the bid. For the last 10 days, he has done little else. After a long shift shuttling from room to room giving interviews in his rumpled suit he looks tired. Much of the time he sits with his fingers steepled before him in a gesture of thoughtfulness that belies his insistence that business is a non-intellectual game. He still has energy - even vibrancy - and his laugh booms out when amused.

Robinson's sense of humour extends to his art. "I've got a golf handicap of 21, which makes my paintings look good," he said with a self-deprecating grin. "Painting makes you really observant of things. I notice them more acutely." None of his pictures have been exhibited or sold, however. "I impose them on my family."

Fortunately, he has lots of relatives to take them. He was born the ninth of 10 children to a village carpenter in Donegal. His siblings were born over a period of 21 years, however, so there were rarely more than four living at home at any one time. Still, the experience was significant - he credits much of his drive to his need to compete for his parents' attention.

Gerrard Jude Robinson, so named because he was born between St Ger- rard's Day and St Jude's Day, was educated first in the two-teacher Dunfanaghy school in Donegal, and later, after his family moved to England, at St Mary's College, Castle head, Lancashire, under the tutelage of the Holy Ghost Fathers. He has lost his faith but still believes there is "a spiritual content" to the world.

From this cloistered life he moved abruptly to a factory employing 3,500 east London women. "It was wonderful and terrifying," he said of his arrival at Lesney, the manufacturer of Matchbox toys. As a junior cost clerk, he was encouraged to study accounting, something he had never considered before. But more important was the understanding he got of the way businesses should be run. "The beauty of Lesney was it didn't have layer on layer of management." Robinson took advantage of the lack of supervision. Ruth Tait's Roads to the Top reveals he would go in on Saturday mornings to work overtime but after a couple of hours would take an unauthorised 90- minute break for sandwiches and cards - until he got caught.

His next move was based on the clapped-out state of his car. He was too junior to get a full-size new one from Lesney, so he applied for a job at Lex, the motor dealer, which gave him with a sand-coloured Mini. At Lex, Robinson suffered his first career setback. Several times he was passed over for promotion. "I always tried to put myself in my bosses' shoes - I would be very turned off by someone who was working for me who came and whinged," he told Tait.

After 12 years, during which he gradually rose to finance director of the car-hire arm, he was recruited by Grand Met to be finance director of its Coca-Cola franchise. After straightening out the company's muddled billings, he was offered a chance to move to marketing and sales director. Lord Sheppard, the group's chairman, noted that he "is one of those accountants who is a better marketeer than most marketeers". But Robinson was not so hot that he could keep the franchise from being sold back to Coca-Cola. "I was livid," he said. "It was the right decision for Grand Met, but it left me feeling high and dry."

His next post was as boss of Grand Met's contract services division, from which he got the nickname "The Caterer". Within a year he turned an pounds 11m loss into a pounds 5m profit, followed by a pounds 10m profit. Then he organised a management buyout, preparing his approach in less than 24 hours. It was, he now recalls, a mistake. "We should have done it the other way around - bought it and then improved it."

Robinson bought Compass, as it came to be known, for pounds 168m, and floated it a year later. But the shareholders refused to back him with enough cash to buy Sketchley. Feeling that the group no longer offered him a challenge, he began to visit the office on only two days a week, concentrating instead on painting and reading. It was then that Granada's head-hunters approached him.

His arrival at the television company was widely derided, and he still regrets the abuse that followed his dismissal of David Plowright, thechairman of Granada Television. "There was such a hoo-hah over that. He deserved to go out with more style." But even critics who feared he would lower the quality of Granada's programming admit that he has done a good job with the company, which is rated one of the best of the ITV franchises - not just for its financial performance. "I get a real kick out of that," he said.

In return, Robinson is well paid, earning pounds 700,000 a year. His six-bedroom home in Holland Park, London, features an indoor swimming pool. When he retires, he plans to move his family back to Ireland. "It's a different world," he said, "more in touch with people. London's a very crowded place where people are on the move all the time. With eight years to go before that move, he has time for one more deal after Forte. But the subject of his latest painting might be an indication of how strong the lure of his homeland is. "It's a wooded landscape near my cottage in Donegal," he said.