Predator turned prodigal son : John Bentley : Profile

David Bowen meets one of the most successful and glamorous British corporate raiders of the 1970s, now back in business after 20 years of obscurity

JOHN BENTLEY is sitting in a small office in a rented suite on London's Regent Street. He is ruddy-cheeked, 55 and diffident, almost nervous. Soon he will go home to his fiance and baby daughter in their terraced house in Battersea.

This is the same John Bentley who in the early 1970s was both the most feared corporate predator in Britain and the most eligible bachelor. He was the biggest toymaker in the country, one of the biggest chemists, king of the billboard industry, and he owned Shepperton Studios. He drove a Jensen and owned one of the biggest estates in the country - 100 square miles next to Balmoral.

Then he vanished. It is hard to find a single post-1980 press cutting on him. Many people wondered what had happened to him. Was he dead? A drug addict? A monk?

Last week, a press release arrived. "John Bentley launches new venture: Viewcall Europe plc", it was headed. His public relations agency at least believed his name was still a selling point.

This is his first interview for quite a while. He is going to explain what he has been up to in the two decades. Half that time is easily explained. "In every decade, I've had five years off. If I'm working, I throw everything I've got at it. Then I go off and obsessively play for a while."

For now, he is in work mode. Viewcall is Bentley's offering to the multimedia world. With David Boyce, former managing director of Northern Telecom, he is trying to raise £700,000 by public offering through the broker Astaire and Co. Their system is a cross between television and Ceefax - it will send still pictures down a telephone line into a television set. Initially, these images will be advertisements; later they could include community information. The service will be valuable because it will be local, Bentley says, though he admits to an admirable long-term ambition: the abolition of politicians. "We could have endless referendums by registering electronically," he says. "We can do away with nanny governments."

Those who are inclined to dismiss this as yet another Information Supergimmick would be well advised to look at the man behind it. Bentley did not become a millionaire by the age of 28 by mistake. "I do find it easy to make money," he says.

Why, then, has been living in such obscurity for the last 20 years? How did he manage to miss the 1980s boom? Why has a massive estate become a small house in Battersea? And is he finally on his way back?

First, for those who missed him the first time round, the story of his rise and fall. John Bentley was born in Brighton in 1940. He went to Harrow but left at 15 when his father died. As a stockbroker's red button, he was sacked from several jobs because, he says, he did not like routine. But he always had the knack: he quadrupled his £5 weekly pay packet by "dealing in sixteenths on government bonds off the tape".

He did hold down one job for two years, as a stock analyst. Here he discovered a potential source of real wealth - the gap between market and asset value. In 1965, he convinced Jim Slater, then carving out a reputation as an investment guru, to back him in an audacious plan. He had spotted that Scottish Life Association, capitalised at £2.5m, had assets worth £100m. Slater lent him money, and between them they bought 8 per cent of the company. By the time the board realised what was happening, the share price had doubled.

He brought Slater deals and in return Slater lent him the money to invest. By 1968, he was a millionaire. The following year, again with Slater's backing, he bought a quoted wholesale chemist called Barclay & Sons. Barclay Securities, as he renamed it, bought 26 companies in the next five years. Targets included Chad Valley, the toy maker, Mills & Allen, the poster giant, Dorland Advertising, Lines Brothers, the Triang group and British Lion, the film company that owned Shepperton.

He was tagged Britain's number one asset stripper but says that was never fair. He did recoup large chunks of the purchase price by selling assets, but this was followed by an assault on excess costs. To us his technique sounds unremarkable - standard 1980s Hanson/BTR/ Williams stuff. Indeed, compared with them he was a pussycat - he made redundancies only once, at Lines Brothers.

At the time, though, he was a revolutionary - and it made him at first popular, then very unpopular. For a while, after his election in 1970, Edward Heath was a proto-Thatcherite and praised managers who said they wanted to rid the country of inefficiency. Bentley responded by pouring £150,000 into Tory coffers, and in 1972 was put on a list of Tory candidates.

He became a man of glamour. In 1971, a female Sun reporter declared that he "looked as if he has walked straight out of a romantic novel". Jackie Collins included him in her report on "the world's sexy men".

But by March 1973 he was out of a job, and Tories would cross the road to avoid him. One reason, he says, was that he started to mess with the media classes. In 1971, he bought Dorland Advertising, triggering a walkout of articulate people. The next year he took over British Lion and said he wanted to sell of part of its Shepperton site for redevelopment. The film world cried out, and its voice was heard.

The 1,200 sackings at Lines Brothers were highlighted. He protested that otherwise all 3,000 workers would lose their jobs - but the mood had swung against him.

Bentley says he fell foul of Heath's U-turn: he backed away from confrontation with the unions, brought back industrial subsidies, and made his "unacceptable face of capitalism" speech. Bentley felt the barbs and did not like it. "I'm terrified of buying any business which would involve one redundancy," he said in 1972.

Early in 1973, Barclay received a hostile bid from the City investment company JH Vavasseur. Bentley decided to sell. "There appears to be little scope for the future activities on the lines of those adoped by Barclay in the past," he commented. He was given £2m for his stake and, at the age of 32, retired.

Bentley says he was forced out by the establishment. "I copped it really. They were looking for a scapegoat, preferably one with jeans and long hair." He says his step too far - unpublicised at the time - was that he suggested taking a 40 per cent stake in Express Newspapers to block a Murdoch bid. "The idea that I would control cinema and poster advertising and a newspaper started to dawn on people."

Within months, he had slipped easily from the financial pages to the gossip columns. His first marriage had collapsed when he became rich. Now he was in the serious glamour league. His girlfriends included Dewi Sukarno, widow of the Indonesian dictator, Mynah Bird, a Nigerian model, and the actress Viviane Ventura, who successfully brought a paternity suit aganst him.

Ironically, the establishment had done him a financial favour. When the London stock market collapsed in 1974, he was barely touched. His main asset now was the vast Glenlivet sporting estate in Scotland.

But by 1977, he says, he was getting "a bit annoyed" at being out in the commercial cold and turned his mind to money making. He had always been interested in gizmos, and decided to market the first cheap video cassette machine. He poured everything into it - and lost it all.

Despite having failed financially for the first time in his life, he was still buzzing with ideas. "I realised I shouldn't have been in video hardware but software," he says. "I raised $2m, went to the States, and bought British rights to several hundred of the best video titles." His Intervision company distributed these through newsagents, thus inventing the UK video rental industry. Within 18 months he was a millionaire again - before once again receiving an unsolicited approach from a merchant bank.

He sold up and formed an investment company with Slater, but he says: "He'd been a mentor - it didn't work out trying to work on equal terms.". At the end of 1984, he left the stock market and took a six-year holiday - much of it on a 120-foot yacht with Maria Niarchos of the shipping family. He deliberately missed the mid-1980s boom. "It was completely fake. I was waiting for the bubble to burst right through '85, '86 and half of '87." But he admits: "I did feel a bit left out."

By 1990, the Inland Revenue was on his tail, and it was time to make money again. It was a little more difficult this time. He invested in a company that made the ill-fated "squarials" for BSB. Undeterred, he launched a product called Faxcast - a system that could send faxes by satellite. The company was capitalised at £2.4m in 1990 and sold in 1994 for £90m. Bentley sold his share in 1992 and started assembling the technology to launch his latest wheeze - Viewcall.

He has, he hopes, finally settled down. After two further marriages, he is now living with a "bohemian Chelsea girl", and proudly presents a photograph of their 10-month-old daughter, Delilah. "I only go to local pubs now," he says. "I gave up my membership of Harry's Bar 10 years ago." He is still nostalgic about the old days. "It was easy making money then , but it was also amusing. The hardest thing now is making life amusing - everyone's so bloody serious."

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music

Animal welfare charities have urged the boy band to cut the scenes

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Markit EDM (CADIS) Developer

£50000 - £90000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Markit EDM (CA...

CTO / Chief Technology Officer

£100 - 125k: Guru Careers: A CTO / Chief Technology Officer is needed to join ...

COO / Chief Operating Officer

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker