Profile: A voice from the wilderness: Tony Berry: The former Blue Arrow boss tells William Kay of his relief after the DTI drops proceedings

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The Independent Online
AFTER five years in the wilderness, the 6ft 2in Tony Berry feels he can hold his head high again.

Last week, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, decided to drop proceedings designed to disqualify Berry as a company director - a verdict only the late and famously irrepressible Robert Maxwell was able to shrug off, and in his case it was never formally confirmed by a court.

Had Heseltine pressed on and won, Berry would have had to step down as deputy chairman of his beloved Tottenham Hotspur, the quoted Premiership football club headed by Alan Sugar, the Amstrad millionaire. And Berry's comeback dreams would have been shattered, for he has spent the last 10 months buying and expanding Recruit, an employment agency he bought from Wembley, owner of the north London stadium, arena and conference centre.

As it is, Berry, 53, has endured the life of a business pariah since May 1989, when the Department of Trade and Industry appointed inspectors to look into the circumstances of a peculiar land deal involving Blue Arrow, then the world's largest employment group.

'It's caused untold pain and suffering,' said Berry, sitting in the deserted bar at the Spurs ground in north London. 'You're really ostracised. It's as if you're an outcast. There's not a day gone by when I haven't woken up and thought about it. My family and friends have been very good about it and stood by me, but I don't care what you say, it does take a toll. You haven't got a terminal illness and you're not going to go to prison, but you feel you can't hold your head up amongst City institutions.'

Not that those institutions, the big pension funds, insurance companies and unit and investment trusts, were ever united in worshipping Berry in quite the way they have sat at the feet of Lord Hanson, say, or Sir Owen Green at BTR.

When Berry put them to the test in a big way, in a rights issue to finance Blue Arrow's reverse takeover of the much bigger Manpower employment group in 1987, more than half the shares were left unsold. Blue Arrow's brokers, UBS and the investment banking arm of National Westminster, tried to sell the rest round the City - and, as subsequently transpired, managed to unload only pounds 200m worth, leaving them with a similar amount. The advisers kept those shares but disguised the fact for two months, giving rise to ultimately abortive criminal proceedings against them.

Berry and the rest of Blue Arrow's management had nothing to do with that case, but they were brewing their own problems.

Taking advice to broaden the board, Berry had hired the merchant banker Christopher Castleman to be chief executive. He lasted two months. 'I was like a kid let loose in a sweet shop,' Berry admitted at the time. Castleman was not prepared to be treated like a quarter of sherbert. More seriously, Berry was not getting on with Mitchell Fromstein, the tough American who had insisted on autonomy in running Manpower as the price of agreeing the pounds 800m deal. That was to lead to his downfall, but while he was still at the helm Berry lent pounds 25m of Blue Arrow's money to the colourful Peter de Savary, one-time owner of Land's End, to develop part of Canvey Island, Essex. That deal, allegedly undertaken by Berry without formal approval from the board, became the subject of the DTI inquiry into Berry's management methods.

'I would not have done the Canvey Island deal if I had my time again, that goes without saying,' Berry admitted. 'I should have stuck purely to recruitment instead of looking at alternatives. But if you look at the evidence, they say I misled the board over Canvey Island. The only contemporaneous notes - which are there for all to see - are the board minutes which say 'proceed with caution' and more importantly the company secretary's handwritten notes at that time. Those notes say that the board agreed to proceed.

'As my QC said in his summing-up to the inquiry, 'I can only put it to you that this is an attempt to get Mr Berry.' Those were the very words he used. People say it was political. But I don't understand what was political, or why it was political.'

Many of Berry's friends would say that therein lies his charm. He has a disarming frankness, which supports the view of one former colleague, that he 'was never a crook by any stretch of the imagination'.

The son of a self-taught, self- employed electrical contractor in Edmonton, a working-class district near Tottenham, Berry went to Latimer Upper grammar school and emerged in his teens as a talented all-round sportsman - mainly boxing, cricket and soccer. He nearly made the Olympic boxing team, played cricket for Middlesex Young Amateurs and became an apprentice professional at Spurs.

But it did not last. 'I was good at all sports at 18. But by the time I was 20, I was useless,' he said dismissively. 'I mean, I was still pretty handy, but I was just not good enough to make the grade as a pro.'

So he sensibly headed for a more conventional career, joining Guinness the brewers and qualifying as a management accountant. After a spell with Bovril, he joined Brengreen Holdings, the office cleaning company run by David Evans, later to chair Luton Town football club and now a Conservative MP. It was to be a turning point.

The two were constantly at loggerheads, more frequently as Berry gained experience. He quit in 1981 after 11 years, saying he never wanted to work for anyone else again. A year later, at the age of 40, he bought a controlling stake in Blue Arrow, then a modest employment agency in St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Berry floated it on the Unlisted Securities Market in 1984, valuing it at pounds 3.1m. In the go-getting 1980s, one deal followed hard on another. Brook Street Bureau was swallowed in 1985, and with the Manpower deal two years later it was steadily climbing towards a pounds 1bn valuation.

'I always thought the Manpower deal was a good deal, and the fact that its share price is up on what it was then shows it was,' Berry insisted. 'But with hindsight it was too big a lump to bite off, really. Perhaps we were not quite ready, but if I hadn't done it then, I might never have done it. When you're running a company that big, reality does tend to go away. The City was on at us to do deals all the time. It was just fashion, really.'

Like other entrepreneurs in those days, Berry came close to thinking he could walk on water. Employees, co-directors, financial advisers and the press showered him with praise. Deals came to him, doors opened for him.

Most people would have had a hard time keeping their feet on the ground after such a rocket-like rise. Another ex-associate remarked: 'He was a dealmaker, but he was not interested in running companies. The Canvey Island and other deals seemed to indicate a failure to understand the role of chief executive of a public company. I blame the City. They will make anyone a hero and then ask for their money back later.'

Nevertheless, nothing prepared Berry for the five years' isolation that followed his ousting.

Now, although fighting the DTI has cost him pounds 1m, Berry says that his finances are on an even keel and he is back in business with help from his old chum, Michael Ashcroft of ADT. The pair have gone into Recruit 50-50.

In 10 months Berry has more than doubled Recruit's size, from 13 branches to 30, and annual turnover from pounds 9m to pounds 20m. The question is, will he return to the stock market with it?

'I've got no ambition now to be a chairman of a public company again,' said Berry, pausing briefly before adding: 'At least, not for a long while. I don't know, times may change. Who knows?'

(Photograph omitted)

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