Profile: Taipan coils for City strike: Richard Thomson assesses the rise of Henry Keswick and the impact of his homecoming
Sunday 21 February 1993
Although no one claims that Keswick is much of a visionary, his own kingdom may already be coming to Britain. His Hong Kong empire is buying its way into Trafalgar House, the beleaguered property conglomerate. If speculation in the Crown Colony is right, this is only an early move in Jardine Matheson's wholesale departure from the island before the Chinese take over in 1997. Henry Keswick may be on the way to becoming one of the City's most powerful figures.
Physically, he is already there. Keswick pulls the strings of the massive and intricate Jardine empire from offices just around the corner from the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor's residence. On the inside, the building rather resembles an ocean liner of the 1920s or a gentlemen's club, with dark wood panelling, deep carpets and expensive 'factory' paintings from the late 18th century. Uniformed servants glide through the profound silence of its corridors.
Although he is the grandest taipan of Hong Kong, Keswick is little known in the Square Mile. His younger brother, Sir John 'Chips' Keswick - chairman of Hambros and last week appointed to the Court of the Bank of England - is a familiar figure in London. But Henry, the immensely rich Far-Eastern tycoon and the dominant power within Jardine, remains a somewhat shadowy, almost insubstantial, figure. 'He is jolly and bland,' says one acquaintance.
He is certainly charming and, on occasion, apparently quite ruthless. He is also a cheerful Philistine, who loves his Scottish grouse moors. At a dinner party once, he overheard a conversation about modern sculpture in which Moore was mentioned. 'Oh,' said Henry, 'I've got a couple of those.' It only later transpired that he meant the kind of moor with heather on it.
The irony is that he really does own several Henry Moores and Rodins. His father, Sir William, was a friend of Moore and placed several statues in particularly beautiful spots on the hillsides of the Keswick estate. It is one of several charming family eccentricities.
Auberon Waugh, in his autobiography Will This Do, remembers occasionally seeing Henry Keswick 'usually with a falcon on his wrist and looking rather lost'. This is typical of the rather indistinct impression Keswick seems to make on many people. His life has been so conventional that, apart from his three-year spell as chairman of Jardine Matheson, he seems to have done little of much note - despite his wealth.
He was born in 1938, the eldest son of Sir William Keswick, and followed an entirely expected path for someone of his background. At All Hallows prep school he was at the centre of a group of upper-class and extremely well-connected boys and led the Woodpeckers troop of Boy Scouts. Then followed Eton, Trinity College Cambridge, a spell in the Scots Guards, and the City.
The only blip - though a very large one - in this serene progress was in his love life. He is said to have fallen deeply in love with Tessa, daughter of Lord Lovat, in his twenties. She married Lord Reay, however, and Keswick was distraught. According to some, he went east to Hong Kong partly to forget this personal disaster. At any rate, he arrived in the colony in 1972 to take up his family inheritance as chairman of Jardine Matheson at the age of 32.
Because of his imposing physical size - he is over six feet tall and of ample girth - he was known irreverently as 'Young Fat Henry' when he arrived. (Later, back in Britain, he was lampooned in Private Eye as 'Fatty' Keswick and credited with an insatiable appetite for Scotch eggs.) He led an active social life in the colony. But he did not marry because, some said, he was still not over Tessa. Beyond dispute, however, was that Keswick was one of the three or four most important men in the colony thanks to his position as head of the oldest hong.
Founded in 1832 by William Jardine, a Scottish surgeon with a bent for trade, Jardine Matheson has a long if not entirely distinguished history. The company bought the first patch of land sold on Hong Kong, when the island became a colony in 1842. By then Jardine was heavily involved in the opium trade with China and helped to push Britain into the opium wars of the 1840s to protect its business. A fellow Scot, a Keswick, married William's sister and for more than a century the two families dominated the expanding company. A generation ago, Jardine was Hong Kong. This supremacy was undented by the loss of its extensive Chinese assets and its headquarters in Shanghai after the Communist takeover in 1947.
Henry's time in Hong Kong was not an unmitigated success. He failed to take advantage of Hong Kong's rapid expansion into the New Territories, then invested in British property just before the early 1970s crash. Jardine declined rapidly in power and wealth.
The group ran into deep trouble under Keswick's successor, David Newbigging, when Hongkong Land nearly went bust. Takeover by Chinese entrepreneurs threatened, but the clan rallied itself and kept control. Henry removed Newbigging and installed his youngest brother, Simon. Since then, the 1980s economic boom in Hong Kong has not only brought stability to Jardine but has probably made it more money than in the whole of its previous history. The Keswicks may have gained by pounds 1bn or so.
When Henry returned from the colony in 1975 he had a go at politics. To that end, he briefly owned the conservative Spectator magazine and has remained an ardent admirer of Margaret Thatcher. (Charles Powell, once Mrs T's foreign affairs adviser, is now a Jardine director and sits on Trafalgar House's board). But his mixture of huge wealth, blue blood, and right- wing politics - albeit leavened by a certain liberalism - made him an unsuitable Tory candidate and he never made it to Parliament.
One consolation was that his romantic perseverance paid off in 1985 when, Lord Reay having died, Henry finally married Tessa. She has serious political ambitions and may get into Parliament where her husband failed. Meanwhile, Keswick's main occupation is running Jardine.
In this, his politics are a crucial influence. He is viscerally opposed to Communism. In 1989, he told a parliamentary select committee that the Chinese government was a 'Marxist- Leninist thuggish oppressive regime'. Believing the previous Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Wilson, was too pro- Chinese, he mounted a ruthless behind-the-scenes campaign to oust him.
The Chinese government reciprocates with a dislike of Jardine, yet the two sides continue to do business because - for the time being, at least - they need each other. But for how much longer? Henry Keswick hates the idea of a trading environment ruled by the Chinese. Disdainful of Hong Kong opinion and single-mindedly determined to protect the family's interests, the Keswicks jettisoned 150 years of history and moved Jardine's official domicile to Bermuda in 1984. They are steadily moving their investments elsewhere, too - to Britain among other places.
By the look of it, they will bring their Hong Kong business style with them. The Keswicks gained control of the company only 30 years ago, when it was publicly floated and the Jardine family sold out. The Keswicks acquired about 15 per cent of the shares and friendly institutions another 15 per cent or so. It is characteristic of their business methods that, with only minority control, they have still managed to run Jardine as a family fiefdom. (Keswick often unashamedly refers to it as 'my company').
The empire is a maze of companies with minority and cross shareholdings. For example, Jardine owns only 30 per cent of Hongkong Land, the company buying into Trafalgar House, yet no one doubts its complete control over Land. Land, meanwhile, has a 15 per cent holding in Jardine, protecting the parent against takeover and supporting the Keswicks' own minority shareholding in the empire. Control by minority shareholding is typical in Hong Kong but may not go down so well over here.
Hongkong Land wants a 30 per cent holding in Trafs. If it gets its way, the UK company seems likely to be pulled into the familiar subservient relationship to Jardine of so many other companies. This could cause real hostility from the holders of the other 70 per cent, who may feel shut out. When it comes to controlling companies, however, the interests of other shareholders are not something Henry Keswick has ever spent much time worrying about.
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