Profile: The recession player: Alan Lewis believes in God, making money, and the disciplines of karate. Gail Counsell finds a rare mix of passions in a man embarking on a new phase of his career

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The Independent Online
MEETING Alan Lewis it is difficult to avoid feeling that he belongs in the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel. 'I invest in tangible things,' he says with flat Lancastrian certainty. 'I'm not impressed by markets and things like that. Can I touch it and will it make money is what I ask myself.'

It is not quite a case of Victorian values, but had he been born in the last century, Lewis would probably have been a philanthropic mill owner with inclinations towards town planning. This is a self-defined traditionalist, a stout defender of slightly old-fashioned sounding ideas. 'A lot of people knock this country, but I think we've got a lot to offer. There's no democracy in the world like us.'

A sturdy 54-year-old, he dresses with dapper precision. Running from the lapel of his suit to his top pocket is a heavy gold chain and clip; Hardy would undoubtedly have noted a sartorial echo of mayoral aspirations. These are the 1990s, however; instead of donning his chain of office and running a 19th century town council, he chairs CBI committees by the bucketful, becomes involved in good works and raises funds for the Conservative Party, in which he displays a touching faith. (He can, for instance, think of no issue on which he would fault any of their policies, economic or otherwise.)

Lewis's considerable business reputation is built on the solidly successful revitalisation of Illingworth Morris, the once-moribund core of the British textile industry. He gained control in 1982 after four years of colourful battles between the board and Pamela Mason, starlet, wife of actor James Mason, and the company's main shareholder.

At the time, Illingworth's shares were trading at 18p. When he decided to take the company private in 1989, because he considered the long-term nature of the investment it needed rendered it temporarily unsuited to the stock market, they were worth 185p.

Now he is about to reverse the process; a pathfinder prospectus for the pounds 18m flotation of a 49 per cent stake in Woolcombers, the wool-processing half of the group, is due this week. Similar plans are being made for a flotation of the other half, the Crombie menswear, spinning and weaving side, next year.

Lewis wants a float so that the company will be able to pay cash for the 'opportunities' that he firmly believes will present themselves in the current period of austerity.

'I am a recession player,' he observes. It is something of an understatement. Born and brought up in Manchester, at the age of 20 he embarked on a series of business ventures - first redeveloping old garage sites, then restructuring the property and finances of ailing textile companies. By 1973, he had made a fortune. Sensing the bubble was about to burst, he got out. When he returned two years later there were rich pickings among the fragments. His Anglo-Manx bank, for example, was constructed from bits of the failed Slater Walker empire.

'I made a lot of money in the 1974 crash,' he says. 'But by 1978 prices had risen and there were no opportunities left.' So again he departed, this time for Madrid where, he observes with good-humoured relish, 'there was a tremendous recession on'. It paid off personally as well as financially; he now has a Spanish fiancee.

Despite his extensive international banking and property interests, many of which are channelled through his Hartley Investment holding company (net worth pounds 60m), he insists financial engineering and service industries are not his style. He hated the euphoric, market-driven 1980s. 'I didn't understand it, and we didn't invest in it. We probably did miss a lot of opportunities but then we didn't get caught either. A lot of people said we were wrong. But we are not in that sort of business. I couldn't touch the businesses and feel they were going to be all right.'

It would be easy to make Lewis sound a bit nutty; this is, after all, a man who is a fanatical practitioner of the ritualistic art of karate, a 'food reformist' (his term) who believes in a holistic approach to eating, and a promoter of Christian healing. His best friend is a Spanish Franciscan monk who is confessor to King Juan Carlos and a champion skier. Oscar Wilde is Lewis's favourite author, and he can quote Wildean aphorisims at length.

His down-to-earth, no-nonsense style and northern vowels at least partly dispel the slightly surreal mix of his passions. Knitting it together is a curious sense of personal conviction that permeates everything he does.

Religious faith forms the cornerstone of Lewis's world, for instance. 'My religion is more important to me than anything,' he volunteers early on. 'The grace of knowing faith and the peace that gives you, and then the feeling of health and wellbeing of this precious gift we've got of life - those put everything else in context.'

He sees no contradiction between his vast personal wealth and his faith. While here, he says, 'you've got to excel at the things you do because you are given certain gifts and it's a cardinal sin not to use them'. When he first became wealthy he prayed about it a good deal. He concluded he ought to use his energies to develop that wealth.

'To be a do-gooder is terrible. I wanted to do something which was going to contribute something tangible.' Hence his efforts on behalf of the Acorn Christian Healing Trust, which exists to develop a ministry 'of healing and wholeness' - it trains faith healers and is involved in counselling.

Being a businessman is another way to express his faith, he says. 'Business can be used as a platform to set examples. You have to conduct your business in an honest and Christian-like way.' When he sits to eat with business acquaintances he says grace, and when he leaves he says 'God bless you'. 'I feel that's spreading the feeling of wellbeing.'

Although a member of the Church of England, he goes to a Roman Catholic church to pray - he 'likes the ceremony'. It is a revealing observation; the martial arts he so likes are also ceremonial. He can wax long and lyrical about the arcane disciplines of karate. But he is dedicated; training most days at 7am and often taught by Sensei Keinosuke Enoeda, eighth Dan and chief instructor of the Japanese Karate Association in Europe.

Now a black belt, second Dan, Lewis first became interested in karate more than a decade ago. 'I was looking for another challenge. Something where position and your name and money don't count for anything. You can't buy those belts, you know. They don't sell them.'

He describes it as 'very transcendental, very demanding mentally'. But it is also oddly masochistic, something he almost seems to relish. 'The Japanese practice the art of humility. You really are put under tremendous pressure when you take your belt. It's quite traumatic. These guys are brutal.'

The City can be brutal too. Already there are those who comment that the mixture of private and public interests in the soon-to-be-floated group will be a disadvantage. Lewis remains unshaken. 'You've got to back the right people. The City itself is full of conflicts. It's a question of whether you trust the individual, and our track record speaks for itself. We've been in public companies for over 25 years, and our shareholders have done very well.'

His parting shot is characteristically homespun, though. 'You've always got to remember where you come from. You're only as good as the good Lord will let you be. God bless.'