Small fry? Not if he can help it

Wessex Water could be easy prey for the big utilities, but its chief is thinking big. Paul Farrelly reports; profile; Nicholas Hood

For a man whom the market thinks may yet lose his biggest gamble and get gobbled up in the aftermath, Wessex Water chairman Nicholas Hood remains remarkably ebullient.

The Monopolies and Mergers Commission's long-awaited recommendations on Wessex and Severn Trent's competing bids for South West Water thudded into Ian Lang's in-tray, on time, on Friday.

Nobody believes the President of the Board of Trade will give the green light to one and not the other, though if both are allowed, price cuts for customers are likely to be the most stringent yet.

No, Bristol-based Wessex stands vulnerable if it loses to the firepower of its giant Midlands rival or if regulators blow both out of the water.

Either way, after the summer ceasefire, Lang's decision, due in a few weeks' time, is likely to open the floodgates again on utility bids before the election. And with super-utilities from the UK, US and Europe waiting eagerly in the wings, Wessex would be the smallest of the water fry.

As befitting a brigadier's son, Hood remains calm before the storm. His father, Sir Tom Hood, was an army chief engineer in the Second World War and, in the family mould, the Wessex chairman has built his attack and defences carefully.

If a bid goes ahead, he says, it makes far more commercial sense for Bristol-based Wessex, lying right alongside South West's Devon and Cornwall operations, than for the Midlands interloper. Afterwards, it would still be the second smallest water utility, whereas Severn Trent, already the biggest, would end up supplying one in five of the population.

"If we had been discouraged by our discussions with the Director General (of Water Supply), we wouldn't be where we are now," he says.

"I've read all the speculation, but remain confident this will be a good deal for South West Water and Wessex customers and shareholders at the right price. If the demands of the regulators and MMC are too great, we will not proceed."

Hood, a healthy-looking 60, tall with swept-back grey hair, cuts an imposing figure - but in a favourite uncle sort of way. In another life, he would be perfectly cast in Doctor Finlay's Casebook, sweeping round the wilds of the west country dispensing cures and calm advice.

Instead, by industry consent, he is the epitome of what an executive chairman should be: an ambassador for the company, motivated by a sense of duty, with a keen eye for strategy and boardroom harmony, but leaving operations to his able chief executive Colin Skellett.

Hood was born in Bristol in 1935, the younger of two sons. Despite Hood Snr's achievement, the family was not military at all. His father was an accountant before being called-up, his mother a house-wife. After public school, national service took Hood to British Guyana in the West Indies.

"It was lot more difficult than you think. It wasn't just lying on a beach. There was a serious insurgency," he says.

"Chasing elusive communists, we once spent quite some time stalking a three-toed sloth through the jungle. It was probably with some relief we never caught up with them."

Still, he found time to indulge a passion for rugby, hitting a high point representing British Guyana in a 68-3 trouncing by Trinidad. That "cap" of sorts cut no ice with officials at Twickenham, when Hood tried to argue his way into the internationals lounge sometime later.

"But you let Elizabeth Taylor in," he recalls protesting. "If you were as pretty as Liz Taylor, I'd let you in too," came the blunt reply.

He started out in the wool trade in Manchester, followed by a spell in insurance in South Africa, where he hated - and argued vehemently against - apartheid. After his return, a 20-year career in industry was marked, ironically, by one takeover after another.

Hood marketed "Tuffs" shoes for G B Britton until it was swallowed by Ward White, then worked his way up over 14 years to a directorship of UBM Building Supplies until it fell to Norcros in 1984. A two-year stint at glass supplier HAT, ended abruptly when he was fired after BET took over in 1986.

Hood was finally on the verge of setting up his own business, when the Wessex headhunter's call came in 1987. He refused at least twice, but eventually relented and steered the group through privatisation.

Hood is proud of Wessex' reputation as one of the best run water firms and thinks the industry, and privatisation itself, has had far too bad a press.

He is not afraid to break ranks, though, and damn the sector - the "fat cats", drought cock-ups and all - for bringing much of the abuse on itself. In January, he led Wessex out of the Water Services Association, the industry body, to distance it from Yorkshire Water-style public relations disasters.

"Unanimity was just reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. I would have done it earlier, if I hadn't been the WSA's president last year," Hood says.

During the exchange, he is not averse to taking tongue-in-cheek sideswipes at the opposition that betray steel behind the avuncular image.

South West Water will hardly be missed in the industry, he says. This is the firm, remember, that turned Cornish people's hair green by dumping aluminium in the water supply in 1994 and poisoned 600 Devon customers with a bug last year.

Severn Trent he calls, in passing, the "Seven Sins" - a reference to calamities starting with wasting millions on ill-advised acquisitions to suggesting that customers pave over lawns to save water this summer, advice which had the country gurgling with laughter.

When he is not batting for Wessex, Hood immerses himself in community work, where his contacts are impeccable. He is close to Prince Charles, as deputy chair of his Business in the Community charity, and fiercely defends the embattled heir to the throne.

"He's a very intelligent, sensitive and serious man. The amount of work he does which he never crows about, he devotes himself to it with a passion few could match," he says.

Hood also chairs Bristol 2000, an pounds 82m project to regenerate a bombed- out part of the port for the Millennium. Starting in January, a ten-acre harbourside site will be transformed into a state-of-the art Science World and Wildscreen World, complete with cinemas, an "electronic zoo" and environmental "ARKive".

"People remember Coventry, but forget what Adolf Hitler did to Bristol. It was blown to bits in the war," Hood says.

So king of the west country? Bristol's aspiring answer to Newcastle's Sir John Hall or Merseyside's Sir Desmond Pitcher? Hood is having none of it. For starters, his helmsmanship at Bristol 2000 is purely voluntary, so he'll not make a property fortune there.

And Wessex, sadly, has just kicked into touch Bristol Rovers' approaches for sponsorship on their emotional return to the city after years in exile in Bath.

Rovers will be playing at Bristol's rugby ground, but there are no shades here of Newcastle United or even Sir Des's attachment to Everton. "It would have been pure self-indulgence on the part of the chairman. We have a captive audience enough in our customers," he says.

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