So here's to you, Mr Robinson

profile: Gerry Robinson; After switching to Labour, the Granada boss is privy to government thinking on the future of TV
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The Independent Online
When Gerry Robinson was spinning out his vision last week of a vast ITV empire under single management, people naturally started wondering who, precisely, he saw as emperor.

As chairman of Granada, the pounds 8bn hotel, leisure and television company, Robinson already qualifies as a media mogul. Does he see himself at the top of a newly-consolidated ITV empire? Or does the long-time Tory voter, who famously defected to New Labour, plan a foray into politics? The answer, he says, is neither.

"I'm clear about that," says Robinson, 48. "At 55 I'll be out of this game. I shall be in Donegal digging my potatoes."

The announcement this week that Granada Group is forging ahead with its takeover of Yorkshire-Tyne Tees Television came as a surprise to no one, since rumours of the deal have been bandied about for a while.

And aside from shareholders grumbling about the price, there aren't many gainsayers to the deal. The logic, it seems, is impeccable. Granada bought 27 per cent of Yorkshire last September. Now Granada wants to buy those shares in the UK broadcaster that it doesn't already own.

Consolidation of the independent television sector seems inevitable as the market becomes more cut-throat, with competition from satellite and digital technologies. In terms of producing programmes and selling advertising, it makes sense to combine three companies serving complementary regions. Yorkshire-Tyne has the licence to broadcast commercial TV in the North and North-East of England, while Granada's franchise is based in Manchester.

Reason dictates that the link-up of Yorkshire with Granada and LWT will allow Granada to provide a more cost-effective service. Just about the only opposition comes from some Yorkshire shareholders who think the company is being sold - at pounds 11.75 a share - on the cheap.

Robinson isn't ruffled. "It's in the nature of shareholders to want more," he says. "It's the role of the buyer to say this is the price that makes sense. This is the price which can work for Granada."

It's apt that Robinson's remarks display those qualities for which he is best known: an incongruous mixture of ruthlessness and charm.

In the six years since he took over Granada, Robinson has inspired a love affair with the media, who delight in telling his life story: the rise from humble Irish origins, the reputation as a shrewd cost-cutter, the Holland Park house with the indoor pool, the willowy wife, the idyllic afternoons spent painting landscapes.

Blessed by reams of good press, the Tory voter was sure to provoke speculation about his aspirations when he defected to Labour.

"His footwork was neat in terms of positioning himself next to the government," said one analyst. "He has manoeuvred himself into being one of Labour's businessmen, so he'll be privy to what they're thinking." That insider- status will come in handy in the fight for the digital broadcasting licence, and in the manoeuvres for legislation that would allow ITV companies to make further bids.

But Robinson insists he won't seek public office. He isn't, he says, a political animal. "I like things you can manage and influence in a direct way."

His career testifies to that. He made a storybook rise as the ninth child of a poor Irish carpenter to an early retreat to a seminary, a sudden loss of faith, and then, at 16, an apprenticeship in accountancy.

It was the Hackney youth employment office that sent him to his first real job in the cost office of Lesney Products, a toy car manufacturer. There was a stint at Lex Service Group, a motor dealer, where he was passed over for promotion several times.

Then, at 34, Robinson joined Grand Metropolitan as finance director of one of its subsidiaries. Several job promotions later, he led a record management buy-out with a pounds 163m purchase of the contract services division.

The unit was renamed the Compass Group, and when it floated in 1988, Robinson made his fortune. He has said it was more than pounds 12m. "It took some time to get through that I was rich," he has said about that time.

In 1991 a headhunter sent Robinson to Granada, at the time a sluggish rentals and television company. "He was already a rich man but he was bored," said Granada's former executive chairman, Alex Bernstein. "As soon as I met him, it clicked."

Then came Robinson's falling out with David Plowright. As the head of LWT, Plowright epitomised the high-minded, intellectually independent British television tradition, while Robinson was seen as the vulgar corporate bottom-liner.

Plowright chafed under Robinson's iron grasp, and soon he was gone. But his departure didn't sit well with those who cherished Granada's reputation for supporting programme makers, producers, directors and writers whose creativity, it was felt, called for special nurturing.

Who could forget that memorable fax John Cleese dispatched to Robinson? "Fuck off out of it, you ignorant, upstart caterer."

What time has clarified is that change was inevitable. Back in the 1950s, the concept of independent television was that it should be a service that preserved local interests. But that was in the old era.

The new era was prompted, in part, by the 1990 Broadcasting Act that altered the structure of television. There were technological changes - the coming of satellite television, which opened the way to more competition. And there were political changes - government legislation under which companies were charged higher rents for their franchises.

ITV was a great system for domestic consumption, but the chances that it could continue to compete in the new broadcasting world were nil.

At Granada, Robinson's brief was to improve profits and repair a disastrous expansion of the computer maintenance business. But he has savoured a number of public triumphs, including two of the biggest hostile takeover battles in recent years - LWT and Forte. And, to Robinson's credit, Granada has continued to rake in awards with programmes like Cracker, Prime Suspect, and its range of current affairs documentaries.

Probably the most celebrated part of the Robinson legend - and the reason many eye him with a mixture of admiration and incredulity - is that for a man of his position and responsibility he seems to have too much fun. He famously believes that most businesses are deceptively simple. The trick, he says, is to deliver shareholder return quickly. He thinks most of what people do at work is pointless.

"There are only three or four things you do a day that have any effect on your business," he has said. "The rest is a waste of time."

Stories are legion about how little he works himself: his lunches at the Savoy Grill, his cottage in Donegal, his weekends with his wife, Heather (his former secretary) and their children.

Or perhaps the envy is all to do with that pounds 830,000-a-year salary. Oh yes, and those blasted oil landscapes.