THE HILARY CLARKE INTERVIEW: TOM FARMER: The multi-million car mechanic

The youngest of seven children, he started work at 15 and has just sold Kwik-Fit for pounds 78m. But he's never lost his common touch;
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t took just a few minutes in Scotland for me to realise that the man who founded Kwik-Fit, one of the biggest companies north of the border, is a popular local celebrity.

"So you're going to see Tom, are you," chuckled the taxi driver who drove me from Edinburgh airport to the car repair chain's headquarters last Thursday. "Are you sure he's in. I saw him yesterday at the coffee bar in the airport with his son."

Scots, it seems, are only too happy to see one of their own make it to the rich list. Sir Tom Farmer, chief executive and chairman of the company - with an annual salary of around pounds 1.5m - was already one of the UK's highest-paid executives before he sold the firm to Ford for pounds 1bn last Monday. The deal netted him another pounds 78m.

Sir Tom (he hadn't forgot his appointment) is also known as something of a philanthropist. Since Easter Monday, Kwik-Fit stores have been turned into collection points for donations in cash and kind to help the victims of the war in Kosovo. He is also chairman of the campaigning pressure group, Scotland Against Drugs. And the first thing he talks about when I meet him is his idea for a business initiative to boost the health service in post-devolutionary Scotland.

A smallish, slim man with a ruddy complexion, Sir Tom is the first to admit he has had a charmed life and he looks younger than his 58 years. He is a little nervous, fiddling with a paper clip throughout most of the interview. He is a businessman with a common touch.

Sir Tom defends himself from my suggestion that he might be a workaholic by pointing to another addiction.

"Do you know what I really like to do to?" he asks, leaning towards me.

"I love shopping. If I'm in the office and there isn't much going on, there is nothing I like better than to get in the car and go to Jenners," he says, referring to Edinburgh's celebrated department store.

He could probably buy the whole place with the money he earned last week. What is he going to do with it?

"It's not like winning the Lottery," he says, looking me straight in the eye. "I've been very lucky. For a long time I've been, well, all right," he says, lowering his broad Scottish voice to an almost inaudible mumble.

"I can't be flippant, that wouldn't be right, but it isn't in fact going to make much of a difference. I still only have one banana in the morning."

One of the reasons for Sir Tom's popularity in Scotland is his lowly start in life in the port of Leith. The youngest of seven children, his father worked in the shipping industry. It was in that tight-knit community that he developed his strong Catholic beliefs.

"I was brought up in an environment where no one wanted for anything, but no one had anything either. It was in war time, so there was nothing anyway. But one thing we did have, even though it sounds a bit corny, was a tremendous sense of security"

Sir Tom's career began at 15 when he went to work as a store boy at a tyre firm in Leith. "The people actually cared about the people who worked for them and always encouraged you to do a wee bit better. I got so fed up with them going on about night school. I got so fed up I went and did typing."

At the age of 24 he started his own business selling tyres and car accessories. Above the leather sofa in his office is a watercolour of the shop in the south side of Edinburgh.

My taxi driver said he remembered Sir Tom working there, although Sir Tom says it's been "a wee while" since he changed a tyre. From the shop in Edinburgh he moved to Dulwich in south London where he and two others ran a company called Albany Tyres.

"They were great guys. They had great business principles - look after your people, look after your customers and make sure at the end of the day you pay your suppliers on time."

The company eventually went public, and when Farmer left he had already made pounds 450,000.

Still in his twenties, with a wife and two small children, Farmer decided to have a bash at early retirement and moved to California.

Although it was "fun" (Sir Tom did a course at Disney University) he eventually got bored and returned to Scotland in 1971 to start Kwik-Fit. Three years later he sold the company for pounds 750,000, but when it fell into trouble under the new owner, Farmer bought it back again. The rest is history.

The company now has 2,000 branches across Europe. In Germany it trades as "Pitstop", and in France, Belgium and Spain as "Speedy". Ford is keen to expand the company into Eastern Europe. Last month, Kwik-Fit reported pre-tax profits for 1998 of pounds 64.3m. Not surprisingly, Sir Tom said he still felt reluctant when Ford first approached him with an offer.

"I can't say that I was ever really looking forward to the day that someone knocked on the door. But I never looked forward either to my son-in-law coming knocking on the door saying he wanted to marry my daughter. But when it happened I had to face reality.

"I'm sure and confident the deal with Ford will work out as well as it has done with my daughter and her husband who now have three children."

One can only hope, though - for his son-in-law's sake - that Sir Tom doesn't maintain the same degree of control over his daughter as he has over Kwik-Fit. He is to remain as chief executive and chairman as well as gaining a seat on the board of Ford. His role will be crucial as Ford expands into the second-hand car market. "I am looking forward to it," he says. "People say that's silly; how could you look forward to it after all the things you've done? But I really am. I feel like a wee boy with something new and exciting."

Farmer has been criticised in some quarters for not being enthusiastic enough about his other high-profile business, Hibernian FC.

"I never had time for football. I was working from the minute I left school. Even when I was at school I worked every Saturday. My brothers had the passion but I didn't," he says, although he admits he now tunes into the football results every Saturday.

In fact, Farmer - who owns around 93 per cent of the club but refuses to be drawn on how much the stake is worth - is also its saviour.

"In 1991 Hibernian got into financial difficulties and I was lucky I was in the position to do something to help them out, and I ended up owning them," he told me.

He says he has a similar attitude to cars. "I've never really been that bothered about them. I've never even owned a sports car. It is like being a chef. The last thing you'd think they'd want to do is sit down and enjoy a good meal."

Farmer also has his own investment company to look after the stakes he has in other smaller firms, including one in Ardent Productions, Prince Edward's television production company. "I think it's a good business and he has a lot of talent," he says.

Sir Tom's philanthropy has earned him a cabinet full of trophies. In 1997 he was knighted for his services to the car industry and he has also been bedecked with the Catholic honour which goes by the grandiose title of Knight Commander with Star of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great, the highest award the Catholic church gives to laymen. Every year Sir Tom makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

I can't help wondering what it feels like being called a "Sir".

"It depends who says it," he says. "To be honest, some days I quite enjoy it. It feels good.

"We all like recognition. I'm the same as anybody else."