The last of the high rollers?: Tiphook's boss fights for his corporate life as his advisers try to 'rein him in'

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The Independent Online
THREE years ago, when many 1980s entrepreneurs were watching their stars wane and their fortunes disintegrate, Robert Montague, the chairman and chief executive of Tiphook, the transport leasing company, was busy moving into an estate in Oxfordshire worth pounds 8.5m.

At the time, Mr Montague and his company were flying high. Tiphook was enjoying its busiest financial yearsince its 1985 flotation, having just doubled its fleet of containers in a single transaction.

This weekend, Mr Montague is fighting for his corporate life as his company's advisers talk of the need to 'rein him in', to satisfy increasingly frustrated shareholders and US bondholders.

Friends say he has been considerably chastened by the events of the past few months, which have seen the company make a number of shock announcements to the Stock Exchange about its deteriorating financial performance.

Headhunters have been appointed to search for a new chief executive, which will leave Mr Montague as chairman only. The company awaits a crucial meeting of its shareholders, called to gain their approval to extend its already alarming borrowing requirements. Two non- executive directors are also being sought.

At least Mr Montague can spend the time between now and then in some luxury. The Pusey Estate in Faringdon, previously owned by Sir Simon Hornby, WH Smith's chairman, is set in 1,300 acres of agricultural lands, parks and gardens. It comprises a magnificent Georgian classic country property, Pusey House, and 15 cottages.

Within its boundaries is a pheasant shoot, which Mr Montague uses with his friends at weekends. These include Henry Keswick, chairman of Jardine Matheson, and Sir Adrian Swire, chairman of John Swire & Sons, owners of Cathay Pacific Airlines.

On some of theland Mr Montague breeds cattle, one of his favourite pastimes.

A property vendor, in typical estate agent parlance, described Mr Montague's residence as a 'very high-quality estate, one of the finest ones to have been sold in the 1990s'.

Mr Montague is one of the last of the 1980s high-rollers, who, with his shareholders, grew rich on the back of a fast- expanding company that has now fallen on hard times.

Shareholders, who have seen the value of their investment fall by two thirds this year, and US bondholders who have subscribed for dollars 700m ( pounds 473m) of bonds in the past 12 months, are up in arms.

Mr Montague's pay rose from pounds 842,000 to pounds 851,000 in the year to the end of April, even though accountancy changes pushed Tiphook into losses of pounds 66.5m, against a profit of pounds 31.7m the previous year. His salary is being reduced, but he will still be left earning around pounds 500,000 a year from Tiphook, before any dividends from his 3.46 million shares.

Mr Montague is described by many as a charming and entertaining man. He is on his third marriage - the second, to a former secretary, lasted only a few weeks - and his wife is expecting her third child. He also has children from his first marriage, who are away at school.

He is said to be extremely knowledgeable about his business, and many people, even those who are critical of his recent performance, argue that it would be a mistake for the company to lose his services altogether.

'I am determined to see this through for the sake of the shareholders, bondholders and lenders,' he said this weekend.

Those critical of him say that he is not a man well-disposed to listening to professional advice and that, for all his socialising with the great and the influential, he has not always understood the demands of the City terribly well.

Advisers have come and gone in fairly rapid succession. One of his recent advisers says that some of the company's latest decisions - such as changing its accounting policy in response to a growing US investor base - have been taken without full consultation.

'It's almost as if he wakes up in the morning and thinks, right, we'regoing to do this today, and then does not listen to professional advice,' he said.

Many describe him as 'flashy'. One former senior employee talks about the days leading up to the group's flotation. 'We used to take brokers and bankers up to meetings by private plane or helicopter. The company had great ambitions then, and Robert enjoys doing things in style.'

MrMontague is said to be a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and his company last year, in spite of its indifferent performance, increased its contribution to the Conservative Party from pounds 40,000 to pounds 80,000.

Sir Charles Powell, Mrs Thatcher's former private secretary and foreign affairs adviser, sits on the Tiphook board and Sir Tim Bell, Mrs Thatcher's favourite public relations man, was also employed for a while to boost Mr Montague's image. He already has a CBE and has certainly harboured ambitions of a knighthood. A spokesman at Lowe Bell Financial said that Sir Tim and he remained great friends.

Recently, Tiphook parted company with its entire internal public relations department, headed by Susan Ville, ostensibly for cost-cutting reasons. But it seemed also a case of 'shoot the messenger'.

Having disposed of many such people in his time, Mr Montague must be wondering how long it may be before the boot is on theother foot. Or will the great survivor, perhaps with his wings clipped, live to fight another day?

(Photographs omitted)