The man in the Mini is a Rolls-Royce speaker

DO you know who the most requested after-dinner speaker in Britain is? Sir John Harvey-Jones (no surprise). Do you know who runs him close? Tony Ball (surprise). Mr Ball, MBE, FCIM, ACI Arb, speaks about three times a week and can, I am assured, have almost any gathering in stitches.

Mr Ball, who used to be head of sales for British Leyland, is a marketing man to his bootstraps - which explains, I suppose, why he likes talking so much. He has 480 anecdotes and thousands of one-liners, which he mixes and matches - he always keeps a notebook and scribbles down anything fun he hears. Strangely, he prefers big audiences, because people in small groups are more nervous about laughing. He won't say how much he is paid, "but I could live just off my speeches". Which is appropriate, because his career was kicked off by a speech.

When he was 20, in 1955, he was named apprentice of the year at the Austin factory in Birmingham. He was asked to make a speech at the company's annual dinner and did it so well that he was immediately made a fast-track trainee manager. Three years later, he was shown a funny little new car called the Mini, and was asked to organise its launch.

He dressed up as a wizard and "pulled" the car out of a giant top hat. Each time he waved his wand, something new emerged from the Mini: three big men, two women (including his wife), his three-month-old baby, two Afghan hounds and a huge pile of luggage. The audience went wild. He did not make it on to the board until he was 31, and then left shortly afterwards to run Barlow Rand's car dealership operations in South Africa. That was where he met Michael Edwardes, who had been appointed chairman of British Leyland and invited him back to face the riotous industrial relations music.

Although he was head of sales, his most useful skill was his oratory. He had to talk to mass meetings to try to stop strikes - because he was recognised as a guy who used to be on the shopfloor, he avoided the abuse the "real" bosses got. His most important speech, he says, was at Wembley in 1979, where he dissuaded British Leyland dealers from defecting en masse. His secret, he says, was that he could put himself in the head of the people listening - he made fun of the dealers to workers, and vice- versa; and he always made fun of himself.

Now he runs his own company arranging things - the Motor Show, the relaunch of the London Zoo, that sort of thing. And he will keep on talking, by the sound of it, until he drops.

RED TAPE corner. The editor of A Quarterly Review of Latin America has been nosing around in the World Bank's internal directory, and has come upon the following: "Coffee service (For Official Meetings). To access order form in ALL-IN-1, select RS, COF or submit Form 998 (Request for Official Coffee Service) . . . Coffee Service Orders must be received three working days in advance." Three days to boil a kettle? Whatever happened to instant coffee?

Who gives an 'x'?

AS I READ about the troubles of Rexam (nee Bowater) this week, I wondered where such a strange name came from. I knew the etymology: take a place in Wales where Bowater had a plant, and keep losing letters until you have a new name for the company. But the choice seems to have relied largely on the fact that it has an "x" in the middle of it, which is regarded as somehow dynamic and thrusting.

Businesses seem to be obsessed with "x's". I suppose Oxo started it, but we now have Exxon, Xerox, Axa, Next, neXt (an American computer company) . . . And even where they just happen to have an "x", as in Halifax, the marketing men have to make an Xtra loud noise about it. Which I think is perverse - when I was at school an "x" by something meant it was wrong. Doesn't it still?

ROBERT CAWTHORN, the chairman of Rhole-Poulenc Rorer, which wants to buy Fisons, introduced his chief executive thus: "He's French." There was only one thing the offending Michel de Rosen could say to this, and he did: "Sorry."

Bored in Brussels

OH DEAR, the Eurocrats are trying to pretend they're human. An advertisement in the Financial Times for an Ombudsman (Grade A3) sits alongside a sad little logo. Underneath a picture of three 'crats is the slogan, "Europe? Sure, that's where I work every day". Beneath this is a circle of stars with "Be one of Europe's rising stars" inside it. This strikes me as about as implausible as "Rave on actuary".

Honesty should surely be the touchstone for Brussels. I suggest: "You'll be bored stupid, but the beer and expenses aren't bad." Maybe you can think of a better recruitment slogan either for the EU or for some other equally worthy organisation? Bottle of Bunhill's fizziest for the best one.